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Archive for the ‘Deployment’ Category

This wasn’t the piece I was going to write. I had a piece full of milestones and thoughtful phrases; reminiscences and remembrances. But when I hear political speeches about the costs and know that these people are talking about just the  dollar signs: when I see the politicians with their flag pins in their lapels grinning and shaking hands with men and women in uniform on their websites, but see their voting records when they cut funding for veterans programs and quibble about paying for mental health care for the families, all of those thoughtful phrases become meaningless and fly out the window.

With the upcoming first decade anniversary of 9/11, I’ve been asked how has my life, how has our life as a family changed since that day 10 years ago, what has been the cost since that day to my family. I can talk about the multiple deployments, sending my son to Iraq and my husband to Iraq and now Afghanistan; I can talk about the toll that has been taken on the families of my small military community. I can write about the wonderful friendships I have made, both the online and in person that would not have been possible without the need to construct a community of our own, in the midst of growing apathy in the civilian world. I can praise the wonderful groups that have sprung up and evolved, to help troops, veterans, and their families.

But Wednesday afternoon while I was speaking as a guest on a radio show, a woman who I know only online, a woman who is the best friend of my good friend, opened the door to two soldiers in ACUs.  They told her that her husband, who is an EOD specialist (explosives and ordnance demolition) had been wounded. The world as she knew it came to a halt as they told her he lost both legs, one below and one above the knee.

As her online community absorbed the news, we did what we always do; we rallied around her. Another friend  M, with whom I sat while her husband lay in the bed at the now closed Walter Reed, immediately sent her a list of suggestions, hints, knowledge to help her get through this.  I watched M as she negotiated the days and weeks after doctors amputated one of her husband’ s legs and the multiple surgeries on the other leg; I watched a young woman with strength, grace, and grit be her husband’s caregiver, negotiate the corridors and bureaucracy of a military hospital, all while keeping her small children calm and holding her family together.

For all of us, 9/11 changed the world. For the military community the world turned upside down. For my friends and for the families of the thousands upon thousands of wounded in hospitals across the country, the world will never be the same. All the money, all the time, all the families in crisis, all the anger and pain; for me the cost is reflected in the faces of those families.

After the chest thumping and flag-waving, the grim face television announcers, the poignant stories on the news and documentaries about that day and the aftermath are over, the reality will live on. The reality of men and women learning how to walk again, or dealing with wounds none of us can see; the truth of the lives of their families, who adapt to their new reality and go on, somehow keep going on. We go on while the politicians talk, the flags wave, and the ambulances roll up to Bethesda/Walter Reed.  That is the cost.

 

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That is how long the audience at a recent Nationals game acknowledged the wounded from Walter Reed that were in the audience, according to the Washington Post.  Sixty three seconds.   One whole minute.   That is the extent of the “thanks of a grateful nation.:  “thanks for your service”  in the grocery store, which usually embarrasses the service member; or the ubiquitous yellow ribbon magnet on the back of the car  and poof, that’s probably the extent of the troop support that the military sees in this time of budget cuts and unemployment.

Troops often question why more have not answered the call to duty and why their sacrifices are so poorly understood by the people they serve.

For most Americans, the wars remain an abstraction,then-Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said last year. “A distant, unpleasant series of news items that does not affect them personally.”

Distant unpleasant series of news items .  Those news items are not distant to me.  One of those news items was my friend M’s husband who lost his lower leg to an IED in Afghanistan; one of those news items was the KIA notification of  two young men from another friend’s unit; a few years ago, nine of those news items were those of the young men whose funerals I attended.

Those news items make me run to the map I have up to figure out how far that incident, that action may have been from where my husband is currently stationed. That gut check is common to all of us who are in deployment mode.

