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

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