Tuesday, September 27, 2011

TBI Same Name Different Game

My husband deployed between June 2004-Nov 2005. He came home and we had a disaster happen. Our oldest daughter was in a car accident that nearly took her life. She was fighting for her life within 2 weeks of Dad coming home. We didn't have time for him to get some R&R. It was day and  night at the ICU. She finally came through and we realized we needed to move to be closer to her medical care. He went back to work with a high stress home life. We moved in 6 months after he came back and now his commute to work was 90 miles 1 way. We were settling into the new house and we were starting to realize there was something wrong with Dad. We joked about PTSD and thought that was what it was. We would tease him, until it
started to make him angry. That stopped. There were very volatile explosions over little tiny things! Then we realized he was falling alot and he would deny it. He fell going into church and tore his suit, shredded his knee and  he sat in church
 and laughed hysterically so we left! It was so weird! 

Another day he blacked out helping our daughter up and slammed her into the wall when he collapsed on top of her. He got angry when he came to and denied it ever happened! He wouldn't let us talk to him about it at all! It was now evident something was terribly wrong. He suffered memory problems, using his hands -especially his right side, walked funny, couldn't throw a ball, had violent out bursts, went after the kids in anger and rage, had headaches, rubbed his head all the  time, yelled at people to be quiet when they weren't even here! 

Then one day he had a stroke while he was at work. People called an ambulance and he was taken to a small little town hospital. He was upset and couldn't talk. He was talking gibberish. He was trying to leave and
wouldn't cooperate with anyone at the hospital at all. The doctor called me and they wanted to fly him to a bigger hospital near us. He refused treatment and I had to get there fast. I drove the 100 miles to get to him
and he just left the hospital when I got there. He wanted me to take him to his car. He was trying to talk but just talked all garbled. He got very angry when I tried to take him to the hospital near us that is much bigger.
He came home and went to bed after a while and in the morning started getting worse. He was throwing things, breaking things, trying to read and couldn't. I finally resorted to calling a military friend who is a
paramedic. He talked to him and he finally got him to follow orders and go with me to the hospital. He was admitted and they said he had had a stroke but it was too late to give him any of the drugs because it was probably the day before at the small hospital. He was stuck in Iraq in his mind. He did not know how to interact with his kids when they came to see him. He just stared at them. He would ignore them. I had to coax him with what to say (try to say- it was garbled). His face was drooping and he could not control
his right side. He kept jumping out of bed like he was on a combat mission and slam to the ground as his left temporal stroke was making his right side not work. He about destroyed the hospital room and they finally brought in a large body guard nurse in training to sit right next to his bed and put him back when he
jumped up!

He spent 8 days in the hospital and 2 months at home doing Physical therapy, speech therapy, and occupational therapy. He went back to work half time and then was admitted to a VA hospital a month later. He was diagnosed TBI and stroke as a result of TBI, also C4-8 radiculopathy and more. He has moderate
to severe neuropathy in his limbs and eyes. This is unexplained and a symptom of something else but we don't know what. He is getting worse as time goes on.

We have all learned. We keep alot from him in order to prevent the blow-ups. We let him sleep when ever he needs. He is working again as it is in his long term memory he did this same job for 16 years before Iraq. We will lose our home if he stops working. He is a good man who does not drink or smoke. He tries to do what he can to help, but there isn't much. A day of work requires a weekend of sleeping to function again on Monday. We will get through this. I love my soldier- life is not perfect- no where near. But it
is our life and I will stand by him. He was an infantry combat soldier who was in the streets of Iraq and around many different IED's and blasts that rattled his brain over and over again. Some less than 20 meters away, no physical injury of limbs or shrapnel injury.

It is my feeling that a TBI is different for everyone- TBI Same Name Different Game. It is the same name but everyone's story is different.  Good luck and God Bless the soldier and the ones who love him.

Submitted by: Wife of a TBI Soldier

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

FOV Talk Radio: Caregiver Care: Learning to Take Care of Yourself

Tonight on FOV Talk Radio we'll be discussing Caregiver Care: Learning to Take Care of Yourself from those who are "in the know". Leesa Almgren from Mobile Stress Relief Unit joins us once again along with Debbie and Carol, two Vietnam era caregiver wives to share their own tales of trial, error, and triumph from the trenches!

Join us for the first half of this two part episode you won't want to miss!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Why Veterans Courts Are Needed and What You Can Do to Help

As we remember the terrible events of 9/11 and the deaths of approximately 3,000 citizens, we should not forget those who have subsequently served and are still serving our great country in Afghanistan and Iraq in the Global War on Terror.  Now, friendly people can disagree on the wars and how they have been handled, but the reality is that, our military members had and have no say so in the matter; they serve at the whim of politicians and political decisions that are made on our behalf.  That said, it is still important to understand the experiences of our beloved military. 

