SEAL Team 6 operators who went in to attack a compound used by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula did not have a compromised mission, but instead were confronted by an enemy that was more prepared than the commandos expected.
According to a report by the Washington Times, planning for the Jan. 29 raid assumed that family members would not be able or willing to fight the SEALs, prompting them to bypass one of the houses in the compound.
The SEALs came under fire from women who picked up rifles during the raid. The unexpectedly fierce firefight meant that the SEALs were unable to collect as much intelligence as they had hoped to, the report said. Civilian casualties also occurred during the raid.
The raid has been criticized by many, including Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), the Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. McCain has consistently labeled the raid in which Senior Chief Petty Officer William Owens was killed a “failure.”
Despite the unexpected firefight, the civilian casualties, and the fact that less intelligence was gathered than they hoped for, an after-action review conducted by Central Command could not identify any bad judgment, incompetence, conflicting information or other issues.
“I think we had a good understanding of exactly what happened on [the] objective and we’ve been able to pull lessons learned out of that that we will apply in future operations,” Gen. Joseph Votel, the Army officer who runs CENTCOM, told a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. “And as a result, I made the determination that there was no need for an additional investigation into this particular operation.”
The previous special operations raid into Yemen, carried out by American forces, took place in December, 2014. The objective was to rescue an American photojournalist and a South African teacher. The hostages were executed by terrorists during the raid.
US Navy destroyer USS Porter with other ships during exercise Sea Breeze in the Black Sea, July 25, 2020. (US Navy/Courtesy of Ukrainian Navy)
The long-awaited announcement about the redeployment of thousands of US troops currently in Germany finally came at the end of July.
US officials, including Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Gen. Tod Wolters, who heads US European Command, outlined the moves and the strategic reasoning behind them. President Donald Trump immediately undercut their remarks, but their references to the Black Sea reflect how the region is a growing point of tension with Russia.
“We’re moving forces out of Central Europe, Germany, where they had been since the Cold War,” Esper said. “We’re following, in many ways, the boundary east [to] where our newest allies are, so into the Black Sea region” as well as Poland and the Baltics.
The shift means European Command will “now be able to rotate units in perpetuity in multiple locations,” including the Black Sea, which “dramatically improves our operational capability,” Wolters said.
‘The Kremlin sees that’
Moscow, the most powerful Black Sea state, invaded neighboring Georgia in 2008. Tensions have remained high since Russia’s 2014 seizure of Crimea from Ukraine.
“The Black Sea region is what the Kremlin uses launch its operations in Syria and Libya and the Eastern [Mediterranean],” Ben Hodges, who commanded US Army Europe between 2015 and 2017, told Insider. “It’s how they influence everything that goes on in the Balkans and the Caucuses as well as obviously Ukraine and Moldova.”
Hodges is one of many who criticized the redeployment of European Command forces, arguing it doesn’t improve readiness and that the manner in which it’s being done hurts NATO.
“Having said that, I always welcome any additional focus on the Black Sea region, because I think that … needs to be a much higher priority,” Hodges said, adding that Esper’s suggestion that a Stryker brigade could be deployed to the region was “a very good idea.”
“Increasing [NATO] naval presence in the Black Sea region really is even more important,” as the Turkish, Romanian, Bulgarian, and Ukrainian navies are “still not a match for the Russian Black Sea Fleet,” Hodges said.
Hodges cautioned that the coming months — with an ongoing drought in Crimea, US and Ukrainian elections, and Moscow’s major Kavkaz-2020 military exercise in southwestern Russia — could see more Russian action.
But the combination of factors creates an opening, Hodges said.
“Given the inconsistent response by this administration in the United States, and other than EU sanctions on Russia there hasn’t been that much in the way of real, firm response in the region” to Russian actions, Hodges said. “I think the Kremlin sees that.”
Ukrainian navy ships during exercise Sea Breeze in the Black Sea, July 21, 2020. (US Navy/Courtesy of Ukrainian Navy)
‘The increasingly important Black Sea’
In June, Adm. James Foggo, outgoing commander of US naval forces in Europe, said eight US ships spent about 120 days patrolling the Black Sea last year and “routinely” conduct “complex exercises” like Sea Breeze with allies and partners.
The US military has increased its presence in the area in recent years, and the 20th iteration of Sea Breeze, a Ukrainian-US exercise with other Black Sea and NATO nations, was the latest example.