I was talking to a civilian friend about the article while we cleaned the cages at the cat shelter and she said something that gave me pause at first.  She asked why I was so surprised by the article, by the seeming lack of compassion by civilians.  My initial reaction was “Are you kidding?” We are AT WAR;  people are DYING and being WOUNDED!  But as she reminded me, the attention span of most people is the latest tweet they read, or the 30 second headline news “story”.

We’ve all heard about compassion fatigue, the news is always bad and we become immune to it, we can look at the pictures of dying children or wounded soldiers without flinching.  But thank goodness, there are still people who will change the channel when the ASPCA commercials come on, who weep when they see the pictures of children in refugee camps and send money to charities; these are the men and women who volunteer at the local VA hospital, the USO and pack care packages for Operation Gratitude.

In this same article, a great deal of print space is devoted to the latest commercial from Budweiser devoted to a returning servicemember  – now I have a HUGE problem with this.   I detest this type of “reunion porn” and what I see as exploitation, knee jerk reaction used for monetary gain.  The person who wrote this commercial came up with the idea after witnessing a reunion in an airport. Here’s a little fact that  almost surprised me.

Five days after President Obama announced his plan to pull 30,000 U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, Byrne had no idea how many troops the United States had in the country and little sense of Obama’s plan to reduce their numbers. He acknowledged that he did not know much about the war

Did not know much about the war. And that, THAT  I don’t understand.  When your country is at war, when the military forces that wear YOUR country’s uniform are coming home in caskets, or on stretchers and swamping the hospitals; when the Army’s suicide rate is climbing every month;  or if your attention is glued to the budget battles when the cost of these wars has to be added to the budget,   how do you not “know much” about  one of the two wars your country is currently engaged in.  But you’ll feel free to use that story to sell lousy beer.

The final part of this piece in the Post is the most heartbreaking  A wounded soldier who has gone back to college, who is seeing this disconnection first hand.  A meeting held by a group of veterans in the school”  was designed to give students who knew little of the military or the wars a sense of what life was like for deployed service members. It provoked a genuine exchange,  more than 10 seconds, more than 60 seconds, more than 63 seconds, between the former service members and the student body.”  The reactions of the students  are mystifying to me .

I don’t think I realized that the soldiers over there were in that much danger, said [a student], who like many students was opposed to the war.  I didn’t understand the magnitude of risks that they were taking.

A young person who is at an institution like Georgetown didn’t understand, didn’t realize? This is a smart person, an educated person.   Obviously, more education is necessary ; obviously more understanding is needed of the reality of 10 years of war.

You may not agree with war, you may not agree with why we are fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan, but isn’t it important to know, learn, understand?

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For those of us in the military community, we are used to seeing the pictures – those stern faced young men and women in uniform posed in front of a flag, the ones that are released by DoD or the Guard Bureau when the names of the fallen are released.  We think – how young.  Or – what a sweet face.    And we mourn.  We look at the same picture on our own walls, and send a silent “thank you” that it wasn’t our child, wasn’t our husband or wife.

The pictures that hurt even more are those that are attached to the heartbreaking stories that we read from the family members.  A little boy wrote a letter to CNN about his daddy, who was the pilot of the Chinook that was shot down last Saturday.  He wanted us all to know his dad, because all everyone was talking about were the SEALS on that flight; he wanted us to know that he loved his dad, and was proud of him.

The picture that Braydon Nichols sent was one that so many of us could have on our walls, a bunch of guys in uniform sitting together… his daddy is the one on the far left.

What many civilians don’t understand – we usually already have the picture picked out.  After all, during deployment many spouses admit they have planned their spouse’s funeral – the music, the pictures… We hope we never need to use it, never need to put that plan into motion.  And when we see those other pictures, we say “that could be us”.  That could be our family.

For Braydon, for the other sons and daughters, for the wives, mothers, sisters, fathers, brothers, aunts and uncles of those who died, we can only send our condolences and our heartfelt thanks for their service.   There have been 19 other casualties since August 1st.  To their families, we send our gratitude and condolences.