The latest statistics suggest that approximately 1 in 5 military personnel who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan have suffered traumatic brain injuries (TBI) and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  That’s 20%.  I’m willing to bet the numbers are higher due to IEDs and the horrific realities of the warfare in which they have had to engage.  The VA is doing what it can, but the VA is overwhelmed, as it is caring for several generations of veterans from WWII to current day.  Plus, the VA has not had to deal with issues of TBI and PTSD in such large numbers really since the Vietnam War.  As a result, these war veterans are coming home and having to handle normal life outside of combat, which is not proving to be so easy for some of them and they are unfortunately having run-ins with law enforcement officials.  This is a perfect instance of where veterans courts can play (and are playing) a crucial role in the healing of the veterans of the GWOT.  I am concerned that veterans courts will be relegated to the back burner in the face of returning veterans with TBIs and PTSD: they often turn to alcohol and drugs to handle their injuries, self-medicate, and to mourn the loss of the person they were before the injury. 

For the veterans who find themselves in trouble legally, veterans courts are so important.  Veterans courts operate on the model of the drug and mental health courts that are already established in over 2600 locales.  Veterans are given the chance to go through mental health counseling and/or drug and alcohol treatment.  Once they complete their treatment successfully, they are often able to have their records expunged or not have to serve jail time and are able to move on with their lives and be successful.  For many of them, it is a second chance at life, a good life. 

I recently read that funding for veterans courts is going to be cut in some locales, California most especially.  I understand that local and state governments are hurting economically and fiscally along with the federal government.  Local court systems have to make cuts. In reality, since there are so many mental health and drug courts already established, it would not be that much of a stretch for local and state governments to have veterans go through the same system that is already in place for mental health and drugs. I have also seen the argument that veterans courts establish a special class of citizens.  Given that many locales already have drug and mental health courts, could not the same be said for non-veterans who get to go through those programs, that they are a special class?  Veterans served this country and deserve all the help we can give them; taking care of veterans has a long history in our nation. 

Taking care of veterans is a constitutional duty that has a history going back to the Revolutionary War; Congress gave Revolutionary War veterans pensions and the Civil War saw the establishment of health care for veterans of the war.   So there has been a long history in our country of the government taking care of veterans.  The current war veterans should be treated no different.  So, what can we do to help veterans who are currently in the criminal justice system?

If you are a veteran, you can help by volunteering in the local court system to be a mentor for any veteran going through the criminal justice system or talking to local legal officials about the need for a veteran mentor system and/or veterans court system.  We all can advocate the importance of veterans courts and encourage officials to keep them as a part of the judicial system.  We also need to highlight the importance of the Veterans Justice Outreach office of the VA as well.  I do not think these issues are going to go away anytime soon with the influx of current veterans who are dealing with TBI and PTSD.  Veterans courts can help veterans avoid homelessness, potentially suicide, and possible death due to drugs or alcohol. 

Submitted by Aimee Wisyanski
FOV Board Member

[1] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/26/california-others-cut-vet_n_937643.html

Small Ceremonies

When Dave Walker talks about the time he spent at Ground Zero in 2001, he has to pause from time to time to clear his throat, to try and stop a coughing attack or to allow his escalating heartbeat to quiet down a little.  Although he tries to hide it, the physical and emotional toll of breathing in toxic dust air and recovering bodies and body parts for those 12 days are still evident.  
As a police chaplain, death and tragedy are familiar terrain for Walker and helping others in crisis is what he does best, so when he was asked if he’d volunteer to go to Ground Zero with a national Critical Incident Stress Management team after the attacks on the World Trade Center, he didn't hesitate.  Friends from church bought him a cell phone and paid for the service, officers from the Campbell Police Department where he serves as volunteer chaplain bought him a uniform, and the Campbell City Council voted a resolution to send him to Ground Zero as an emissary of the city.  Grateful for the support from his community, he left his home in California for the devastation in New York

Since then Walker has suffered from chronic, life-threatening respiratory illness as a result of his work at Ground Zero.  He’s had to fight for the medicines that keep him breathing, and is only now starting to receive compensation from a class-action lawsuit he filed along with approximately 10,000 other clean-up workers who were not provided adequate respiratory equipment at Ground Zero. 

I first met Walker about four years ago at a meeting of the California Statewide Collaborative for our Veterans and Families, a diverse group that supports Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans.

A large, soft-spoken man with a lively sense of humor, he has a reputation in the community for being someone you can count on in the bleakest of situations – when others you thought you could count on have fled. 

Around the time I met him, Walker was helping the Hardy family. Warren Hardy had returned from Iraq with a brain injury, his wife Gina was about to give birth to triplets and the family was on the verge of becoming homeless.  Walker was raising funds, delivering mega boxes of diapers and just being there for them in that calm, comforting way he has.

