Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned the US not to “play with fire” in Syria after a massive escalation in violence took place on all sides of the multi-faceted conflict early February 2018.
“The US should stop playing very dangerous games which could lead to the dismemberment of the Syrian state,” Lavrov said at a Middle East conference in Moscow on Feb. 19, 2018, according to Bloomberg.
The US has already announced plans to keep Syria divided until UN-sanctioned elections can take place across Syria, and it’s made it clear it will respond with force when Russian, Iranian, or Syrian forces threaten that goal.
On Feb. 7, 2018, a group of pro-government fighters, who were reportedly majority Russian military contractors, launched what the US called an “unprovoked attack” on one of its positions in eastern Syria. The US responded with airstrikes and shelling killing between 100 and 300, according to a variety of reports.
US not going anywhere as hellish fighting ramps up on all sides
Lavrov also spoke of another front in the Syrian conflict, saying that he and his allies in Iran and Syria “are seeing attempts to exploit the Kurds’ aspirations,” a reference to the US’s support for Kurdish militias in northern Syria, who aspire to a state all their own.
Turkey views the Kurdish militia as part of a terror group and there is strong popular support in the country for an operation to clear the Kurds off its borders. Allegations of human rights abuses and shocking videos depicting violence against captured, unarmed Kurds have come out of the conflict in northern Syria as the US stands by its Kurdish ally, whom they credit for defeating ISIS in the region.
Turkey has announced its intentions to start shelling the Kurdish town of Afrin in the coming days.
Also during mid-February 2018, Israel launched a massive air campaign against Iranian targets in Syria and lost an F-16 to Syrian air defenses. Syria and Russia now stand accused by an opposition figure of launching a “new holocaust” in rebel-held pockets of Syria, where some 98 people, including women and children, were reported killed on Feb. 19, 2018.
“No words will do justice to the children killed, their mothers, their fathers and their loved ones,” UNICEF’s regional director Geert Cappalaere began a release on the Syrian government’s recent bombing campaign. UNICEF left part of the statement blank to express its frustration.
It’s unclear what “fire” Lavrov referenced in Syria, as the country has been in conflict for seven years.
What is clear is that the US has a new foreign policy direction in the country, and it isn’t afraid of fighting Iran, Syria, and Russia to keep Assad and Tehran out of power in the besieged country.
As any career military person knows, the job is next to impossible without support on the homefront. And making that support happen isn’t easy.
So in honor of #MilitarySpouseAppreciationDay (let’s get it trending, people), WATM presents our choices for 5 times Hollywood did right by military spouses (considering Hollywood’s ability to get it right, period, of course):
1. Madeleine Stowe as Julie Moore in “We Were Soldiers” (2002)
Madeleine Stowe portrays Julie Moore, wife of Lt. Col. Hal Moore, the commander of the Army unit that finds itself in the middle of the first major battle of the Vietnam War. Stowe does a great job of showing Julie’s support for her husband’s career choice (while making sure he gets over his bad self from time to time) and strength when the word of casualties starts returning stateside.
2. Sienna Miller as Taya Kyle in “American Sniper”
“At its essence, this is a human story between two people: one of whom is doing these extraordinary, unimaginable things so far from home and the other who is trying to hold her family together,” Miller said. “And having met Taya [Kyle] I felt a responsibility to do it justice.”
3. Barbara Hershey as Glennis Yeager in “The Right Stuff”
Barbara Hershey’s tough and sexy portrayal of Air Force legend Chuck Yeager’s wife Glennis is only a minor part of the movie, but her peformance is pitch perfect in terms of capturing what kind of woman it takes to be the wife of a military man who willingly rides into the jaws of death on a regular basis. Signature line: Chuck (played by Sam Shepard) looks at Glennis and says, “I’m fearless, but I’m scared to death of you.”
4. Meg Ryan as Carole Bradshaw in “Top Gun”
Carole Bradshaw knows how to party and keep her man’s focus where it belongs (“Take me to bed or lose me forever”) as well as take care of the homefront while her husband “Goose” is out there feeling the need for speed. And she’s the model of sorrow and strength after he dies while ejecting from an out-of-control F-14.