“Every visit to the Black Sea encompasses working together with our partners and growing our interoperability,” Cmdr. Craig Trent, commanding officer of Navy destroyer USS Porter, told Insider. “Together, we executed a complex, multi-warfare exercise all without stepping foot ashore for face-to-face planning due to COVID mitigations.”
US sailors conduct simulated small boat attacks from USS Porter during Sea Breeze, July 22, 2020. (US Navy/Interior Communication Electrician 2nd Class Jeffrey Abelon)
This year it included more than 40 ships and aircraft from eight countries. The Porter was there on its third Black Sea patrol in five months.
The destroyer “conducted surface action group tactical maneuvering, over-the-horizon surface targeting, air defense, and anti-submarine operations,” Trent said.
The Porter worked with a US P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft “to share a common tactical maritime picture” and “with Ukrainian tactical aircraft during the air-defense exercises,” Trent said.
The P-8A worked with ships and aircraft, including Ukrainian Su-27 fighter jets, on undersea warfare and air-intercept training, Cmdr. M. Trever Plageman, head of Patrol Squadron 47, told Insider. (Russian planes frequently intercept US aircraft over the Black Sea, including during Sea Breeze.)
USS Porter and an Air Force MC-130J exercise together during Sea Breeze, July 20, 2020. (US Navy)
The Black Sea “provides complex training opportunities, which enhance aircrew proficiency for littoral undersea warfare,” Plageman said. “Of equal importance was the cooperative interaction with allies and other partner nations, which improved our squadron’s interoperability within the increasingly important Black Sea region.”
The Porter also worked with the US Air Force on “air defense and surface-to-air integration of systems,” Trent said.
During Sea Breeze, US Air Forces Europe led a one-day mission with Navy and Space Command assets “to train US forces to integrate, operate, and communicate while executing all domain operations,” according to a release.
It included F-16s that “conducted training scenarios” using Joint Air-to-Surface Missile cruise missile tactics. The JASSM is a long-range “precision standoff missile” designed “to destroy high-value, well-defended targets.” US Special Operations Command Europe also sent an MC-130J aircraft “to exercise special operations forces insertion.”
Sea Breeze concluded on July 26, but on August 2, the Navy and Air Force conducted a similar exercise in the area — with live weapons.
The Navy’s elite SEAL teams have taken on a lot of America’s enemies, and have proceeded to kick ass and take names. Now, though, they are facing a potential challenge from within — a streak of drug use.
According to a report by CBSNews.com, five SEALs were kicked out for drug use in a three-month period late last year, prompting a safety stand-down.
“I feel like I’m watching our foundation, our culture, erode in front of our eyes,” Capt. Jamie Sands, Commodore of Naval Special Warfare Group 2, said in a video of a meeting carried out during the December 2016 stand-down.
“I feel betrayed,” Sands added. “How do you do that to us? How do you decide that it’s OK for you to do drugs?”
One of three SEALs who went to CBS News outlined some of the drugs allegedly being used.
“People that we know of, that we hear about have tested positive for cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, marijuana, ecstasy,” the SEAL said in an interview. CBS disguised the SEAL’s voice and concealed his identity.
Leadership in Naval Special Warfare Group 2 viewed the drug use situation as “staggering,” according to the CBS News report. One of the SEALs who went to CBS said that “it has gotten to a point where he had to deal with it.”
“I hope he’s somebody that we can rally behind and hold people accountable, but I’m not sure at this point,” the SEAL added.
One thing Sands has done has been to carry out drug testing even when away from their home bases, something not always done in the past.
“We’re going to test on the road,” Sands told the SEALs in a video released to CBS News. “We’re going to test on deployment. If you do drugs, if you decide to be that selfish individual, which I don’t think anyone’s going to do after today — I believe that — then you will be caught.”
During the stand-down, drug testing was done, and one SEAL who had earlier tested positive for cocaine ended up testing positive again, this time for prescription drugs. That SEAL is being kicked out.
New reports have emerged that a Royal Saudi navy frigate has been attacked off the coast of Yemen by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, killing two Saudi sailors.
According to a report by TheDrive.com, the Houthi rebels released a video showing an al Madinah-class frigate’s stern being enveloped by an explosion. According to Reuters, Saudi state media reported that three small boats attacked the frigate — one of which was a suicide boat that rammed the frigate’s stern.