As Mary Ellen Salzano, founder of the California Statewide Collaborative, says, “Dave understands suffering and he responds to it in a way that most people are unable to.” 

Perhaps this is because Walker, who is a decorated Vietnam combat veteran, has suffered so much himself:  years ago he went through a period when his post traumatic stress was so debilitating that he started drinking heavily, became homeless and considered suicide.  Now, in addition to being a police chaplain, he is part of a part of a transition team for severely wounded veterans, an advisor to the Santa Clara County Veterans Court and an instructor for the Army National Guard. Despite the ongoing struggles with his health, Walker has spent the past few years developing a training program for police officers so they can learn how to minimize conflict when interacting with combat veterans. Originally called Cops and Vets, it was renamed Veteran Law Enforcement Interaction by the State of California’s Peace Officers Standards in Training when they certified it for continuing education for law enforcement officers.  With the passage of SB 1296 it will be mandated for all law enforcement officers in the state of California.  

"What does a police chaplain do?", I once asked him.  

“Homicides, suicides, drowning, crib death, and the list goes on,” he replied. “When it gets really ugly, cops will call a chaplain.” 

As a chaplain he provides comfort and support to all who need it:  the parents of a teenager who hangs herself, the dispatcher at the police station who receives the call from the parents and the police officers who arrive on the scene of the tragedy.

The hardest calls involve children. During his ninth and last year at the San Jose Police Department he was called out to fourteen separate fatalities involving children, including an attempted murder of a toddler by his father and several suicides. The intensity and emotional toll of that year prompted him to leave San Jose PD and become a volunteer chaplain at Campbell Police Department.

“While I gave up a salary at San Jose I thought that at least I could reclaim my sanity.  Campbell was quieter and there were fewer tragedies to deal with. It was a move I should have made years before.  Campbell feels like family.”

But eleven months later the World Trade Center came under attack and Walker deployed to New York, to a tragedy of unfathomable proportions. 

