Reflections on Veterans Day

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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.

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Maj. Ben Richards Hyperbaric Treatment Update

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Yesterday evening, WWLTV.com in Louisiana carried a very moving “progress report” on

Maj. Richards’ tragic story was chronicled by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof who wrote an article in August entitled “War Wounds.”  For reasons that seem inexplicable to the average American, the Veterans Administration, the Defense Department and our government seemed to wash their hands of any responsibility of the injuries suffered by Maj. Richards.  Eilhys England, Chairperson of SFTT, immediately contacted Maj. Richards and put him in touch with Dr. Paul Harch (shown in the video below) who has been providing Ben with Harch Hyperbaric Oxygen Treatments pro bono.

We are thrilled that Maj. Richards has made so much progress and SFTT is most grateful to those West Point classmates, friends and colleagues who have generously contributed to a fund to support his family while undergoing this treatment.

While we don’t leave our troops behind on the battlefield, why should their needs be neglected when they return home? If you feel strongly about supporting our brave heroes like Maj. Ben Richards, consider becoming a member of SFTT. Your generous contributions help our team find and evaluate promising treatment programs so our brave heroes can reclaim their lives.

For only $35 a year you can stand with us and Stand for the Troops


Choose your Membership and click the button «Become a Member»:

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For those who wish to submit your membership contribution by check, please make the check payable to SFTT and send to the following address:

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PO Box 11179
Greenwich, CT 06831

Members can opt to receive flash updates, a Membership card and a vehicle decal.   Members who donate $100 or more can request a complimentary T-shirt.

PO Box 11179  ?  Greenwich CT 068321  ?   203-629-0288   ?  www.SFTT.org

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Major Ben Richards is Not Alone

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Mr. Kristof details the sad – but all too-often heard tale – of the debilitating problems of headaches, fatigue, insomnia and fainting spells that threatened to destroy his life and that of his family caused by repeated concussions while serving in Iraq.   Unfortunately, Major Richards can’t get adequate treatment to deal with the injuries he has received serving our country. More disturbing is the fact that this growing problem is rarely addressed by either candidate running for President.   As Mr. Kristof writes  “Mental health still isn’t the priority it should be. Just about every soldier or veteran I’ve talked to finds that in practice the mental health system is clogged with demands, and soldiers and veterans are falling through the cracks. Returning soldiers aren’t adequately screened, diagnosis and treatment of traumatic brain injury are still haphazard, and there hasn’t been nearly enough effort to change the warrior culture so that getting help is smart rather than sissy.”

SFTT ‘You Are Not Alone’ Intervention for Major Ben Richards

“SFTT  is responsible for linking Major Ben Richards with Dr. Paul Harch of Harch Hyperbarics in Marrero, LA.  It all started on 10 August 2012 with the NYT article by Nicholas Kristof.  When we read that Ben had been told there was no treatment for his condition, we quickly reached out to both Ben and Dr. Paul Harch, based on our  knowledge of  Dr. Harch’s success treating Vets – and Ben entered Dr. Harch’s treatment program on 23 September 2012.  Dr. Paul Harch is providing the treatment pro-bono–he is a great American.

“SFTT’s ‘You Are Not Alone’ campaign is all about finding and resourcing alternative and more effective treatment programs for post traumatic stress and TBI.  This is an effort to collaborate with the VA, community-based programs, and alternative treatment programs like Harch Hyperbarics.

“While Ben is undergoing the two month treatment in Louisiana, his wife and four children remain in Iowa.  Ben was medically retired, so resources are tight for living expenses, rent, utilities, and airfare to bring the family back together for Thanksgiving.  The goal is to get Ben back on his feet with the hyperbaric treatment so that he can regain his life’s momentum.”

Major General John Batiste, US Army (Retired)

Editor’s Note:  More to follow from SFTT with donation protocols to support Major Ben Richards.  For those who want to help now, consider making a donation to  Stand for the Troops, a 501(c)(3) organization to support our troops.

Excerpts from Nicholas Kristof’s “War Wounds”

Found below are extended excerpts from Mr. Kristof’s article, War Wounds, and all are encouraged to read the entire article to get the full impact of how little we seem to care for our brave heroes who have served our country so valiantly and now need our help:

“While the challenges are acute for those on active duty, they often become even greater when troops take off their uniforms and become veterans seeking services from the hugely overburdened Veterans Affairs Department. Ben and Farrah have found it immensely difficult to get reliable information from the V.A. about what benefits they can count on. Richards says that in 11 phone calls, he has heard different stories every time.

“’The V.A. is an abomination,’ he said. ‘You see that hole in the wall?’ He pointed at what looked like a rat hole. ‘That’s when I threw the phone after someone at V.A. hung up on me.’

“None of this is a surprise. The V.A. says that veterans wait an average of eight months to get an initial decision on the claims they file. When service members seek to retire for medical reasons, the process takes an average of 396 days. Eric Shinseki, the secretary of veterans affairs, notes that the V.A. processes more claims each year than it did before, but that the number of new claims surges by an even greater amount. The upshot is that the V.A. steps up its game but still gets further behind.

“Shinseki notes some areas of progress — the number of homeless veterans seems to have fallen significantly — and he points to new systems and hiring intended to make the system function better. The number of V.A. mental health staff members has risen from 13,000 in 2005 to more than 20,000 today, he said.

“At a time when nearly half of veterans returning from battle file disability claims, it’s fair to wonder whether word hasn’t spread that service members can claim some vague mental health ailment, like post-traumatic stress disorder, and get a paycheck from the government. The V.A. approves roughly half of claims, but the difficulty of diagnosis of mental health ailments means that they may not always be the legitimate ones. We may be getting the worst of all worlds: fraudulent claims approved, while legitimate ones are unrecognized or unconscionably delayed.

“’The V.A. certainly doesn’t care,’ says Jim Strickland, who runs the V.A. Watchdog Web site. ‘The very institution that should be at the forefront of caring for vets is dead last.’ The Web site declares: ‘This country is capable of drafting you, putting you in boot camp, teaching you to kill someone, and then putting you in a war zone within six months. So why can’t they process a claim that fast?’

Editors Note:  Mr. Kristof’s article is a cry for help as countless brave veterans seek treatment for the “invisible” but no less destructive wounds of our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  SFTT has assembled a distinguished panel of physicians to help evaluate alternative treatment modalities.  Your generous contributions help support SFTT’s investigative research and provide the funds to support brave heroes like Major Ben Richards.

 

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