Iran claimed that an anti-ship missile was used. A report by the Saudi Press Agency indicated the unnamed frigate was continuing its patrol operations despite the attack.
A line drawing of the al Madinah-class frigates in the 16th Edition of Combat Fleets of the World shows that it has four 533mm torpedo tubes in the stern. Each tube carries a French F17P wire-guided torpedo. According to navweaps.com, the F17P has a range of just over 18 miles and can carry a 551-pound high-explosive warhead.
A similar attack with small boats targeted the former HSV-2 Swift in October using RPGs to cause a fire and serious damage to the vessel. The Yemeni coast is also where a series of anti-ship missile attacks on the guided-missile destroyer USS Mason (DDG 87) took place.
The destroyer USS Nitze (DDG 94) fired Tomahawk cruise missiles at radar stations in Houthi territory in response to the failed attacks on the Mason. The guided-missile destroyer USS Cole (DDG 67) was severely damaged by a suicide boat in the port of Aden in 2000, killing 17 sailors and wounding 39, according to the Naval History and Heritage Command website.
Video of the attack shows the explosion hitting roughly where the stern torpedo tubes would be. Combat Fleets of the World notes that the stern section also houses a pad and hangar used for a SA-365F Dauphin helicopter, equipped with AS-15TT anti-ship missiles and anti-submarine torpedoes.
Several apparent secondary explosions – smaller than the initial blast – indicate some of those may have cooked off after the initial explosion and fire.
Check out the video of the explosion on the Saudi frigate below:
In the 2016 election, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has struggled to get solid backing from some influential groups that many believe are part of the typical GOP constituency.
But on Tuesday, he received an endorsement he didn’t seem to have to fight to earn.
Retired general-grade officers, some 88 in all, wrote in support of a Trump presidency in an open letter that was published on his campaign website. The letter was organized by Maj. Gen. Sidney Shachnow and Rear Adm. Charles Williams and includes four four-star and 14 three-star generals and admirals.
They argue that Democrat presidential candidate Hillary Clinton is the wrong choice for a strong military and that a Trump White House would restore American ranks.
“As retired senior leaders of America’s military, we believe that such a change can only be made by someone who has not been deeply involved with, and substantially responsible for, the hollowing out of our military and the burgeoning threats facing our country around the world,” the letter reads, arguing against supporting Clinton.
And Trump was happy to have the senior former military leaders’ backing.
“It is a great honor to have such amazing support from so many distinguished retired military leaders,” Trump said in a statement on his website. “Keeping our nation safe and leading our armed forces is the most important responsibility of the presidency.”
Clinton has received some endorsements from former general officers, including former Marine Gen. John Allen, who was instrumental in helping bring down al Qaeda in Iraq in Anbar Province.
But the letter comes at a time when former flag officers are coming under fire for their overt political support. In a letter to the Washington Post, retired Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said retired officers made a “mistake” by speaking at political conventions.
The former top military leader criticized retired Gens. John Allen and Michael Flynn for breaking the tradition of retired generals remaining apolitical.
“Politicians should take the advice of senior military leaders but keep them off the stage,” Dempsey wrote. “The American people should not wonder where their military leaders draw the line between military advice and political preference. … And our nation’s soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines should not wonder about the political leanings and motivations of their leaders.”
It’s not yet known what effect general officers backing Donald Trump in such force will have. With Election Day just nine weeks away, Trump pulled ahead of Clinton by 2 percent in the latest CNN/ORC poll.
Editor’s Note: This page was last updated at 1:29p.m. PST.
Reports of a “serious incident” are surfacing from Fort Sill, located north of Lawton, Oklahoma. Currently, several buildings are on lockdown and official channels are advising people to “stay away from [these] areas at this time.”
The locked-down buildings mentioned above are located within the encircled area.
[Update – 11:39 a.m. PST] According to Stars and Stripes, a public affairs officer has reported that the situation is “all clear.”
[Update – 1:29 p.m. PST] Official reports have surfaced that explain a former Fort Sill employee was detained and his vehicle was searched. The previously mentioned buildings were locked down as a security measure and the situation has been resolved.
At present, all we know is that it was not a bomb threat.
This page will be updated as the situation develops and details emerge.