He remembers arriving at Ground Zero and thinking it looked like footage of a bombed out city in World War II.  The Port Authority Police Benevolent Association had a makeshift barbecue set up next to a tent, where they cooked hotdogs and had some safety equipment available for the cleanup workers.  But there was no instruction how to use the respirators or on how long they were good for. 
“A guy came in and just basically said, ‘respirators and stuff are over there’, and that was it…  I tried to wear my respirator whenever I could, but of course I’d take it off to do a mini-memorial service.  And then there were times when it would get knocked loose when I was underground and there wasn’t enough room to get my hands up to my face to replace the damn thing,” he says.
Although he wore his respirator as much as possible -- he still has a faint mark on the bridge of his nose from its imprint –  he’d sometimes get back to the hotel and realize that the creases that ran from the sides of his nose to his mouth would be caked with thick, dark dust.  “I’d be sucking in debris, probably all shift, and didn’t even realize it.”
As a chaplain in a five-man team, Walker worked with the Port Authority Police and firefighters, going underground or into the debris and assisting with recovering bodies and body parts. Whenever bodies were found he would help bag them, put them in a carrier, then say a prayer before taking them to ground level.  Once at ground level he’d conduct a mini-memorial service, then escort the remains to a temporary morgue, which consisted of two tents set end to end. 
“And in there we’re finding pieces of bodies, you know, feet and hands, fingers, bones, and we’d try to sort them out.  Then we’d have to rebag everything and send them up to Bellevue hospital where they did the DNA testing and that kind of thing….”  His voice fades. “It’s the stuff that nightmares are made of.” 
Walker’s wife Holly, a special education teacher, remembers his phone call to her that first night.  “I don’t think he was in any way prepared for the level of destruction….  He told me that firefighters and police officers had just gotten under a stairwell and found about 20 bodies.  When he started talking about all the body parts, it hit me.  I thought, oh my gosh, he’s seeing all this.  I thought, he’s been there before --  in Vietnam.”
Walker served two heavy combat tours in Vietnam as a Navy Seabee. On his first deployment six of his friends were killed and he watched four of them die in front of him.  When he returned home injured from his second tour where he was part of a Special Forces unit, he was hospitalized for a month in the Sepulveda VA.  Although the hospital was less than nine miles from his family, nobody came to visit – except for his pastor and a friend named Suzette.  He was 22 years old. 
The life-giving impact of his pastor’s visit and the comfort he received from his chaplain in the madness of Vietnam are what eventually led him to become a chaplain himself. 
At Ground Zero, Walker’s team was supposed to work 12-hour shifts but towards the end of the shift they’d often find more bodies and the work would continue.  The most sleep he ever got a night was about four hours.  Usually, not more than two. 
One thing that makes him smile is remembering the constant requests of police and firefighters to bless their St. Michael pendants. Although he’s a Presbyterian minister he had to wear the cleric’s reverse collar on site to identify him as a chaplain, so he always let them know that although he might have looked like a Catholic priest, he wasn’t – just in case they wanted the real thing. 
“And they’d hand you over their St. Michael with their eyes wide open, like okay, I’m going to let you pray over this but I’m not sure what’s going to happen….” 
Walker kept little scraps of paper and a pencil in his pocket and he’d jot down notes when he had time.  He wrote about the firefighters, how they’d keep on going, refusing to take a break.   
“We’d watch them working literally until they dropped.  Two guys would grab another by the belt and drag him up and he’d sit there and catch his breath, and then ten minutes later he’d be back there, digging through the debris, trying to dig people out.” 
He wrote about celebrities like Carolyn Kennedy and Robin Williams, who immediately wanted to roll their sleeves up and help, once they witnessed the devastation. And he wrote about Teddy Bear Wall, where families of the dead would leave notes or teddy bears in memory of a loved one. It was there that he left a prayer written on a piece of wood, in memory of his nephew’s sister-in-law who was on the 104th floor of one of the Twin Towers when the plane hit. They would later identify her by DNA taken from her thigh bone.
Passed a donut store with the donuts still on their trays,  he wrote on one of his scraps, referring to a New York moment frozen in time when the planes hit the towers.
Holly was right: the mud and smoke and burning fires and lack of sleep and smell of burning and diesel fuel and death ricocheted him back to Vietnam. One day he had a “hard flashback.” 
“When I was in Vietnam I used to do a lot of recon work, and next thing you know I was back in the bush, reconning a vill again.  And then I heard this soft voice and there was my partner, Don, asking me if I was okay.”
Walker doesn’t remember much about coming home after his 12 days on site, except that his clothes smelled acrid and sooty because he hadn’t been able to get them cleaned.  One of the first things Holly noticed was his backpack:  its bright blue color had been eaten away by acid.  “I realized that was the stuff he’d been inhaling.  He had a terrible cough and within a very short time he couldn’t walk half a block without becoming winded.”
“We all had ‘the cough’ on site, but we thought it was just the flu going around. We didn’t realize how serious it was until later,” says Walker.
In the team of five he served with at Ground Zero, one man died the day after the site was shut down after being there for four months, another had a tracheotomy and Walker has to take four medications a day so he can keep breathing.  The toxic soup he’d been absorbing came from about a million tons of pulverized concrete, glass, asbestos, PCB’s, lead and hundreds of chemicals.
Coming back from Ground Zero was almost like returning to the civilian world after combat, Walker says.   “You’re in this hellish surreal world and then suddenly you’re back in your kitchen.”           
And just like after Vietnam, the nightmares and flashbacks began.
“The last guy we brought out from the Twin Towers, I’d have these dreams he’d be at my front door, wanting in. I knew him, because unlike so many others he was whole, not in pieces.”  
By January of 2002 he was unable to walk down the street without becoming breathless. In June of 2002 he had surgery for prostate cancer and for the next two years his health was so fragile that he wasn’t able to work.   He also had high blood pressure and stomach irritation that he believes was caused from the debris in the air he swallowed at Ground Zero.
Captain Dave Carmichael of the Campbell Police Department says that although he does not know the details of the class action lawsuit, he believes Walker deserves any compensation that is owed to him. 
“He’s been a tremendous asset to the City of Campbell as a volunteer chaplain.  He’s that rare kind of person who’s willing to get his hands dirty.  When there’s a tragic event it affects us all and Dave takes that burden off our shoulders.”         
He recalled a night when the family of a suicide victim was inconsolable and how he, a sergeant at the time, was at a loss for words. “Then Dave arrived and started working his magic.  He stayed in contact with that family for a long time.  That’s what he does.” 

Walker feels a little awkward when people refer to him as a hero.  He likes watching Survivor, hunting in Wyoming with his son Cal and surprising his wife with romantic getaways – when his lungs “aren’t acting up.” 
On June 30, 2008, while on vacation with Holly, he started to gasp for air in the in the kitchen of their camper. He tried telling her he couldn’t breathe but he couldn’t get enough air to say the words.  It turned out that she’d been boiling potable water and the chlorine in the air triggered this reaction.  He survived, but the fear of having something like this happen again is always with him.
Walker tells me that each morning, when he lines up his medications -- one for high blood pressure, one for his stomach and the four medications that keep him breathing – he reflects on his last mini-memorial service at Ground Zero.  It was for the firefighter who was so beloved by his men, the one who still sometimes tries pushing through the screen door of his nightmares.  Walker made a promise to the rescue workers at Ground Zero that night: 
"I will tell of the love, honor, dedication, courage and commitment that I have seen, and the men and women who prefer to be called family rather than heroes.  I am honored that I was invited to take part in such a daunting task, and humbled to have stood in the presence of these survivors, and to have worked alongside you."