5. Debra Winger as Paula Pokrifki in “Officer and a Gentleman”
Okay, Debra Winger doesn’t play a military spouse in “Officer and a Gentleman,” but she does play a girlfriend who is about to become a military spouse, which is a very important part of the process. Marital success rates notwithstanding, the cities around training bases have bred more military wives than anyplace else, and Winger’s portrayal of the fetching Paula accurately captures how and why that happens.
Susan Ward had only served five weeks in the military when she was medically discharged after an injury — but that didn’t change the fact that she wanted a life in service.
“From that moment when I got out, I was devastated,” she tells NationSwell. “That was my life goal and plan. I didn’t know what to do. I love helping and serving people, doing what I can for people.”
That feeling isn’t uncommon for thousands of military veterans who have a hard time transitioning to civilian life. Though unemployment among veterans who have served since 2001 has gone down, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics counted 370,000 veterans who were still unemployed in 2018.
Numerous transition programs exist to help vets bridge that gap, but for Ward, finding a gig — or even volunteer work — that was service-oriented was necessary for her happiness. She eventually became a firefighter in Alaska, but after 10 years a different injury forced Ward to leave yet another job she loved. She fell into a deep depression, she says, and struggled to find another role that allowed her to fulfill her passion for public service.
“I was on Facebook one day and just saw this post about Team Rubicon, and I had this moment of, ‘Oh my gosh, I need to do this,'” she says.
Team Rubicon began as a volunteer mission in 2010 after the earthquake that devastated Haiti. The organization offered disaster relief by utilizing the help of former service workers from the military and civilian sectors.
(Team Rubicon photo)
It has since evolved into an organization fueled by 80,000 volunteers. The majority are veterans who assist with everything from clearing trees and debris in tornado-ravaged towns to gutting homes that have been destroyed by floods. The teams, which are deployed as units, also work alongside other disaster-relief organizations, such as the Red Cross.
Similar to Ward, Tyler Bradley, a Clay Hunt fellow for Team Rubicon who organizes and develops volunteers, battled depression after he had to leave the Army due to a genetic health problem.
“After I found [Team Rubicon], I was out doing lots of volunteer work. My girlfriend noticed and said she would see the old Tyler come back,” Bradley says. “Team Rubicon turned my life around.”
“There’s one guy who says that just because the uniform comes off doesn’t mean service ends,” says Zachary Brooks-Miller, director of field operations for Team Rubicon. He adds that the narrative around the value of veterans has to change. “We don’t take the approach that our vets are broken; we see vets as a strength within our community.”
In addition to Team Rubicon’s disaster-relief efforts, the organization also helps to empower veterans and ease their transition into the civilian world, according to Christopher Perkins, managing director at Citi and a member of the company’s Citi Salutes Affinity Steering Committee. By collaborating with Citi, Team Rubicon was able to scale up its contributions, allowing service workers to provide widespread relief last year in Houston after Hurricane Harvey. Those efforts were five times larger than anything the organization had previously done and brought even more veterans into the Team Rubicon family.
“Being around my brothers and sisters in arms whom I missed so much, it was so clear to me the impact Team Rubicon would have not only in communities impacted by disaster, but also among veterans,” says Perkins, a former captain in the Marines. “Every single American should know about this organization.”
Although Team Rubicon doesn’t brand itself as a veterans’ organization, it does view former members of the military as the backbone of its efforts. And many veterans see the team-building and camaraderie as a kind of therapy for service-related trauma.
“There are so many people who have [post-traumatic stress disorder] from different things, and when you’re with family you have to pretend that you’re OK,” says Ward, who deals with PTSD from her time as a soldier and firefighter. “But when you’re with your Team Rubicon family, it’s a tribe.”
At the Office of Naval Research’s annual Science and Technology Expo on July 21 in Washington, DC, a development team from Rutgers University demonstrated the unusual quadcopter, which can swim at depths of up to 10 meters, then seamlessly launch to the surface and soar into the air.
The drone, developed with sponsorship from the Office of Naval Research, shows promise as a tool for mine countermeasures and port security, to name a few possibilities.
There’s also interest from the special operations community, said Dr. Marc Contarino, vice president of technology for the program. It carries a 360-degree waterproof camera, making it well-suited for security and bridge and ship inspections, among other missions.
