Reflections on Veterans Day

Posted by:

Maj. Ben RichardsYears ago when I was a young Army lieutenant, my reconnaissance platoon was preparing to conduct a night-time helicopter insertion far behind enemy lines to seek out intelligence critical for a large-scale operation to be conducted 48 hours later. The operation was high risk. That night as I back-briefed my Troop commander over the hood of a Humvee  in the German woods, I expressed my concern about the level of danger the platoon was facing.

My boss, an experienced cavalry scout himself who had served as an enlisted soldier and noncommissioned officer before earning an officer’s commission, replied directly: “If you get into trouble, we will roll this entire brigade to come and get you.”

At that time the war in Iraq was still over a year in the future, and the risk was largely hypothetical, but I wondered whether the Army would really risk a brigade of 3,000 to 4,000 soldiers and hundreds of armored vehicles to rescue a few men in a desperate situation. And then I didn’t think about it again.

That is until I was leading men in a real war in Iraq. In November of 2006, my Cavalry Troop was in the process of moving from Tal ‘Afar in northwest Iraq to Taji, a large operating base just outside of Baghdad. The night before our movement, a special operations team had been conducting a raid deep in the al Qaeda-controlled hinterlands of the infamous Anbar province. The raid had run into trouble and a large force of al Qaeda fighters was closely engaged with the small special operations team.

A pair of Air Force F-16 fighters scrambled to provide air support for the troops, but because the fighting had moved to such close range, they could not use their normal load of bombs without risking the lives of the men they were trying to save. With no good options, one pilot, Major Troy Gilbert, volunteered to conduct a highly-dangerous low-level night-time strafing mission in order to employ his aircraft’s 20mm cannon which could be used much closer to friendly troops.  On completing the diving attack, his plane was unable to pull out in time and crash landed in the Anbar desert.

Although he had been unable to eject, the aircraft was largely intact and it was possible that MAJ Gilbert had survived. On that chance, my Troop and over two thousand other US combat troops—an entire Army Brigade’s worth – were quickly dispatched to rescue the pilot. We had just arrived in Taji and had not even unpacked, when we sortied into the desert.

The area had never been under US control and the roads were littered with large and deadly Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). The going was slow and occasionally punctuated by the ambush of al Qaeda fighters. We reached the crash site and then searched the surrounding desert and villages for four days until we were able to find forensic proof that MAJ Gilbert had not survived the crash. After an extended search other soldiers were able to locate and bring home his remains.

During those nights in the desert, I remembered another night in the German woods and realized that I was helping to fulfill a promise made not just by my commander, but by millions of American soldiers over hundreds of years. The risk MAJ Gilbert accepted was extraordinary. As an experienced pilot, he was fully aware of the danger and the cost he might have to pay to save the lives of a few Army soldiers.

Our mission to find MAJ Gilbert was the most dangerous we had conducted up to that point. As we rolled out into the desert, we also knew the risks and willingly accepted them—also at a cost. In my unit, Corporal Billy Farris, also a young father, was killed in an ambush during the operation.

What stands out about Troy Gilbert and the incredible men and women I had the privilege of serving with was their belief in the infinite value of the life of another soldier.

Unfortunately, after returning home from Iraq as an “invisibly wounded” veteran with Traumatic Brain Injury and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, that was not the ethos I found at home, particularly in the very institutions created to care for nearly one million combat-disabled veterans like me. In 2012, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nicholas Kristof observed in the New York Times, “if you want to understand how America is failing its soldiers and veterans, honoring them with lip service and ceremonies but breaking faith with them on all that matters most, listen to the story of Major Richards.”

What is exceptional about Kristof’s statement is that he made it after I had been provided the top level of care available within the DOD and VA medical systems—a level of care only a few hundred service members a year were given access to. However, these alleged best efforts were only a façade.

Suffering from daily, debilitating pain and unable to function in most facets of life including interacting with my wife and our four children, I began to seriously consider suicide. That was when Stand for the Troops came to my rescue and joined me in my personal battle against the invisible wounds of war. They arranged for me to receive several months of Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy (HBOT) from one of the leading practitioners in the country, Dr. Paul Harch at Louisiana State University (who provided the treatments for me at his own expense).

It was the first genuinely effective medical care I had received since returning home, and it has restored much of my life. Today I am a productive and contributing member of society, with a loving family and a high quality of life.

As we reflect this Veterans Day on the blessings derived from the service and sacrifice of so many men and women and their families, we begin to realize the magnitude of the task before us in living up to legacy heroes like MAJ Troy Gilbert.