Submitted by Bridget Brett
after meeting and talking with a 9/11 Hero, Chaplain Dave Walker
 FOV Grassroots Volunteer.

May We Never Forget

On September 11, 2001, my husband and I had both stayed home sick from work.  In the daze and haze of a cold-medicine induced sleep, I became aware of the phone incessantly ringing... someone was calling, letting it ring a few times, hanging up, and calling back.  Finally I managed to get my head together enough to answer the phone and the voice I heard on the other end of the line was that of my mom… panicked, shrill, and demanding to know if I’d seen the news.  As the story tumbled out of her mouth, I rushed to turn the TV on... just in time to see the second plan hit the South Tower of the World Trade Center.  I knew in my gut that our country was under attack, but my brain just couldn’t process it.  I just couldn’t grasp that somehow this was really happening.

I went to wake my husband… trying my best to keep my voice at least a little steady… quickly explaining what had happened so far and then rushing back to the TV.  As my husband came into the room, Flight 77 hit the Pentagon, and he calmly and firmly stated, “I’ll be enlisting tomorrow.”

Before that fateful morning, we were a “typical” suburban couple.  I had a good job.  He had an okay job, but was a junior in college studying Civil Engineering.  We had a dog… a house… family and friends close by… a comfy life that required very little sacrifice or heartache.  Within a few months, as our previous life was being neatly wrapped up and put away, my husband left for Basic and AIT.  Then in a blink, I was preparing for a move to Germany… our first duty station.  I arrived in Germany just in time for him to leave for a series of lengthy training exercises.  Then he was back a few weeks and was gone… gone to Iraq… gone to war… gone to do his new job.

I found myself a 22 year old Army wife, living in a foreign country, farther away from family and friends than I had ever been, fiercely proud of my husband and determined to make the most of our new life.  The first five months of his initial deployment, in the beginning of the war in Iraq, there was no communication.  I spent my days praying, crying, and picking myself up.  I was terrified.  The “what ifs” and horrible possibilities swirled in my mind day and night.  I knew, though, that my husband’s new job was about more than me… about more than us… about something greater and more meaningful than my need for my heart’s love to be close to me again.   I slowly found my footing, discovered the strength and character of our dear military families, and began to “soldier up.”

Almost seventeen months later, my husband’s unit arrived back in Germany.  Their arrival was quickly (much too quickly) followed by many months of training, and then he was gone again.  This time, he left not only me, but a sweet little baby growing inside of me.  A year later, he came home to a me and a seven month old daughter… and “he” came home as a different person… my sweet, tender, Love had been replaced by an angry, struggling, injured Hero.  

In the years since, we’ve learned to cope with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), TBI (traumatic brain injury), degenerative issues in his bones and joints, surgery, the VA system, and our “next” life as a Veteran family.  None of it has been easy, and there are days when I find myself wondering about the price we’ve paid for patriotism… about the different life we would have had… about the Daddy my daughter will never know.  But then, I remember those images from that now long ago morning of people jumping to their deaths to escape the roaring flames, of people bloody and soot covered walking aimlessly from the wreckage in New York and D.C., of the heartache and pain and disbelief that those attacks caused, and of the heroes who held places deep in our hearts that were lost on that day and in the years that have followed.  And somehow, each and every time, I know that we paid a price that had to be paid and am so proud of my Hero Husband and every other Veteran for stepping up to offer him or herself in defense of our country.  May we never forget the lessons we’ve learned.  May we never, ever, ever stop remembering.  May we all continue to “soldier up”.

Submitted by Brannan Vines
Proud Wife of an OIF Veteran 
Founder of FamilyOfaVet.com

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Facing Changes and Lessons Learned

“Baby, you need to wake up and turn on the news…. America is under attack…..” and the rest faded out as I sat up and tried to take this is. There I was, almost 30 weeks pregnant, on bed rest because of a high risk pregnancy, trying to remain calm after being told we were under attack. Of course, locating the remote felt like it took hours in place of a few minutes. As I turned on the television, footage of airplanes flying straight into the towers was being replayed. People in New York were screaming as the raced in opposite directions trying to find safety. New York City was a huge cloud of debris and smoke and yet, all I could do was stare at the news wondering what in the hell had just happened. Within no time, I watched as people were jumping to their death from the towers.  I watched as the towers came tumbling down.  I watched as another plane flew into the side of the Pentagon and as another crashed down in a field in Pennsylvania. What had just taken place on our soil? Why were we under attack? Why had so many helpless and innocent people just died at the hands of terrorists?