“Special ops have not told us exactly what they want. But we know for special ops, it’s all about speed and not being detected,” Contarino told Military.com. “So we’re building our system to be as fast as possible.”
While current prototypes are not much larger than a typical commercial quadcopter, Contarino said there are plans to build a six-foot-diameter model capable of carrying the 30-pound payload the Navy wants for its mine countermeasure mission. That UAV will be able to operate in waves of three-to-five feet and in 30-mile-per-hour winds, he said.
Developers have already put the Naviator through its paces in real-world conditions, launching the drone from the Delaware Memorial Bridge over the Delaware River and from the Cape May-Lewes Ferry.
“Since we’re a Navy sponsor, I tried to find the biggest boat I could to showcase it,” Contarino said.
When a Phase Two development contract begins for the Naviator in 2018, Contarino said the team plans to expand its operational envelope, including work to develop a model that can operate at depths of up to 30 meters, and development of pressure-resistant features that could support much greater depths.
Whether the Naviator spends more time underwater or flying over it depends entirely on the mission.
“[It acts as if] air is a fluid, water is a fluid, and it doesn’t care,” Contarino said. ” … So we think the Navy really likes it because it does the air, the surface, and the underwater mission.”
While this is everyday life for active-duty sailors, veterans will get a prideful sense of nostalgia — especially after watching the second one, “Chapter 2: Meet the Patriots.”
It’s the type of intimate footage you’d expect from a family gathering. It’s why some veterans consider their shipmates their second family.
Like family, these sailors do everything together, from washing the birds, to relaxing, to preparing for war. But unlike family, this is every day, not just during a family picnic or reunion.
Life on a carrier is not the same as life on a cruise liner. Sailors don’t get the awesome hotel-style living quarters. Instead, they live in berthings with up to 100 other sailors — sometimes even more. But that’s okay because the friendships forged on deployment are way deeper than any cruise liner could ever deliver.
“Kim Jong Un, he really has been very open and I think very honorable from everything we’re seeing,” Trump told reporters amid a White House visit by French President Emmanuel Macron, adding that the North Koreans wanted such a meeting “as soon as possible.”
Trump has signaled an eagerness to meet and conduct diplomacy with Kim, despite spending much of 2017 threatening to annihilate North Korea in response to Pyongyang’s nuclear provocations.
Since the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, and sweeping rounds of US-led sanctions after North Korean nuclear and missile tests, Kim has also apparently opened up to diplomacy.
Kim unexpectedly went to Beijing in March 2018, to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping and is scheduled to meet with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in late April 2018.
Trump said of Kim in January 2016: “You’ve got to give him credit. How many young guys — he was like 26 or 25 when his father died — take over these tough generals, and all of a sudden… he goes in, he takes over, and he’s the boss.”
“Say what you want, but that is not easy, especially at that age,” Trump said.
Trump is set to become the first sitting US president to meet face-to-face with a North Korean leader. Meanwhile, Kim has appeared to make a set of stunning concessions and cave to US demands of denuclearization already.
The Air Force is determining how best to move forward with the Defense Department’s new hazing and misconduct policy, aiming to follow guidelines while still keeping some traditions associated with the practice of “tacking-on” rank or insignia during promotion ceremonies, the top enlisted leader of the Air Force said Feb. 22, 2018.
The policy, released early February 2018, includes a definition of hazing that explicitly encompasses “pinning” or “tacking-on” during promotions.
“We want to be able to provide our senior leaders out in the field the right guidance on what they should do in lieu of these promotion ceremonies, which we have every month,” said Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth O. Wright. Wright sat down with Military.com during the Air Force Association’s Air Warfare Symposium here.
Wright said he knows there will be pushback from airmen on “the cultural birthright” to pin on new stripes, and while the Air Force-specific policy is still being crafted, the message is “clear-cut.”
“We need to make sure that we really understand the department’s intent exactly,” he said. But “I don’t think [the Air Force] will straddle the middle” between the guidance and the pin-on practice.
While the term “pinning” or “tacking-on” may evoke the infamous tradition of pounding new rank into an airman’s chest hard enough to break the skin, the term also encompasses less extreme physical actions, such as an “atta-boy” nudge or other physical gestures of congratulation. In unofficial capacities, however, more dramatic hazing and abusive behavior may still persist.