I am pleased to report that there remain many great Americans, both in and out of uniform, who share the belief in the infinite value of a soldier’s life. Please join me in supporting Stand for the Troops in making sure the nearly one million veterans disabled by TBI and PTSD finally get the genuinely effective care they deserve.

0

How the VA Callously Treats Veterans: A National Disgrace

Posted by:

As we reported earlier, Veteran Eric Bivins committed suicide after being unable to find the support and care he needed from the Department of Veterans Affairs (“the VA”).

Found below are a moving – AND MOST SAD – series of videos by Kimi Bivins, Eric’s spouse which describes her experiences with the VA in attempting to find the proper care for her husband.

Kimi’s experiences with the VA are not dissimilar from my own and countless of others who have sought care from the VA. I agree with Kimi that it is a “national disgrace,” yet the VA continues to remain largely unaccountable for their callousness and disdain in treating our brave warriors.

I would encourage readers to watch these powerful videos to understand the frustration and agony of a loved-one in dealing with the VA.

Kimi’s YouTube videos are presented in a more or less chronological order, with limited commentary by me other than to clarify certain expressions.

Published on March 23, 2016. Kimi’s Initial PRIVATE Appeal for Help.

Published on March 10, 2016. Kimi’s Frustration on Getting VA Paperwork

Published on March 18, 2016. Eric in a VA Facility

Published on March 23, 2016. Eric is Coping, but Life is Still Very Difficult

Published on April 13, 2016. Eric at Independent Treatment Facility.

Published on May 15, 2016. Eric is Better, But Seeks Therapy Outside the VA

Published July 11, 2017. After Eric’s Suicide

While many will be shocked by these series of videos, it is far too commonplace within the VA.

Before Eric’s suicide he had been accepted into a program to receive hyperbaric oxygen therapy or HBOT.  I credit HBOT with saving my life and enabling me to begin the long road to recover my life.

It is sad that some uninformed doctor at the VA would shatter Eric’s dream of life-changing therapy by parroting the VA’s institutional bias against HBOT.

Dr. David Cifu and his cronies at the VA and the DoD have done their upmost to discredit HBOT and other alternative therapies to support the failed VA programs of Cognitive Process Therapy (“CPT”) and Prolonged Exposure Therapy (“PE”).

Failed VA therapy programs to treat PTSD have been documented numerous times by credible independent studies.   And yet, VA spokespeople still parrot the same stale party line.  Veterans with PTSD and TBI are not deceived and have abandoned the VA in droves.

It sickens me to watch these tragic videos of Kimi documenting her fruitless attempt to navigate the uncaring bureaucracy of the VA.  In my estimation, Kimi’s videos should be mandatory training for all employees at the VA.

While the VA provides much needed comfort to thousands of Veterans, those Veterans with PTSD and TBI need to look elsewhere for REAL therapy.

0

VA Doctor’s Hard Line on HBOT Leads to Veteran Suicide

Posted by:

As a military veteran with PTSD and TBI, I encounter many brave warriors who have had difficulties getting proper treatment from the Department of Veterans Affairs (“the VA”).

All of these conversations have been disturbing and caused me to relive the terrible ordeals I faced when dealing with the VA.  Nothing quite compared to the disturbing letter I received from Debbie Lee, the founder of America’s Mighty Warriors (“AMW”).

Eric_Bivins

Veteran Eric Bivins serving his country.

In her open letter (summarized and slightly edited below), Debbie describes the heart-wrenching conversation she had with Kimi Bivins, whose husband Eric (a Marine Veteran), had committed suicide after the callous indifference shown by doctors at the VA to his PTSD and TBI.

Several weeks ago Veteran Eric Bivins reached out to us via email for help with his PTS (Post Traumatic Stress) and getting into Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy treatments. We replied to his email and told him we would be glad to help. He was scheduled to start Aug 2nd at Rocky My Hyperbaric.

I didn’t hear anything back until Wednesday when his wife called. She informed me that her husband had committed suicide. She was calling to try and get HBOT for her husbands friends he had served with. We are working to connect with them to provide HBOT to provide healing and hope.

Over the last 4 years our foundation, America’s Mighty Warriors (“AMW”) has been an advocate to make this standard of care at the VA and with Tricare. We have paid for over 30 Veterans to receive this 2 month treatment. Every Veteran we sponsored who received treatment has received improvement with their symptoms for PTSD/TBI .

We spoke for about and hour and she shared that her husband was super excited about getting the treatment and had hope for his future. He had numerous problems with the VA in Tennessee.