  We were living about twenty miles outside of Atlanta at the time and about ten minutes from my dad. I was barely 18 years old and praying to God, please keep us safe, while holding my stomach in hopes of protecting my unborn daughter.   I called Kevin back at work, in tears and scared wondering where the next attack would occur. His first response was for me to grab his guns, get in my car, lock the doors, and drive to my dad’s house. He had already called him to let him know he wanted me somewhere safe and not alone.  Only later did we learn that the terrorists had been living in Lawrenceville, GA and had actually been training at Briscoe Airfield. These people shopped and lived in the same area that I had lived in for years. I could have stood next to them in line at a store….  I could have talked to them when I worked at a restaurant.  To this day it makes me shudder to think about these things…

Before Kevin enlisted, we were in North Carolina visiting family, when I started to look through a September 11 book that Time had released. While reading the stories in the book, I became emotionally overwhelmed with heartache from the families that were involved. I remember one story that will always stick with me wherever life may take me. A woman was remembering how her husband called her to tell her that there were terrorists on his plane and he probably would not make it out alive. My eyes were filling with tears as I read what her family had been through. They had children that she would later be explaining to that their dad was in Heaven.  Her daughter would always call her daddy at work just to chat and did not fully understand the fact that he died during the plane crash. One day the little girl looks up to her mom, and asks, “Mommy, can we call Daddy in Heaven?” I remember breaking into tears in front of everyone. This was a life changing moment for me that came from the tragic events of 9/11. I sat there, unable to read any further because the emotions had taken over and tears were pouring down my face.

Shortly after 9/11, my husband started bringing up enlisting in the Army again. We had talked briefly in the year before, but never acted on it because I was pregnant. I kept arguing with it because I never thought I was cut out to be an Army Wife. Little did I know that I am stronger than I ever imagined. In 2003, I finally agreed to the Army life. We were at war with the terrorists in the Middle East, I was barely 20 years old, with a toddler and a small baby and we were starting a new journey all together in life.

At the age of 20, I stood in our living room watching the packers move all of our furniture from our apartment into the moving van. I watched as our life was packed up into boxes and had to fight the urge to cry because I was leaving all that I had ever known to move into a world of uncertainty. Kevin flew to Germany as our first duty station before we did, so he missed this part of things. Shortly after arriving in Germany the reality of things started to hit, though I don’t think they sunk in until after his first deployment. Upon arriving, he was instantly taken away from us to start a few years of back to back field trainings and preparation. After all, they were Europe’s QRF…Quick Reaction Force.  They were the first ones sent out should an emergency happen or war get out of hand more than it already was. They were highly trained. It seemed like he was gone more than he was ever home during our time there.  Yet, he never deployed.

Deployment Day (2006-2007)
In mid-2006, Kevin was placed on orders to Fort Bliss, TX. Once we arrived at Fort Bliss we learned that Kevin was going to be deploying in a few short months.  During the months before deployment and during NTC, we not only learned that we were going to have our third child, but we also learned that my health was declining again. While in Germany I had to undergo surgeries for ovarian cysts that ruptured as well as a thyroidectomy. I was taking multiple medications daily for thyroid replacement, epilepsy, syncope, and other problems. Shortly after becoming pregnant, my medical managed to get out of control and I instantly fell into a high risk pregnancy again. Kevin managed to stay back for the first couple of months out of the 15 month deployment because I was unable to care for myself and our kids and I was unable to drive for the length of my pregnancy. He was torn because he knew we needed him, but he also knew his guys and our country needed him.

My husband left when our son was days old and was away for almost a year. He left me the man I had fallen in love with; the one that was full of smiles and loved to joke around. He was up for going out and being around huge crowds. That was not the man that returned to me.  While deployed he faced many difficult daily missions. They lost 31 guys in combat and many more were injured. Kevin was involved in multiple IED attacks, mortars, RPG’s, VBED’s, and fire fights. He lead or tail gunner on a .50 cal. He saw his buddies injured or worse. He had to do things that he never imagined just to bring himself and his guys home. He has two or more permanent counts of TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) to the front area of his brain. With this he is unable to control his behavior, especially with anger and rage. He is unable to retain information or make decisions at all times. He has a short attention span and gets migraines like crazy. While over there, he was thrown from the turret, which is how he gained one count of TBI, leaving a gash on his head with a permanent knot, he broke his elbow, crushed and fractured vertebrae in his neck and back, and ended up with permanent nerve damage.  Through his daily missions, witnessing things that no person should ever see or do, living in a war zone, he came back a man that I didn’t know. He came home with severely chronic PTSD…. There I was, 24 years old and my world was just beginning to crash down around me and I had no idea what to do or what the future would hold.