“We’ll be in line with the DoD policy, again, we just have to figure out what it means, and exactly what we want to articulate to commanders in the field,” Wright said.
He said the guidance language is there for a reason.
“I hate to say and believe tacking and pinning ceremonies that we do in the Air Force were collateral damage, but this was probably aimed at some of the tacking and pinning and hazing that’s done, not just in a formal promotion ceremony in front of a crowd of people, but … in Special Operations or some other career field, some other specialty where you’ve achieved something significant and go through some ritual to culminate that process,” Wright said.
Tolerance of hazing has never been the Air Force’s message, he said. Leaders have tried to tackle various ceremonial issues that, for one reason or another, have gotten out of hand.
“I’ve worked for commanders who’ve decided, ‘Hey this is too much, so let’s stop doing that,’ ” Wright said, without specifying any incidents.
Whatever comes next for airmen, he said it’s always been about achieving a milestone in their careers.
“Airmen get excited for a day or two, then they move on, and realize that, ‘Man, I’m just thankful to get promoted, my family was able to be there, so if I don’t get the biggest guy in the world to knock me off the stage, then no problem,’ ” he said.
The Pentagon on Feb. 8, 2018, put forth a new policy — DoD Instruction 1020.03 Harassment Prevention And Response in the Armed Forces — aimed to deter misconduct and harassment among service members. The policy reaffirmed the Defense Department does not tolerate any kind of harassment by any service member, either in person or online.
The guidance went into effect immediately, outlining the department’s definitions of what is considered harassment. However, each service — Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps — is in charge of planning its implementation, outlining steps and milestones in order to comply with the instruction, which supersedes any past anti-harassment policies.
Among activities that specifically define hazing are oral or written berating for the purposes of humiliation, “any form of initiation or congratulatory act” that includes striking or threatening to strike someone; encouraging someone to engage in “illegal, harmful, demeaning, or dangerous” activities; breaking the skin, as with rank insignia or badges in “pinning” rituals; branding, tattooing, shaving or painting someone; and forcing someone to consume food, water, or any other substance.
“Service members may be responsible for an act of hazing even if there was actual or implied consent from the victim and regardless of the grade or rank, status, or service of the victim” in either official or unofficial functions or settings, the policy continues.
Upon the policy’s debut, some airmen and Air Force veterans took to the popular Facebook group Air Force Amn/nco/snco to criticize the policy’s ban on the “tacking-on” tradition.
“It’s an honor to be tacked on!” wrote one former airman.
“This is why we should halt all Wing level promotion ceremonies and give the role back to the squadron to address promotions how they see fit for morale and unit bonding,” wrote another.
Others questioned what other policies will erode practices over time. “What little heritage and traditions we had… they’re gone now… no wonder the morale is at an all-time low,” wrote a retired airman.
Wright did not specify when the Air Force plans to present its own guidelines.
“We will have to convene, next time I sit down with the boss [Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein] … [to determine] where we want to go,” he said.
Additionally, the Pentagon will receive a first-of-its-kind report on hazing in the ranks, tracking data and victim reports in order to better standardize reporting information and case collection. Services need to meet that report deadline by Dec. 1, 2018.
As Staff Sgt. Amanda Kelley made her way through mountainous terrain in the midst of a scorching Georgia summer in 2018, she admittedly struggled, carrying more than 50 pounds of gear during a patrol exercise.
Tired and physically drained, her body had withstood nearly a month of training in the Army’s most challenging training school. She had already suffered a fracture in her back in an earlier phase and suffered other physical ailments.
But then she looked to her left and right and saw her fellow Ranger School teammates, many of whom she outranked.
“I know that I have to keep going,” said Kelley, the first enlisted female graduate of the Army Ranger School at Fort Benning. “Because if I quit, or if I show any signs of weakness, they’re going to quit.”
In the middle of 21 grueling training days in northeast Georgia, Kelley knew if she could weather the mountain phase of the Army’s Ranger School, she and her teammates would reach a new pinnacle, a critical rite of passage for Ranger students. The electronic warfare specialist spent 21 days in the mountains which includes four days of mountaineering, five days of survival techniques training and a nine-day field training exercise. She had already been recycled in the school’s first phase and didn’t want to relive that experience.