Long story short, his last visit at the VA was with the Chief of Staff, Dr. John Nadeau to at that facility. When Eric shared his excitement for getting the HBOT treatment Dr Nadeau told him several times that HBOT was a waste and that people were just trying to scam him for his money. 

His wife said he left a defeated man and had his hope crushed by that doctor. We both agree that her husband’s blood is on that doctor’s hands. They had numerous botched surgeries and doctors who disrespected and misdiagnosed or wouldn’t diagnose his medical problems.

Eric had been sober for about 18 months and that next day started drinking and ended up taking his life after several days of abusing alcohol and prescription drugs.

I am working with her to expose this atrocity. She has two daughters who are 12 and 10. I spent about an hour on the phone with her tonight just listening and providing comfort. While we were talking I asked when social security would kick in for her kids and she said hopefully August. I asked about insurance and she said none. I asked how she was doing financially, and she said they are struggling. Then she shared that her roof caved in a few days ago and that they had their roof replaced two years ago and it wasn’t done correctly and they insurance will only cover $2000 in “rot” damage, not the replacement costs.

AMW did a Random Act of Kindness for Kami and her children to help during this difficult time and sent a check for $5000.00. This program was started in response to my sons amazing last letter home. He mentions that Random Acts of Kindness could change our world and I know when I shared with Kami what our board had approved her life was changed, and she was deeply moved.

Please help us to expose another VA that is responsible for killing a Veteran and the help and healing that HBOT is providing for our Veterans struggling with TBI and PTSD.

I have worked with Veterans who have shown me a gallon size baggie of prescription drugs that they were prescribed to take and 2/3rd’s of them say “may cause suicidal tendencies” and we wonder why our suicide rate is so high. Then they find alternative therapies that are helping and have their hope ripped from them by doctors who are not familiar with HBOT and the success our Vets have seen who have received this. How many more lost lives are these Doctors responsible for?

It is hard to fathom the reasons why any qualified VA doctor would rob a patient a moment of hope, particularly when the VA has been demonstrably incompetent in providing an alternative.

Kimi’s story, as reported by Debbie of AMW, serves as a daily reminder that we all need to take action to expose the lies, hypocrisy and arrogance of the VA.  For many Veterans, the VA is a failed institution that treats our brave heroes with disdain.

How can let this young woman’s desperate plea go unheeded?

It is hard for me to watch this video, but Kimi’s experience is not unique. How many more Veterans need to suffer such indignity?

For those wishing to know more about Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy or HBOT, please CLICK HERE:

And please, take the opportunity to visit our website where we have many resources and articles devoted to helping Veterans find alternative therapy programs for PTSD and TBI.

0

Veterans Account for 20% of U.S. Suicides

Posted by:

Military suicides, particularly among Veterans, show no signs of abating.  Despite recent efforts by Secretary of Shulkin of the Department of Veterans Affairs (“the VA”), the “silent wounds of war” follow our Veterans into civilian life.

Veteran Suicides

(U.S. Army photo by Stephen Baker)

In a most informative report published by CNN, Veteran suicides account for roughly 20% of all suicides in the United States.

SFTT has reported on this disturbing trend for several years, but little has been done to curb Veteran suicides. Our analysis of this dreadful situation – covered amply in previous articles – may be summarized as follows :

1. PTSD and TBI are the Smoking Guns of Veteran Suicide

Veterans with complex PTSD or PTSD and TBI are more than 25 times more likely to commit suicide than their veteran peers, according the National Center for Biotechnology Information (“NCBI”).

2.  The VA is Currently Not Able to Effectively Treat Veterans with PTSD

Like the NFL’s denial of culpability, the VA continues to insist that Cognitive Process Therapy (“CPT”) and Prolonged Exposure Therapy (“PE”) help reverse the trends of PTSD and TBI.  This is patently untrue as described in more detail below.

The VA’s top-tier Specialized Intensive PTSD treatment Programs (“SIPPs”) failed to achieve clinically significant improvement in PTSD symptoms after an average 46-day program of treatment at an average cost of $23,578 per veteran. Average change in PCL-M scores was 5.7 points and “most program graduates met the criteria for clinically significant PTSD after discharge….” according to Institute of Medicine of the National Academies or IOM 2014 study, p.100.

“However, the outcomes from RCTs suggest that only a minority of veterans can be expected to lose their PTSD diagnosis as a result of getting CPT or PE, arguable administered in an ideal fashion…” (p.49) 2/3s retain PTSD diagnosis.