Deployment Day, Early 2009
Not even twelve months later, we found ourselves preparing for yet again, another deployment. Fifteen months after returning from Iraq, he was placed on a special mission team as the NCO over ten other soldiers and was flying out before everyone else;  a month before everyone else with a two day warning. There I stood, at 25 years old telling my husband to stay safe and how much I loved him, and scared out of my mind! He was flying straight into Iraq and would be stationed on the Iraq/Iran border at Garryowen. The communication was not as good and daily they were attacked by RPG’s and Mortars. I will never forget on of the phone calls we were on. It was during my lunch break at work, an everyday phone call when allowed, when out of nowhere all I could hear was explosions and screams. Then I heard, “Oh shit. Baby, we are under attack. I have to go… I love you so much… Don’t forget that…” Then I heard the clinging of the phone dropping, followed by him yelling at everyone to get out and get to the bunker… My heart stopped and I felt as though I couldn’t breathe as I continued listening to him getting everyone out of the MWR and the explosions. They sounded like they were right there beside my head, yet for the life of me, I just could not hang up the phone.  I finally forced myself to hang up when all I could hear were the explosions around the phone, fully trembling and crying. Yet, I had no idea I was crying until I fully broke down in my truck. What if that was the last time I heard my husband’s voice? To this day, loud noises take me back to that day and still make me jump. Those were sounds I will never forget. My supervisor at work made me stay in the office that day because I was so shaky and having terrible breakdowns. It was a few hours later when my cell rang and his Skype number showed up on the caller I.D. When I answered it all I could do was cry. Kevin was real shaken up, kept apologizing for me having to experience that…but he was okay. He lost his wedding ring in the rush out, which amazingly he found in the sand the next day. He told me that was one of the worst attacks on that FOB since they had been there and they were literally dodging rockets as they hit the ground or their surroundings.  Recently he explained to me what exactly hit that day. They were hit with rockets…  There were four rockets wrapped around a drum. Inside the drum were bombs, nails, anything and everything that would be explosive, combustible, and would do damage upon impact. These ended up doing the most damage on their FOB. Luckily, no one was ever hit as a casualty from these.

Not too long after this incident, Kevin called me to tell me they were medevac’ing him due to the worsening of his injuries from the 2006/2007 deployment. The nerve damage had become so severe while deployed in 2009 that he could not extend his arms, open drinks, hold his weapons, grasp anything, and had lost all feeling in his fingers. My husband’s hands had fallen into a paralyzed state. Once he was back at Fort Bliss multiple tests were run, ending in him having to undergo two surgeries, one on each arm. He had to have an Ulnar Nerve Decompression and Replacement. Each arm was cut from mid bicep to a little past his elbow. Since then, he has gained most feeling back and can open and close his hands. He has about 75% pulling force in his hands, but only 35-40% pushing in each hand.

Last year, due to the severity of Kevin’s PTSD and TBI, the Mental Health doctors found it necessary to begin his medical discharge from the Army.  Shortly after the MEB (Medical Evaluation Board) process, the physical injuries and Sleep Apnea began being looked at more serious. At this time, we found out about that he has Squamous Cell Carcinoma, or skin cancer to make it easier. This stemmed from the time in the sun while deployed and he has yet gone into remission. We also learned of the Sleep Apnea which has led to the nightly CPCP machine, as well as the detailed information and severity of his physical injuries, all in which are from his deployments and the incidents he was involved in. Kevin has degenerative disc disease; bone spurs and crushed vertebrae in his neck and back, permanent nerve damage, and a few other things that I cannot recall right now. Aside from the Ulnar Nerve Decompression surgeries, he recently had spinal surgery. The C5-C6 disk was replaced in his neck and his C6-C7 was fused together.  He will be medically retired from the Army in the upcoming weeks from these things.

Just recently, I learned that my step-dad was supposed to be at the Twin Towers on September 11 for his normal meetings in NYC. See, he is Chief of Engineering for the company he works with. It is a normal thing for them to fly him quite often to NYC for the day to attend meetings. He was preparing to board a flight, when something out of the blue changed his plans. To this day, I have no idea what it was. But, I can’t help to look at it as a blessing in disguise. He would have been in one of the towers during the time that a plane flew into it, yet he wasn’t. I like to think that God works in mysterious ways and he saved my step-dad’s life. Upon learning this, my body was covered in chills and I had to worst sickening feeling just knowing he should have been there. This too changed the way I look at things.