We’ll look at those pictures, we’ll think of those families.  Every day.  Because to us, they are family.  Because to us, they remind us of ourselves.

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The answer to that question depends on where you are.  In my community, it also depends on where your soldier was stationed.  I happen to know people who were in and around  Mosul, so this article  in Military.com really made me sit up and take notice.   A recent article published  in the New England Journal of Medicine about cases of Constrictive Bronchiolitis was sobering.  The physicians at Vanderbilt who decided to do this study  did so because:

Epidemiologic studies in the United States, England, and Australia have documented an increased incidence of respiratory disorders in soldiers who served in the Middle East, as compared with soldiers who were deployed elsewhere.2-5 A 2009 study of 46,000 military personnel showed an association between the development of respiratory symptoms and service in Iraq, as well as an association with service inland versus at sea.

The group that was followed in this study had been exposed to fumes from a sulfur mine fire outside Mosul.  This isn’t even related to those who are coming home with pulmonary problems from the infamous burn pits that I discussed in my last piece on Military Lungs.  There are more and more questions being asked, including by Congress, Veterans Groups and other writers.

I keep wondering what else will come up.  And I’m worried, because my husband is going downrange; we have good friends who are in Afghanistan, in Kuwait – and exposed to the blowing dust that contains who knows what; exposed to the burn pits that are still being used in Afghanistan; exposed to the building materials used by the “lowest bid” contractor to construct their living quarters.

When they come home with compromised lung capacity, they are hoping to come home to Clean Air, to being able to breath without worrying about what they might be breathing in.  The air outside may not have that stench, may not have the smell of soot and burnt plastic; but is it safe?  It’s depressing to realize that this question may only be answered with “it depends”.  It depends where you are living!  Downwind from a power plant – it depends.  Downwind from a large manufacturer – it depends.

It depends on you and I taking a stand; it depends on us telling Congress we won’t allow the Clean Air Act to be stripped of it’s provisions; it depends on us telling Congress that the EPA is there to protect  all of us from those who decide their short term profits supersede the need to be able to take a deep SAFE breath.  Join Mom’s Clean AirForce, add your voice to ours!

Photograph by octal available on Flickr

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when screaming is the only thing you can do  This has been a year of frustration -the Army has really tried to make me say UNCLE. Between the craziness of trying to figure out where we were going, the halt called to movement a week before he was due to leave and then the sheer insanity of not getting orders until the Friday before the Sunday he was supposed to leave,  I wasn’t sure which way was up.

Shall we talk about this training TDY?  probably not a good idea – but I wonder why the efforts made to contact the “support” person for the unit have resulted in a deafening silence.   One phone call from Rear Det to make sure they had the right phone number and email.  Then one mass email – and one envelope with a “newsletter” composed of pictures of past training classes, and copy/paste information from ACS and the Red Cross.  No response to emails volunteering to help; no response to any requests.  I don’t want to hear a word about how FRSAs need help; I don’t want to hear a word about the lack of communication and the lack of participation in FRGs.  Really.  Not. A. Word.

Now, with less than a week until they are done with this training… still no word whether or not they are getting leave, a pass, or flying out right away.  Never mind that we could have booked an affordable flight a few weeks ago, or even last week.  Never mind that actually saying goodbye, in person, is necessary.  Never mind that the already justifiable stress and tension in the families isn’t healthy for either the family or the soldier.  Never mind.

For all the talk about “we support the families”; for all the “families are important”; for all the “we recruit the soldier, retain the family”…  THIS is the reality of this deployment.  No briefings about what to expect, no information, no support.  nothing. I’m lucky, I’ve done 4 other deployments, so I know what to expect.  I’m hoping at least most of the other team members are in the same boat. But, really – is this necessary?  Is this how we are being “taken care of” or even just kept informed?

I think the grade I’m going to give this particular deployment and prep?  FAIL.