“In the RCTs conducted to date, with one exception, mean symptom scores at the end of treatment or at the latest follow-up (when available) indicated that PTSD symptoms were still substantial .” (p.49)

“Attaining high end-state functioning may be the exception rather than the rule.” (p.49)

The VA continues to treat the symptoms of PTSD and TBI with potentially lethal prescription drugs rather than use other proven therapy programs.  In fact, many current programs (i.e. cannabis) funded by the VA focus on treating symptoms rather than the underlying causes of PTSD and TBI.

3. The VA has Shown Little Inclination to Understand the Causes of PTSD

The “evidence-based” treatments currently deployed by the VA and DOD have little actual evidence supporting their efficacy in treating combat trauma and the existing evidence shows these treatments are generally ineffective.

The IOD concluded in 2014 that “[N]either department [DoD and VA] knows whether it is providing effective, appropriate, or adequate care for PTSD.

The VA insists that this is not the case, but many other studies have reached similar conclusion regarding the standard therapies used by the VA.

Specifically, in randomized controlled trials of “evidence-based” treatments in military PTSD “. . . mean post-treatment scores for CPT and prolonged exposure therapy remained at or above clinical criteria for PTSD, and approximately two-thirds of patients receiving CPT or prolonged exposure retained their diagnosis after treatment.  Symptom remission was rare.”   (Steenkamp, et. al., p. 489)

4.  SFTT has Assembled a World Class Medical Task Force to Identify and Deploy Effective Treatment for TBI and PTSD

Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the VA continues to march to a drummer of its own choice insisting that Veterans are receiving the best care possible.  As SFTT will demonstrate in the next couple of weeks, support for Veterans diagnosed with PTSD (and their supportive families) is abysmal.

Veterans recognize the limitations of the VA and are seeking alternative therapy programs.  SFTT has assembled a world class Medical Task Force to identify promising new technologies and recommend proven treatment programs.

While some of these therapy programs have been around for years with proven success stories, others are more experimental in nature.  There is no “silver bullet” and each Veteran may respond differently to a specific program.  Nevertheless, it seems far better than the hype rather than substance of VA programs.

Visit the SFTT website for more information on promising new therapies to treat PTSD and TBI and do consider supporting the SFTT mission through a kind DONATION.

Veterans and those who serve our country need a helping hand.

0

SFTT Mourns Retired Lieutenant General Hal Moore

Posted by:

LTG Hal Moore

Stand for the Troops (“SFTT”) is mourning the passing of Lieutenant General (ret.) Hal Moore. Every generation shares its own greatest men and women and LTG Moore was one of them. He is best known for his combat leadership as the commander of 1-7 Cavalry in 1965 Battle of Ia Drang memorialized in the movie We Were Soldiers where Moore was played by actor Mel Gibson. LTG Moore spent his life in the service of his Nation and the the men and women who served with him.

He was a member of the SFTT advisory board and we will continue honor him through serving in our mission to help our service members and veterans suffering from the invisible wounds of TBI and PTSD.

0

What I Should Have Said About Veterans with PTSD and TBI

Posted by:

Not long ago I had the opportunity to represent the warrior-run non-profit One Mind for Research at a Hollywood Telethon to raise money for Veteran charities. My role in the production was a live, 90-second interview on stage with actor and host Alan Alda. We talked very briefly about my experience as a wounded warrior with a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and a Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Mr. Alda asked me: what did I expect when I returned home from a combat tour with TBI and PTSI? Perhaps because I was a little intimidated by the Hollywood venue, the big stars, and the brief time allotted, I didn’t deliver the message I would have liked, so I’d like to share with you now what I should have said then.

Actor Alan Alda played the irreverent trauma surgeon Hawkeye Pierce in the long-running television comedy MASH.

Actor Alan Alda played the irreverent trauma surgeon Hawkeye Pierce in the long-running television comedy MASH.

Alan Alda played the iconic character Hawkeye Pierce in the long-running television series MASH. Alda’s character was an irreverent army doctor serving in a forward Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (or MASH) during the Korean War. The opening credits of every episode included footage of medical evacuation helicopters bringing in a load of wounded warriors from the front. Amidst the pranks and comedy, MASH did a good job of telling the story of what happens once those helicopters landed. I would like to tell you about what happens before those helicopters land.

Two “laws” govern that space. The first is the law of the “Golden Hour.” We believe that if we can get a seriously wounded comrade to the MASH alive and within one hour, then our buddy will make it. In the show, sometimes soldiers didn’t survive after arriving at the MASH and that is also true today, although due to better medical tools the survival rate is much higher today than during the Korean War. As warriors, we can’t control what happens in the MASH. But our responsibility is to get the wounded to the helicopter on time. When one of us is hit, every all can feel the timer begin its count down towards the end of the “Golden Hour.” They are the most unforgiving of minutes.