The Army in April will begin sending hand-picked female soldiers through its physically demanding Ranger school, where some may earn the Ranger tab as part of an overall military assessment of the fitness of women for the combat arms.
About 60 female soldiers will take part alongside male soldiers in the program that begins April 20 – Ranger Course 06-15, Army spokesman Lt. Col. Benjamin Garrett said in a statement.
“Those who meet the standards and graduate from the course will receive a certificate and be awarded the Ranger tab,” he said.
About half the volunteers – 20 noncommissioned officers and 11 officers – will serve as observers and advisors. Females who successfully complete the course will not be awarded associated Ranger skill identifiers because the law does not currently allow it. The additional skill identifier is added to a soldier’s military occupational specialty.
“The decision to change that or not … will be made by the Secretary of Defense no later than Jan. 1, 2016 when he determines if women will be permitted to become infantry soldiers and serve in other closed military occupational specialties,” the Army said in September.
The historic trial pilot program and assessment comes amid increasing demand in recent years to open up to women all military specialties, including infantry. Army leadership is open to the idea, but insists there will be no lowering of standards.
“We’re just going to let the statistics speak for themselves as we go through this,” Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno said during a virtual town hall meeting with soldiers earlier this month. “The main thing I’m focused on is the standards remain the same. In order to earn that tab, you have to do all the things necessary to earn that tab. We want to try a pilot to let women have the opportunity to do that.”
The training is physically grueling, with soldiers required to pass a fitness test that includes 49 push-ups within 2 minutes, 59 sit-ups, a 5 mile run within 40 minutes and six chin-ups. Additionally, would-be Rangers must be able to remove their gear in water and then swim 15 meters in their uniform and boots.
Army statistics show that only about 45 percent of those attending Ranger school graduate, and about 60 percent of those who wash out do so in the first four days.
How female students will fare remains to be seen, but past studies have indicated they are likely more often to sustain injuries associated with combat training and combat than their male counterparts.
The problem is simply body size and mechanics, according to Department of Veterans Affairs’ doctors who have dealt with and studied injuries, including the kind most often sustained by troops in Iraq and Afghanistan – musculoskeletal.
These are incurred simply by carrying heavy loads during long patrols over rugged country, while getting down from a vehicle or simply falling.
“I don’t think there is a way now to say exactly what the experience will be, but I expect as more and more women go into these physically demanding roles, we may see an increase in [these] injuries,” Dr. Sally Haskell, deputy chief consultant for women’s health services and director of comprehensive women’s health at the Veterans Affairs Department told Military.com a year ago.
The VA’s national director of physical medicine and rehabilitation said in April 2013 that he “was certain the majority of women doing this [combat arms specialty] won’t be physically able to do it as long as the men. It’s a matter of body size and body mechanics.”
One study found that between 2004 and 2007 about a third of medical evacuations from the Iraq and Afghan theaters were due to musculoskeletal, connective tissue and spinal injuries, Dr. David Cifu told Military.com.
Troops may carry 80 pounds or more of gear in theater. Cifu said women carrying the same loads as men will be more at risk of these kinds of injuries.
The pilot Ranger School program has been made open to enlisted women from grades E-4 up to Warrant Officer 02. Additionally, the Army drew on female volunteers in grades E-6 to E-8, Warrant Officer 2 and 3, and first lieutenant through major to serve as observers and advisors.
All the volunteers will be required to take the Army National Guard Ranger Training and Assessment Course at Fort Benning, Georgia, before the assessment course, the Army said when it announced the program in September.
The course observers will be required to pass a fitness test, land navigation, a combat water survival assessment, an operations order test, 12-mile road march with 35-pound rucksack, and review boards. As observers they must be able to keep up to the Ranger School students and instructors, the announcement said.
Special operators are often America’s 911 call, flying to the scene of emergencies and safeguarding American interests while outnumbered and sometimes outgunned. Years of training and military exercises hone them into deadly weapons.
But it takes a lot of logistics to get the premier warfighters from their home bases or staging areas and into the fight, ready to kill or be killed on America’s behalf. Here’s a glimpse of the process:
1. Step one of deploying special operators is preparing gear and recalling personnel.
2. Operators and support personnel rush vehicles and other gear to loading areas. The exact makeup depends on the planned mission.
3. The vehicles are secured for transport. Often, this means the gear is going into planes. Gear that will roll off is secured to the plane itself while gear that will be airdropped is typically secured to a pallet.
