Staying in touch with the Discarded

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On long holiday weekends, warriors not deployed check on one another since they normally have a weekend pass or time off – and this past Labor Day was no exception.   The phone will ring, you see the caller ID nickname you assigned to someone you shared a foxhole with not long ago, you always stop what you’re doing and answer it.  “Have you heard …”, “…you doing alright …”, “… remember the time we…”, “…let me know if you need anything…”.  It goes on like that for however long it takes.  The kids ask afterwards “Who was that?”  You tell them, “RANGER 9”.  They know who that is.  They laugh, remembering the stories about this particular grizzled First Sergeant.  Over time these calls are more infrequent and you miss them — because no one at home understands your silence.  They try, but they don’t get it. 

So the phone buzzed today, the caller ID said CANCER GIRL.  Diagnosed at 22, she’s been fighting for her life for the past 18 months. The last time I heard from her she was having difficulties with her chain of command:  her landlord wouldn’t allow her to break her lease to move onto post and be co-located to the chemo drip and the chain of command never fixed the problem.  Instead, it took a determined and brave case manager to work her magic, but she told me afterwards she felt discarded.   She used the same sentiment this go round as well.  She’s off treatment for the time being and she has a new chain of command, but she’s still dealing with a host of issues and doesn’t have a clear status from the Physical Evaluation Board.

 Seems like it was only last week that the New York Times broke the story on how Warrior Transition Units (“WTU”) were “Warehouses of Despair.”   I asked her then if anything reported was true at her WTU.  “Absolutely.”  But that was this past April, more than four months ago, soon after which the Army started to spin and shifted the issue from “warehouses” to a few bad and despairing apples complaining to the press.  The Surgeon General relied on favorable ratings from recent Wounded Warrior satisfaction surveys to assuage any public outcry.  Then there were visits from  senior Defense and Army leaders to Warrior Transition Units and the fix was in.  In fact, the Surgeon General officially closed the case via a press briefing placing the fault inside Joe’s rucksack as sometimes due to soldiers entering service already mentally flawed with pre-existing conditions.  As a result, this put them at risk for successfully completing effective treatment or for obtaining essential services when they find themselves assigned to a Warrior Transition Unit. Plus, it greatly complicates, if not nixes altogether, getting fairly compensated for service-connected disabilities.

 “I feel like I don’t exist here.  It’s as if all of us here are on the Island of Misfit Toys.  We feel discarded.” “Has it gotten any better at the WTU?”  “No, it’s worse.” “What can I do?” “There’s not much anyone can do for us.  After all the dog and pony show visits, I thought it would return to business as usual, but it actually got worse.  The visits and what they said afterwards made it look like it was our fault for complaining and ever since then, the leadership believes they have a license to do anything.  And the other day, a classic TBI effects and PTSD crackup case that we thought for sure would rate a 70, 80, or 90% came back at 20% because he had a pre-existing condition before he entered the Army.”  “Let me guess, ADD?”  “Yes, Attention Deficit Disorder.” I tried to cheer her up, “But the surveys said everybody assigned to a WTU was as happy as a shiny whistle.”  “Yeah right, you know what we do with those surveys?” “No, what’s that?”  “We discard them, just like they do us.”

What could I say after that?

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Picking up the Torch for Col. David Hackworth

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My valiant, wonderful husband, Colonel David (Hack) Hackworth, one of America’s greatest heroes and most valor-decorated soldiers, died in my arms two years ago this past May (Editor’s note:  This was written by Col. Hackworth’s wife three years ago on the second anniversary of his death).  During the last weeks we shared, he thought not a wit about himself; and his love for me burned so brightly I still feel surrounded by that awesome warmth.  But he worried too about the frontline troops he spent his life protecting and particularly about Soldiers For The Truth (“SFTT”), the foundation we started together.  So I promised Hack I’d pick up the torch and keep SFTT viable – and continue our commitment to get the kids out at the tip of the spear the best leadership, training and equipment.

I knew it wouldn’t be easy.  In spite of the major stories we broke – such as the lack of up-to-date body armor or none at all when the troops first went back into Iraq or the unarmored hummers or Abu Ghraib, which pointed so clearly to flaws in both training and leadership – most people we addressed when we tried to raise awareness and funds found it difficult to accept that our soldiers and Marines weren’t getting the right stuff with which to wage war.  Even though we eventually came to expect the disconnect, we always found it hard to compute — but that was because for many years we were often first to report outrages like the Tillman cover-up in our weekly column DEFENDING AMERICA, which Hack would also discuss every week on TV and radio.  To disbelieving ears, of course, but he kept getting booked because he had better pundit credentials than most and good TV-Q, probably because he was as quick and deadly with words as he’d been in battle.

Only recently have I noticed that we’re gaining more traction and I suspect it’s mainly because the Walter Reed debacle so deeply shocked and touched the nation.  Suddenly we were all confronting what Hack had warned us about on Larry King when we first went into Iraq:  in spite of all our vows to the contrary, we’ve allowed ourselves to be sucked into another Vietnam with far greater potential fall-out.  Sure, because of medical and technological advances, we won’t have a black granite wall listing 58,000 fallen warriors; but depending upon how much longer we’re stuck in Iraq, we’re likely to have far more than 58,000 wounded, many grievously.

Excellent organizations offer countless services to take care of the troops, from entertaining them in Iraq to helping them and their families when they come home.  The USO, Wounded Warrior, Fisher House and so on.  But no organization except SFTT is dedicated day in, day out to being there for our stalwart warriors as they stand tall for their country out in the shifting sands of the Valley of the Shadow of Death — to try to prevent them from being killed or wounded in the first place.

As we entered last spring the fifth year of this terrible war, SFTT will formally announce the new Basic Five campaign to get America’s frontline troops the best available of the five most essential items of personal combat gear so they have the best possible chance to complete their assigned missions and make it home alive and in one piece in a plane seat instead of a body bag or on a stretcher.  Doesn’t it seem criminal that the richest nation in the world, which spends more than the rest of the world combined on defense, can’t budget responsibly enough to provide its sons and daughters with a helmet that will prevent many more of the endemic, life-altering head injuries?  With the same better body armor the generals choose – and wear hidden under their uniforms?  With a rifle that’s not a jammer like Jessica Lynch’s M-16 and that’s at least as effective as the AK-47, the terrorists’ weapon-of-choice?  With a sidearm that’s reliable and deadly in tight situations?   And with boots capable of going the bloody distance?

No wonder Hack died worrying about the troops.  But if more Americans stay mindful of the dreadful consequences of war and help SFTT carry Hack’s torch, we can together “SUPPORT THE TROOPS WITH MORE THAN LIP SERVICE” and make sure more of our brave volunteers survive whatever lies ahead.

Eilhys England

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