The title screen and opening credits of MASH featured a pair of H-13 medical evacuation helicopters transporting wounded soldiers from the battlefield to the surgical hospital. Note the wounded soldiers on the litters placed on sponsons above each landing skid.

The title screen and opening credits of MASH featured a pair of H-13 medical evacuation helicopters transporting wounded soldiers from the battlefield to the surgical hospital. Note the wounded soldiers on the litters placed on sponsons above each landing skid.

The second law is recorded in a line in the Warriors Creed: “I Will Never Leave a Fallen Comrade.” To some this may be just another phrase from the canon of military tradition, but among warriors it is a sacred covenant that we make with each other that forms the foundation of a unique and special honor-bond.

Units that have this bond win. Units that do not, don’t.

As a student of the profession of arms, I had read and heard hundreds of accounts of these laws in combat. Many of these tales came accessorized with citations for valor like bronze and silver stars, even Medals of Honor. Remarkably, a large number did not simply because heroism is a daily duty and often goes unrecognized beyond the range of the last rifle round fired.

I would like to share how I learned about the persistent reality of these laws for myself.

My education began as a young lieutenant leading one of the reconnaissance platoons of the Brigade Reconnaissance Troop in the First Brigade (Ready First!) of the 1st Armor Division during a training rotation at Combat Maneuver Training Center (now the Joint Multinational Readiness Center) near Hohenfels, Germany. The brigade had tasked my platoon to conduct a recon and surveillance mission deep into Opposing Force territory. The mission was only part of a training exercise in the good ole’ pre-war days when a faithful warrior could look forward to a painless simulated death that would bring the Valhallan pleasures of a MRE and a nap before administratively resurrecting to roll out again in few hours. Levity aside, I was concerned about the level of risk the mission would have had we been executing in real combat conditions. If any of my troopers were wounded, it would be nearly impossible to evacuate them to a MASH.

I shared my concerns with my troop commander, Captain Jerry Turner. CPT Turner admitted that he had shared the same concerns with his boss, the brigade commander, then-Colonel Michael Tucker. Jerry Turner and Michael Tucker were both men I had learned to trust and respect. They cared deeply about their soldiers. In our middle-of-the-night discussion across a humvee hood in the dark German woods, CPT Turned shared with me the promise COL Tucker had made to us: if we got into trouble, he would roll the entire brigade– some 150 Abrams tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles and thousands of soldiers– to come and get us.

That mission was a great success and the platoon contributed to the Brigade crushing the opposing force in simulated combat …and I “died” towards the end of the fight with just enough time left to eat an MRE and take a nap.

When a small team of Army special operations soldiers was forced down in their helicopter during a night-time raid into al Qaeda- controlled portion of Anbar province in Iraq, Air Force F-16 pilot Major Troy Gilbert was on station to provide emergency close air support. As a large al Qaeda force was closing with the isolated Special Forces team,  Gilbert brought his F-16 to tree-top level to strafe the insurgent force with his aircraft's cannon- an extremely high-risk maneuver, but one that Gilbert felt he needed to make to save the US soldiers on the ground. In the darkness, he lost too much altitude during his strafing run and his plane crashed.

When a small team of Army special operations soldiers was forced down in their helicopter during a night-time raid into an al Qaeda- controlled portion of Anbar province in Iraq, Air Force F-16 pilot Major Troy Gilbert was on station to provide emergency close air support. As a large al Qaeda force was closing with the isolated Special Forces team, Gilbert brought his F-16 to tree-top level to strafe the insurgent force with his aircraft’s cannon- an extremely high-risk maneuver, but one that Gilbert felt he needed to make to save the US soldiers on the ground. In the darkness, he lost too much altitude during his strafing run and his plane crashed.

COL Tucker’s promise remained tucked away in the recesses of my memory until the end of November 2006. I was about to take command of a Stryker-equipped Cavalry Troop in 3rd Brigade (Arrowhead!), 2nd Infantry Division in Iraq. We were in the process of moving from Tal A’far to Baghdad. While we were on the march, an Air Force F-16 providing close support to an Army special forces unit securing a downed helicopter in a sparsely populated section of the nearby Anbar province crashed during a low-level night strafing attack. The pilot was unaccounted for and possibly still alive. Just as COL Tucker had promised, we rolled an entire brigade (the Stryker infantry battalion I was attached to, an Airborne infantry battalion and a heavy cavalry squadron) to find and rescue him. Thousands of soldiers to save one.