4. Operators sometimes take part in securing their gear since it guarantees that it will come out as expected on the objective.
5. Once the gear is ready to go, the personnel have to get strapped in. While these guys are strapping on parachutes, some missions require they run off the ramp on the ground instead.
6. Attention to detail is critical since any mistake on the objective can cost lives.
7. While MC-130Js are one of the more famous planes for special operators, there are plenty of other aircraft that will do the job, such as this MC-12.
8. Or Black Hawks… Black Hawks are good.
9. Of course, operators on the ground like to have fire support, and they can’t be guaranteed artillery on the ground. So they’ll often fly in with extra firepower as well.
10. The AC-130s can bring everything from 20mm miniguns to 105mm howitzers. The typical modern armament is 25-105mm cannons. Jets and helicopters can bring the boom when necessary.
11. And then the operators get to work, grabbing bad guys, ending threats, and chewing bubble gum.
A view of the offices of the KGB in the Lubyanka Building, 1985 (Wikimedia Commons).
If you ask any old school spies working in the clandestine service, they’ll tell you the Cuban government had the best spies in the world. When asked who the second best spies were, they’ll probably say it was the KGB.
Foreign intelligence was just one of the KGB’s many missions during the era of the Soviet Union. They pretty much did any dirty work the Communist government of the USSR wanted them to do, and some the party bosses probably didn’t want.
The KGB’s record was far from flawless but they were decisive, lethal, and unforgiving. Here are the best intelligence coups they ever pulled off.
1. Obtaining nuclear weapons technology
During World War II, the USSR’s foreign intelligence unit was then called the NKVD but it was no less capable and its mission was the same. The Soviet Union launched an all-out effort to infiltrate the governments of its wartime allies to capture defense and policy secrets. It was so effective, the KNVD knew about the Manhattan Project before the FBI, but it still needed to get access to the research.
At the time, the idea of communism wasn’t as distasteful as it is today, and many scientists and intellectuals were enamored with the concept. Due to Soviet disinformation, the mass starvation, show trials and forced relocations in the USSR weren’t common knowledge. Manhattan Project scientist Klaus Fuchs supplied the Soviets with the information they needed to build a bomb of their own. He would later provide them with information to build a hydrogen bomb.
2. Saving Russian hostages in Lebanon
During the Lebanese Civil War, terrorist organizations discovered that kidnapping was an effective means of raising money and inspiring terror in western governments. Over the course of a decade, at least 100 hostages were taken in Beirut and the surrounding areas. Only one Soviet citizen was kidnapped and killed because the KGB doesn’t mess around.
In September 1984, four Soviet diplomats were abducted. One was killed and found later in the streets of the city. With the other three still missing, the KGB abducted a relative of a prominent Hezbollah leader and sent pieces of the man to Hezbollah as a warning. The three Soviet diplomats were dropped off near the Soviet embassy shortly after.
3. Bugging the US Ambassador’s office in Moscow
What better way is there to get information about your primary adversary than installing a listening device in the office of the representative of its government? The Soviet Union managed to do this before the Cold War even started.
In the final weeks of World War II in Europe, the USSR presented U.S. Ambassador to Moscow, W. Averell Harriman, with a carved wooden Seal of the United States as a gift of friendship. Harriman put it in the Ambassador’s study, where it hung until 1952… when the device was found.
4. Hijacking Training
At the height of the Cold War, in the 1960s and 1970s, the Soviet Union was already having trouble keeping up with the United States’ defense and intelligence spending. Somewhere along the way, the Soviet Union decided that nuclear weapons pretty much made direct confrontation with NATO or the United States obsolete. So they decided to go a different way.
The KGB began to train terrorists worldwide in many of the tactics we’re all too familiar with to this day. It also financed the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) while training its membership to hijack aircraft. In 1969 alone, the KGB-trained terrorists hijacked 82 planes.
5. Strategic Air Command’s Retaliation Plan
Learning exactly what the enemy will do when a war breaks out is the chief goal of information gathering by spies and their agents. The Soviet Union was able to get its hands on this information from the U.S. through a KGB-controlled agent in 1959. This agent was Army Lt. Col. William H. Whalen.