KESF

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Occupational Lung Disease – for most of us that conjures up Black Lung in a coal miner; silicosis in a quarry worker;  and for an old paralegal ahem from the asbestos days, asbestosis or worse in a worker in a boiler factory.  It isn’t usually a condition that we think of as an “occupational hazard” for a soldier.  But a new report from the American Thoracic Society changes that pretty quickly. [i]    

My husband has talked about the stench of the burn pits, the choking smoke blowing into his face as he walked by during the deployments in Iraq.  Our son and daughter in law both remember seeing trash and worse being burned at every base and post they were on during their deployments.  The smell is horrendous from burning the effluent from the portajons, the smoke carries so much more than just a smell.  The heavy metals from burning batteries, the chemicals from burning plastic – such a wonderful potpourri!  IAVA and other veterans organizations have been advocating, demanding information and testing for years.

The dust and sand that filter into every nook and cranny is sneaky.  When my husband came home on leave during his first Iraq deployment, he brought his laptop home and took it to a computer store to be cleaned out.  The geek who blew it out scolded him for not taking better care of the laptop (it was in an area that doesn’t get too many soldiers coming in!) and wondered where he’d been with all that talcum like powder.  We all know what he meant, right?  That stuff is in all their clothes when they get back, and I’m still finding it in the trunks, or poofing out of the duffel bags when we start packing his stuff for the next deployment;  I was complaining about it after the last deployment, he told me I should be honored- this was the dust that built the bricks of early civilization!   I was looking through some books he’d brought home, and could still feel it in my fingers.

  “We’ve described a new disease called Iraq-Afghanistan War lung injury (IAW-LI), among soldiers deployed to these countries as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom, and Operation New Dawn” said Anthony Szema, MD, who co-chaired with Dr. Rose.

My husband calls this the Iraq/Afghanistan  “Agent Orange Syndrome”.  We remember how long it took for the VA and DoD to acknowledge Agent Orange as a reason for the diseases our veterans of Vietnam were experiencing; we aren’t going to let that happen again.

What does this have to do with MCAF and the Clean Air Act?  In my community- a lot!  Our servicemembers are coming home with respiratory problems.  To quote Dr. Szema:

“Not only do soldiers deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan suffer serious respiratory problems at a rate seven times that of soldiers deployed elsewhere, but the respiratory issues they present with show a unique pattern of fixed obstruction in half of cases, while most of the rest are clinically-reversible new-onset asthma, in addition to the rare interstitial lung disease called nonspecific interstitial pneumonitis associated with inhalation of titanium and iron.”

With lungs affected like this – do they need to be subjected to even more?  Since we can’t usually chose where we live, since DoD sends us to bases all over the country, are we going to end up on a base or post downwind from one of the coal fired powerplants that are spewing high amounts of particulate into the prevailing winds?  So, I figure that joining Moms Clean Air Force and working for clean air, isn’t just for my granddaughter, but also for her mommy and daddy, who were downrange of the burnpits in Iraq, and for her grandpa Chief, who is going to be walking around them again soon.  Won’t you join us?  http://www.momscleanairforce.org/


[i] American Thoracic Society (2011, May 18). Occupational lung diseases in Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. ScienceDaily. Retrieved June 28, 2011, from http://www.sciencedaily.com­ /releases/2011/05/110518105515.htm

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I was chatting on Facebook with a dear friend of ours, who arrived in Afghanistan a week or so ago. He’s always been an optimist, a smiling presence always trying to cheer everyone up. This is not his first time downrange, he’s been deployed before including with Chief in Iraq.

His Facebook chat reflected this optimism – the realization that he’s not in a great place, but he’s going to put a positive spin on it. He told me how horrendously hot it was, but not as a complaint, just as a fact. But then he came up with:

The President has decided to bring back thousands of troops now that I have arrived! That is confidence! I have even started working out and running this morning in anticipation of our victory parade.

So if you are wondering about the morale of the men and women downrange – I can tell you that for one group of Guardsmen… it’s pretty positive!

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