Unrested, the battalion paused only enough to unload baggage and take on fuel before heading out along roads so infested with IEDs that US forces had up to that time effectively abandoned the road network and relied almost solely on helicopter air assaults. We spent three days scouring the area. My Troop searched every structure and vehicle within a hundred-square kilometers. We even forced the dump trucks traveling from a nearby quarry to dump their loads to ensure no body could be concealed in them. In the end we were able to confirm that the pilot had died in the crash. His name was Major Troy Gilbert. He left behind a wife and five children. We didn’t know that at the time. All that mattered was that he was one of us and we were going to get him back, one way or the other. It was not the ending we had wanted, but we had fulfilled our covenant to each other that we would never leave a fallen comrade behind.

We paid a price to do so. During the mission one of our Strykers hit an IED. Specialist Billy Farris was killed and several others were seriously wounded. Inspired by his stepfather who had served in a Ranger Company in Vietnam, Billy had joined the Army immediately after graduating from high school in Phoenix, Arizona. His consistently superior performance had earned him a coveted position in the battalion scout platoon, and he had been recently honored as the Soldier of the Quarter. Billy also left behind a young son.

To a bureaucrat, who measures value with a financial ledger, the mission was a waste of resources. To a warrior, who understands both the true value and the true cost of the honor-bond, the mission was a necessary sacrifice.

Members of Bronco Troop, 1-14 Cavalry, search for Major Troy Gilbert in Anbar Province Iraq.

Members of Bronco Troop, 1-14 Cavalry, search for Major Troy Gilbert in Anbar Province Iraq, November 2006.

A few months later it was my turn to make and keep that promise. My Troop had just redeployed to the city of Baqubah, at that time the center and proclaimed capital of al Qaeda in Iraq. During a fiercely contested mission to search for weapons caches in a suburb of the city, al Qaeda ambushed one of my scout platoons and the platoon of combat engineers clearing the attack route through the city. At a narrow bend in the road, an IED built into the exterior wall of house exploded and disabled the lead engineer vehicle. As the platoon moved to recover the damaged vehicle, a large force of insurgents engaged them with RPGs, machine guns and AK-47s in the fiercest ambush we had experienced. Five of the combat engineers were wounded, some of them severely. The countdown toward the Golden Hour had begun.

The thundering explosions and rattle of automatic weapons fire brought silence to the Troop radio net as the routine reporting and chit chat between crews disappeared to clear the net for the inevitable contact report. The scout platoon leader was experienced, aggressive and cool-headed but his report was not good. The two platoons were surrounded and out-numbered. They had casualties, some seriously wounded. The outcome was in doubt.

“Hold on. We will come for you.”

My quick fragmentary order to the rest of the Troop was redundant before it was issued. Everyone had heard the report. Everyone knew what had to be done. Everyone was already moving.

As we reached the beleaguered platoons, my First Sergeant, who had already earned a Purple Heart earlier in the tour, moved his armored medical evacuation vehicle into the kill zone. In a scene worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster, the scout platoon leader, Captain Aaron Tiffany, with his vehicle’s gunner, Sergeant Josiwo Uruo, and the platoons’ trusted Iraqi interpreter, Monroe, ran under heavy fire to the severely wounded soldiers and dragged them to the waiting evacuation vehicle.

The Medical Evacuation Vehicle, now escorted by a pair of Strykers, raced to the helicopter landing zone fifteen kilometers away. Medical evacuation helicopters had been called and were enroute. Inside the armored, eight-wheeled Stryker ambulance one of the wounded soldier’s heart stopped beating. The young medic in the vehicle, SPC Brian Mikalanis, beat the soldier’s heart for him, almost forcing him to live through the precious minutes to the door of the waiting helicopters. Before the Golden Hour ticked away they reached the medevac helicopters with five wounded soldiers still alive. A few minutes later the pair of helicopters landed at a real-life MASH where a real-life Hawkeye Pierce finished saving those soldiers’ lives.

Sergeant Josiwo Uruo willing exposed himself to heavy enemy fire that had already wounded five soldiers to rescue our wounded comrades. He was later killed while again exposing himself to enemy fire in order provide covering fire for members of his team.

Sergeant Josiwo Uruo willing exposed himself to heavy enemy fire that had already wounded five soldiers to rescue his wounded comrades.

Bronco Troopers had fulfilled their covenant. We had come for our fallen comrades. But again, not without a price. All five of the wounded combat engineers made it home alive, but Sergeant Josiwo Uruo, a courageous young man from Guam with an ubiquitous grin, did not.