Whalen was a World War II-era intelligence officer but his last assignment with the Army was working with the Joint Chiefs of Staff. For two years, he passed information about Strategic Air Command’s nuclear retaliation plan with the Soviet Union through a KGB officer, Mikhail A. Shumaev. Shumaev eventually returned to the USSR, but Whalen was discovered and arrested in 1966 and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Thousands of U.S. troops who have deployed in support of the mission against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, are now eligible for a new medal, officials announced.
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter made announced the creation of the Operation Inherent Resolve medal during a change of command ceremony on Wednesday at U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida.
Carter segued into the announcement while noting that CentCom’s outgoing leader, ArmyGen. Lloyd Austin, and his successor, Army Gen. Joe Votel, have both “across their careers … demonstrated what can be described as inherent resolve.
“It is fitting then, that as we mark the change of command between these two leaders, that we introduce today the Inherent Resolve Campaign Medal,” the secretary said.
“I am pleased to announce today, by the president’s order and upon [Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr.] and my recommendation, that our sailors, soldiers,airmen, and Marines serving in Iraq and Syria as part of Operation Inherent Resolve are eligible for this medal and distinction,” he added.
“As we continue to accelerate our counter-ISIL campaign, we will continue to depend upon the men and women of CentCom,” Carter said. “It is you who provide us the flexibility to respond to any threat across a critical region.”
President Barack Obama on Wednesday issued an executive order establishing the medal to service members who “serve or have served in Iraq, Syria, or contiguous waters or airspace on or after June 15, 2014.”
With the operation still going on, an end-date for medal eligibility has yet to be established.
To qualify for the new medal, a service member must have been present in Iraq, Syria or the contiguous waters or airspace of either country on or after June 15, 2014, for at least 30 consecutive or 60 non-consecutive days, according to the Defense Department.
Service members who were killed or were medically evacuated from the campaign theater due to wounds or injuries immediately qualify for award, as do members who engaged in combat.
Troops awarded the Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal for their service in Iraq and Syria after the start of Operation Inherent Resolve remain qualified for the older medal. They can apply to their military branch to be awarded the new medal, but may not receive both medals for the same act, achievement or period of service, officials said.
Service members serving deployed outside of Iraq and Syria for Operation Inherent Resolve will continue to be awarded the expeditionary medal.
The moment Otto Catalan had waited almost two decades for had finally arrived. Sitting in a small office, surrounded by his doctors and other medical staff, the blind U.S. Navy Veteran could only hope for one thing: to see the face of his teenage son for the first time.
“I see a lot of flashes, and they’re getting brighter,” he said. “Wow. It’s amazing.”
He turned his head to the right and saw bright flashes of light reflecting off the white coat of Miami VA Chief of Ophthalmology Dr. Ninel Gregori. When he turned to the left to talk with his son, he paused and began to cry. Gregori hugged him.
“Thank you very much, guys,” he said. “I’ll work hard, so I can see. It’s been 19 years, and I have been able to see my son. Thank you. Thank you so much.”
Catalan is keeping true to his word and continuing to work hard to learn how to use his new Argus® II prosthesis or “bionic eye.” Even though he struggled for years to come to terms with the loss of his sight, Catalan now feels optimistic about moving forward and beginning a new life.
“I’m learning something new everyday,” he said. “This prosthetic will help me be more successful in life. It’s already helping me be more mobile at home, and it’s going to make a big difference for me at work.”
Catalan’s struggles with vision loss began in 1989, when he was serving as a ship serviceman in the U.S. Navy. While he was on guard duty aboard a ship in the middle of the Persian Gulf, everything suddenly went dark.
“It felt like I was walking in the dark,” he said. “I told my superior officer, and he sent me to a doctor, but they couldn’t find out what it was. We went back to Virginia. They did extensive tests, and that’s when they found out I had retinitis pigmentosa.”
Catalan was scared when he heard the diagnosis. He never heard of retinitis pigmentosa and didn’t know what it would mean for his future. He was immediately removed from the ship and sent to rehab, and would eventually be medically separated from the military.
What is retinitis pigmentosa?
“Retinitis pigmentosa is one of the most common inherited diseases we see in ophthalmology,” Gregori said. “For people with this condition and certainly in Mr. Catalan’s case, the retina becomes very thin, and the photoreceptors, which convert light into electrical signals, gradually die off over time. Initially, peripheral vision, or the side vision, goes away, and then finally the central vision disappears.”