Since September 11, 2001 our lives have changed dramatically in many aspects. The man I met, fell in love with, and married is no longer than man today. Yet, he is the man that I will always love and will always have my heart. His eyes no longer light up as they use to when he smiles. His laugh isn’t full and from the heart as it once was. His face has aged, as have his hands and the rest of his body. His thoughts are not that of the majority of people his age. He has seen more, witnessed more, acted on more, smelled more, and heard more than more than 99% of the United States has. Yet, even after all these changes, he is still my husband and the man I madly love. We now have to pay more attention to our surroundings and things that could become a trigger to his PTSD, I have taken on more as a wife and a mother since he cannot do as he use to or remember as he used to. Our kids live different lives than most their friends do. We have to explain things to our loved ones when it comes to the transition. Yet, looking back, as much as it breaks me to see his struggles, I really do not think either of us would change the past eight years. Yes, things are not at all what they use to be nor are they where we expected we would be at this point in our lives. However, this has all given us a better understanding and appreciation for the finer and simple things in life. Even though we have had to endure unimaginable changes, we have managed to remain strong and keep our marriage going. My husband did something that many other will never do; he enlisted in the army, willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for our safety and freedom. My husband is a true American Hero in our eyes and many others.  Though our lives will never be what is considered “normal”, with typical 9-5 jobs, eating dinner every night together at the table, or going out to family events, I wouldn’t trade my life for anything. We have to take days by the moments and never plan too far in advance, but that’s okay. Kevin is lucky to still be here and we will continue taking life by the day and sometimes by the moment.

Yes, there are many days I wish I could change the way things happened and the events of things over the past ten years. But, in the harsh reality of it all, I feel like the tragic events opened the eyes of many Americans. It proved our strength and love to this country. It brought many of us closer and showed that American’s will fight to keep our country and our people safe. We can’t dwell on the past, instead we have to all step up and make the best of today and the future that lies ahead. Through it all, may we never forget the tragic events of September 11 that in some way, big or small, has changed each and every one of us? My heart, thoughts, and prayers goes out to all the victims of 9/11, the Heroes that have stepped up over the past ten years, the Heroes of 9/11, the families that have lost, and every American.

Summer 2011

Submitted by Brittney Biddle
Proud wife of a OIF multiple Combat Vet
FOV Community Blog Coordinator

Friday, September 9, 2011

Learning From 9/11

My husband, Sean and I had only been dating at the time. I was still in high school, my sophomore year in fact. I was sitting in my homeroom class, which was graphic design, when the teacher next door burst in the door and yelled across the classroom, "Quick turn on the T.V. someone just flew a plane into the World Trade Center!". The room went quiet while our teacher turned on the T.V. for us to see. I remember watching the smoke coming out of the building after the first plane and then watching as the second plane hit. At first, I was scared because my brother is a flight attendant out of NYC and I wasn't sure if it was one of his planes that had been hijacked. Of course, at the time I had no way of contacting my family to find out if my brother was alright, and was stuck the whole day wondering till I got out of school.

I went the rest of the day in a kind of daze. People all around me were buzzing about what happened. I remember also hearing in passing about the plane that hit the Pentagon, which only heightened my fear for my Uncle, who was a Marine and worked at the Pentagon at the time. I remember being a bit angry too that I had no means of communication with my family because my parents wouldn't let me have a cell phone then.

When I went to lunch, I saw Sean standing where I normally sit with my friends.. He was in uniform and twirling his keys around. He told me he came to take me out of school. At first I was unsure about leaving, as I had never skipped class and I didn't want to get into trouble, but then I realized who knew what impact this was going to have. Besides, I only had P.E. left to go anyways. He took me to his house where both his parents were home sitting in front of the television watching the news coverage. So, we all just sat there watching everything for a few hours before Sean took me home.

Sean had been debating back and forth about joining the military. He said he's always wanted to ever since he was a child because his father was a Marine. I wasn't too happy about it in the beginning because I was thinking selfishly about him being so far away from us and not being able to be together. That night on September 11, 2001, he told me that after what had happened, his decision was made. He was joining as soon as he could. I didn't protest anymore because I knew from then on things would be different for us.

Whereas my brother and uncle did turn out to be find that day, Sean has paid the hefty price since.

I have often felt everything happens for a reason. Perhaps, I was always meant to be with Sean to help be a patient, loving, and caring wife he needed in order to work through the trials he faced. Perhaps Sean's PTSD, TBI, and physical disabilities weren't so much as a way to punish Sean, but perhaps to help teach others. I know that since we had children, we have done our best to teach them about the realities one can face in life. I know we have shown our son some of the footage from the tragic day and done our best to explain how one never knows when something like that can strike and so it's imperative to prepare as best as you can for anything. We can't prevent things from happening, but we can at least learn from the events of 9/11 and the trials we have faced since and do our level best to teach our children as well as others and perhaps be able to lessen the tragic affect such things can have.

The Taylor Family, September 2011

Submitted by Aimee Taylor, a proud wife of a combat veteran.