So to answer your question, Mr. Alda, when I returned home from Iraq as a wounded warrior with TBI and PTSD, I expected to be treated with the same commitment and urgency by the medical providers at home in the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs that we expected from each other in any and all combat zones.

Unfortunately, my expectations and the expectations of thousands of other wounded soldiers and veterans like me have not been met.

They have not been met because the organizations responsible for caring for our wounded warriors not only do not share, but likely do not even comprehend, the honor-bond between warriors. Their creeds are written on their walls, not in their hearts.

This reality was brought to public attention in 2007 when journalists revealed the terrible living conditions and treatment being inflicted on Army wounded warriors by ambivalent Army Medical Corps bureaucrats– many of them superficial soldiers covered in warriors’ uniforms with hearts concealed beneath the camouflage fabric but bereft of any warrior honor-bond. Army leaders found the organizational ethos of the medical corps so antagonistic towards the warrior values espoused by the Army’s own creed that they made the unprecedented decision to bring in a combat arms officer – a warrior – to fix the problem. They brought in my old commander Mike Tucker, by then a major general, to take charge of and fix Walter Reed. I suspect Tucker knew as much about hospital administration as I do, which is very little. But he knew what he had taught me a few years earlier- that warriors do not leave their fallen comrades behind.

0

ARCHI’s ACRES – Sustainable Employment for Veterans through Sustainable Agriculture

Posted by:

COLIN AND KAREN ARCHIPLEY ARE TWO-TIME NATIONAL TREASURES!

 

The first occasion was defending the nation as a Marine Corps husband-wife team. Colin was not only a Marine Rifleman, he was a Marine noncommissioned officer. While media pundits and politicians focus on super fighter jets, unmanned drones and the Hollywood virtues of thermobaric Hellfire missiles, combat soldiers know that the most lethal, versatile and effective weapons systems in the American arsenal are sergeants. In combat they are responsible for making the very first tactical decisions, usually before anyone else even knows what’s happening. They can turn a bad plan into a brilliant victory while without them the best plans are often worthless. In my experience, the collective quality of these professional warriors defines a unit’s “elite-ness” more than any other factor. 

 

Former Marine Sergeant Colin Archipley and his wife Karen founded the Veterans Sustainable Agriculture Training Program to help other veterans achieve meaningful employment in sustainable agriculture.

Former Marine Sergeant Colin Archipley and his wife Karen founded the Veterans Sustainable Agriculture Training Program to help other veterans achieve meaningful employment in sustainable agriculture.

Sergeant Archipley repeatedly led Marine Infantrymen at the point of contact in Iraq, including through the brutal fighting in Fallujah in 2004. After three combat tours, the Archipleys decided the time was right to serve in other ways and the seeds of what would grow into a second national treasure were literally planted.

 

Before Colin deployed to Iraq for the third time in 2005, the Archipleys purchased a small 200-tree avocado farm, which they christened “Archi’s Acres.” The three-acre farm is nestled in a scenic semi-rural valley near Escondido, California, right behind the Marine Corps base at Camp Pendleton where Staff Sergeant Archipley was stationed.

The Archipleys might have been content nurturing their avocado trees and growing tomatoes if not for their first month’s $850 water bill – which sent them searching for a more financially sustainable way to run their farm. 

 

Archi's Acres. Two hydroponic green houses and avocado tree orchards framed by the 'Back 40' of Camp Pendleton in the background.

Archi’s Acres. Two hydroponic greenhouses and avocado-tree orchards framed by the ‘Back 40’ of Camp Pendleton in the background.

They discovered a solution to more than just their water-bill problem in hydroponic farming. When Colin returned home from his final deployment, they built a greenhouse and started growing basil. The soilless organic hydroponic system they built uses only one tenth of the water needed for an equivalent crop on a traditional farm and Karen was able to secure contracts to supply their organic produce to local super markets, including several Whole Foods stores.

 

Colin left the Marine Corps in October 2006 but wanted to maintain more of a connection to the Marines than afforded by the view from their home and farm of the hills of Camp Pendleton’s “Back 40.” That desire germinated another place for the Archipleys on the list of America’s national treasures — the Veterans Sustainable Agriculture Training program– VSAT in proper military acronym form.

 

Through the VSAT program, Colin and Karen share their knowledge and experience with transitioning Marines and other veterans and help them replicate the success of Archi’s Acres. The six-week course they developed and teach not only provides veterans with enough knowledge of hydroponic greenhouse agriculture and the technical skills to set up and run their own greenhouse-centered farms, the Archipley team also teaches them the business and marketing skills to succeed as a business as well as a farm.