Catalan’s eyesight continued to deteriorate. Still needing to make money, he took a job as a cook. As his conditioned worsened, he struggled to tell if food was cooked and even burned himself multiple times. It was at this point that Catalan knew he needed help, so he went to the Northport VA Medical Center in New York.
“My doctors told me I needed to start preparing because I was going to be permanently blind soon,” he said. “After I heard that, I remember crying all the time. I couldn’t even hear someone say the word ‘see’ because I would burst into tears.”
The Northport VAMC referred Catalan to the VA Connecticut Healthcare System to participate in its Eastern Blind Rehabilitation Service’s three-month training program. While sitting through the training sessions and listening to the instructors and other Veterans, Catalan unexpectedly learned a valuable life lesson.
“Once I met other blind Vietnam Veterans at VA Connecticut and saw how well they were dealing with their situation, I never cried about my own condition again,” he said.
Throughout the program, he also learned to perform everyday tasks, such as shave his face, eat with utensils, identify clothing and walk with a cane. He stayed an additional two months to learn to use a computer and screen-reader technology.
Moving to Florida
In 2005, Catalan heard about ophthalmology research being conducted at the Miami VA Healthcare System and the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute, which serves as the ophthalmology department of the University of Miami Health System. He moved his family to Cutler Bay, Florida and transferred his care to the then Miami VA Medical Center—where he worked with Roberta Goldstein, now retired Miami VA visual impairment services team coordinator.
“Roberta was great,” he said. “She referred me to the prosthetics department at the West Palm Beach VAMC, so I could get equipment to help me go back to work. She’s the best.”
Shortly after receiving his prosthetics equipment, Catalan landed a job as a resource specialist with Marriott Hotels—where he still works today. He says Marriott has been accommodating to his condition, and he hopes to be considered for promotion one day.
In March 2015, he received a phone call that would help his chances of getting that long-awaited promotion and also change his life.
One of my hopes was to see my son’s face for the first time
When he heard about the “bionic eye,” Catalan requested an evaluation for the device at the Miami VA Eye Clinic. With the help of the low vision Miami VA team, Gregori selected him for the Argus II® screening evaluation and personally called his home to ask if he was still interested.
“He was a perfect candidate,” Gregori said. “His personality was extremely important. With artificial vision, the patient must have the patience to learn to interpret the lights and images he or she is seeing. Learning to use the Argus II is like learning a new language, so individuals with both an optimistic personality and a strong willingness to work hard are the best candidates for the technology.”
Dr. Gregori is the Miami VA chief of ophthalmology and an associate professor of clinical ophthalmology at the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute. In 2004, she was part of the surgical team that implanted the first Argus II® retinal prosthesis in a Florida patient, a non-Veteran from Tampa. She was eager to bring the new technology to the Miami VA, where she proudly serves South Florida Veterans and has lead the ophthalmology department for the past 10 years.
“Miami VA Medical Center Director Paul Russo and Chief of Surgery Dr. Seth Spector both enthusiastically welcomed the idea of making the bionic eye available to our Veterans. It would not have been possible without their support,” Gregori said.
It felt like I had just given somebody the best Christmas present
Catalan underwent surgery to implant the Argus® II, a new prosthesis approved in 2013 by the Food and Drug Administration to treat people with end-stages of retinitis pigmentosa, at the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute on Nov. 24, 2015. Catalan’s bionic eye was activated Dec. 11 by the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute’s biomedical engineers, under the supervision of Miami VA’s Dr. Ninel Gregori. Even though Gregori and her team had already been through the experience of turning on the prosthesis with a previous patient, Catalan’s moment was emotional nonetheless.
“When it was turned on, Mr. Catalan started crying, and it brought tears to my eyes,” Gregori said. “It felt like I just gave somebody the best Christmas present I had ever given to anybody in my life. That’s why I went into ophthalmology.”
“After 19 years, the first thing I saw was my son’s face,” Catalan said. “I could also see Dr. Gregori, and when we walked around the hall, I was able to tell where the door and window frames were for the first time. That might not mean a lot to other people, but it meant so much to me.”
Catalan continues to work with the Miami VA Blind Rehabilitation Team, lead by optometrist Dr. Kasey Zann, to learn how to use the Argus II® in his everyday life. Blind Rehabilitation Outpatient Specialist Linh Pham visits his home and trains him to use the device in his home environment and in public. He also works regularly with Gregori and her team at the Miami VA Eye Clinic.
“The Miami VA Healthcare System has amazing low vision and blind rehabilitation resources for Veterans. It is an ideal setting for rehabilitation after Argus II implantation,” Gregori said.
At home, Catalan now sees objects and walls, and can even see lights and motion on his television for the first time. His next goal is to learn to use his new computer at work. After his training, he will be able to see shapes, the different windows and letters on his computer screen.
During an outing with his family in early 2015, Catalan was surprised to see a sight he had not seen in years.
“On New Year’s Eve, I was able to see the fireworks outside for the first time in 19 years. My mouth stayed open for a while,” he said. “Now, when I’m walking on the grass, I can see the lines where the grass is versus where the sidewalk is. The fact that I’m walking outside and can see the lights makes it all worth it.”
About the Argus® II Retinal Prosthesis System
The Argus® II Retinal Prosthesis System—made by Second Sight Medical Products, Inc.—is an artificial retina, or bionic eye, that converts images into light and uses a miniature video camera that is mounted on a pair of glasses, said Gregori. Once the images are converted, they are wirelessly transmitted to a surgically implanted prosthesis located in the patient’s eye. The implant then stimulates the retina to produce an image that is sent to the brain for interpretation.
Generations are evolving faster these days and are palpably different in culture and norms than the World War II-era soldier, the oldest living veteran group. Culture progresses rapidly, adapting to trends and reflective of the times. The military, however, remains steadfast in many of her ways out of necessity and tradition. Her ways hold a standard, to which all who raise the hand are meant to uphold, to adapt to and strive for. Today, when individuality and acceptance reign supreme, it is more important than ever for young service members to look far beyond the benefits package, and into the legacy they are inheriting through their service.
When all the noise, distractions and selfish human tendencies are removed from view, the life of a service member hasn’t strayed too much historically. It looks a lot like mere humans foregoing themselves for the greater good. If today’s soldier can merely tap into the deep river of pride which they’ve inherited, the hardships begin to feel a little less hard.
Disconnection serves a purpose
It takes a minute to remember that connectivity to the world is not a foundational human right. It may be deeply ingrained in our habits, and feel hopelessly cruel to remove, but is not essential to life. Adapting to a life of disconnection is a requirement, not a suggestion in raising successful soldiers.
Today’s battlefront is both visible and invisible, as cyber warfare has become a real and formidable threat. At the most obvious level, a connected soldier on mission poses a risk for operational security. Another layer in comes the mental preparedness it takes to obtain the highest level of situational awareness, which cannot come from a constant buzz of social media feed disrupting your focus. Complacency on the battlefield is deadly. A momentary loss of focus may be the difference between life and death, and it might not be yours.
It may cause you to miss today’s viral video, or even to fall a few steps behind in the life you’re used to living. But remember, you signed up to answer a different call, one which forces you to leave the world at home behind to fight for its protection.
It’s a dark and violent world
Humanity is making strides towards kindness. Towards accepting that some are more sensitive than others, and that sensitivity should not be met with ridicule. While everyday-America seems to have more and more designated safe places to avoid unpleasantries popping up, she’s sending her youth into the same old horrors of the dark world.
When it comes to preparing mentally to not just operate but to survive what may come, the success or failure of a soldier lies in the ability to remove oneself from humanity. To walk adjacent to reality, viewing the enemy as a target, the one your training prepared you to face. Getting comfortable with uncomfortable is the first step. Reading firsthand accounts, interviews or books written by veterans who lived it may prove to be a valuable memory to recall when seeing war with your own eyes.
It’s really not personal
There’s a reason why giving up individuality is essential, but that doesn’t make it any easier to do when it goes against today’s culture. You’ll have to forget everything you’re used to- from saying “no” or “why” to standing out. Full-spectrum warfare relies on the success of interdependent and individual units carrying out mission orders with minimal disruption.
While there remains a time and place to innovate or prove your intelligence, carrying out orders, should for the most part, be without question. A service member must be able to walk the fine line between following lawful orders of their leaders and being able to decipher if those orders become immoral or unethical. Stopping in the middle of the street to question your Squad Leader about why you are clearing a building is not appropriate, but one must be able to judge the situation and circumstance prior to asking.
It’s important for any new service member to truly adapt to their new life. To do the job that few could, means living a life like few could either.