 

The greenhouses at Archi's Acres feature soilless, hydroponic growing systems and are automated to adjust for weather conditions.

The greenhouses at Archi’s Acres feature soilless, hydroponic growing systems and are automatically adjust to weather conditions.

The program’s title as a ‘training’ program insufficiently describes what the program really achieves. Even a lengthier descriptor such as a “seed-to-market sustainable organic agriculture entrepreneurial incubator” falls well short of the mark because VSAT provides far more than a skillset and post-graduation support.

 

The key to VSAT’s extraordinary potential is how Karen and Colin structured their program. From the outset they teamed with the nearby state university Cal Poly Pomona to get nationally-recognized accreditation. The university awards 17 college credit hours on completion of VSAT. The Archipleys also specifically engineered VSAT to meet the US Department of Agriculture’s experience requirements —  completing VSAT is equivalent to one year of farm management experience or a four-year degree in soil science — and so qualifies for a USDA-guaranteed farm loan. Combined with start-up equipment discounts the Archipleys negotiated with several leading national suppliers of agricultural equipment, meeting the requirements for a government-guaranteed loan provides Vets with the all-important financial resources to go into business as well as the technical know-how.

 

The Archipleys’ foresight enables Vets to take advantage – with their existing educational benefits – to cover the program’s $4,500 tuition. Since VSAT is a college-accredited program, Vets and even active duty service members can use the GI Bill, VA Vocational Rehabilitation or tuition assistance.  Several Veteran-serving nonprofits such as the Marine Semper Fi Fund, DAV and Armed Services YMCA also provide tuition grants for qualifying veterans.

 

Although not exclusively for Vets and transitioning service members, over 80 percent of their students are Veterans and many are struggling with invisible wounds and other service-connected disabilities.

 

“Agriculture is blind to invisible injuries,” Karen told me. And that was what first interested Stand for the Troops in Archi’s Acres— leading them to dispatch me on assignment to visit the Archipleys in the summer of 2014. Karen and Colin where successfully solving some of the biggest challenges of disabled-veteran employment AND healing.  Simultaneously.

 

Invisibly wounded warriors face substantial barriers to achieving full and persistent employment. According to the experienced former military physicians who created the Veteran-serving nonprofit  Military Disability Made Easy, a typical combat Veteran rated at only 50 percent disabled by Posttraumatic Stress Disorder:

 

“… may try to work, but will not be able to hold a job for more than 3 or 4 months because of their inability to remember or follow all directions or other similar reasons based on the symptoms or circumstances described under this rating. (In other words, they wouldn’t lose their job simply because they have anger issues and would regularly get in fights. A person like that could also not hold a job more than 3 or 4 months, but they would still be considered able to work). This individual would only be hired for jobs like cleaning, picking up trash, or other simple-task jobs.”

While the Americans with Disabilities Acts legally obligates employers to make reasonable accommodations for Vets with combat disabilities like PTSD, the reality is that there is little understanding among employers or even among Veteran-employees of how to accommodate invisible injuries with their multiple insidious, inconsistent and difficult to predict mechanisms of disability. In many cases even reasonable accommodations are simply not enough.

 

But where even the best intentioned accommodations fail, Archi’s Acres succeeds. The keys are flexibility and scalability. For a combat Vet functionally impaired by invisible wounds, greenhouse agriculture enables a level of flexibility uncommon in most jobs. While nature dictates that some tasks must be done at certain times, for the most part a Vet can adapt his schedule to his own needs, health and abilities, providing the most effective and timely workplace accommodation. The owner of an Archi’s Acres-style hydroponic greenhouse agriculture business is able to scale both the scope of the business and his or her personal workload. A greenhouse farm as small as one-tenth of an acre can be run profitably. Alternatively, a Veteran with a larger farm or limited in the number of hours he or she can work can hire employees to do the work the Vet cannot. At the time I visited them, the Archipleys employed one full-time and two part-time employees to work their three acres (expanding to six) of avocado trees, tomatoes and greenhouses, freeing Karen and Colin to focus most of their time on running the VSAT program.

 

By June 2014 the Archipleys had coached and mentored 240 graduates through their VSAT program. Two-thirds of the those graduates now either own or manage farms. Impressively, Karen and Colin have been able to do so much for Veterans within the framework of a self-sustaining B Corporation (a special category of for-profit corporation that provides a significant public benefit) instead of a donor-dependent non-profit which means the Archipleys will be able to continue independently serving the Nation’s Veterans for years to come.

 

To learn more about Archi’s Acres and the VSAT program, visit their website at Archisacres.com, and watch this five-minute video and this 24-minute documentary.




0