Staff Sgt. Amanda F. Kelley marches in formation during her Ranger School graduation at Fort Benning, Ga., Aug. 31, 2018.
(Photo by Patrick A. Albright)
“It’s not about you at that moment,” Kelley said. “It’s about the people around you. You don’t realize in that moment how many people look up to you until you complete it. Everybody has those trying periods because those mountains are really rough.”
Her graduation from Ranger School paved the way for her current assignment as an electronic warfare specialist with the Third Special Forces Group at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Since 2016, more than 1,200 female soldiers have entered combat career fields, including field artillery, armor and infantry.
Kelley said the Ranger training pushed her to meet the same standards as her male counterparts. She finished the 16-mile ruck march in under three hours.
“You literally go through the same thing,” Kelley said. “It’s not any different … You do the same thing that they do. That’s the greatest thing about Ranger School: there’s one set standard, across the board.”
Taking the easy road has never been how Kelley has lived her life. As a teenager she competed as a centerfielder on boy’s baseball teams. She also was on her high school’s track team. Growing up in the small rural community of Easley, South Carolina, she had few mentors as a teen.
“I just wanted to be somebody,” Kelley said. “And I also want to be someone that others can look up to. I didn’t have that growing up. We don’t all come from a silver spoon background; some of us have to fight for things.”
She joined the Army on a whim in 2011, considering joining the service only six months prior to enlisting. She admired the Army’s rigid discipline and high standards.
“Better opportunities,” was one reason Kelley said she joined the Army. “I wanted to get out of where I was.”
Kelley wanted to reach even higher. The 30-year-old wanted to one day become sergeant major of the Army and let her supervisors know that it wasn’t some pipe dream. After an Iraq deployment with the 1st Armored Division, Kelley’s battalion commander, Lt. Col. Mike Vandy, told her that attending Ranger School would help chart her path to success.
A family member places the Army Ranger tab on Staff Sgt. Amanda Kelley’s uniform.
(Photo by Patrick A. Albright)
“When I went to Ranger School, I didn’t go so I could be the first (enlisted female),” Kelley said. “I went so that I could be sergeant major of the Army. And I want to be competitive with my peers.”
After Kelley decided to apply for Ranger School, she spent five months physically preparing herself and studying while deployed. Her roommate in Iraq, former Staff Sgt. Mychal Loria, said Kelley would work 12-hour shifts, workout twice a day and still found time for study. At the same time, she helped mentor other soldiers.
“She just exemplified the perfect NCO; always there for her soldiers,” Loria said.
Kelley praised former Sgt. Maj. of the Army Daniel Dailey for helping create more opportunities for women in combat career fields. Since the first two female graduates — Capt. Kristen Griest and then-1st Lt. Shaye Haver — completed Ranger training in 2015, more than 30 female soldiers have earned their Ranger tab. Sgt. 1st Class Janina Simmons became the first African American woman to graduate from the course earlier this year.
Kelley said has begun preparation for a six-month deployment to an undisclosed location. The South Carolina native said she looks forward to using many of the skills she learned during her time training to be an Army Ranger.
The eight-year Army vet said the Third Special Forces group has fostered a welcome environment for unit members, offering a wealth of training opportunities to help advance her career, including electronics and intelligence courses.
Kelley offered some advice for soldiers who may be considering Ranger School or other certifications to advance their careers.
“Soldiers need to understand that sometimes things you had planned change,” she said. “So just be open-minded to new things and don’t be scared to go after things that seem impossible. Because nothing’s impossible if somebody’s done it before you.”
On Nov. 14, 1910, the U.S. military took its first step toward linking flight and naval operations when Eugene Ely made the first carrier takeoff, guiding a Pusher biplane off the deck of the light cruiser USS Birmingham in the waters of Norfolk, Virginia.
The Navy tapped Capt. Washington Irving Chambers — who has been called “the father of naval aviation” — earlier that year “to observe everything that will be of use in the study of aviation and its influence upon the problems of naval warfare,” according to the Smithsonian.
Chambers recognized the utility of shipborne landings and takeoffs. At a flying event in Belmont Park, New York, in October 1914, Chambers asked planemaker Glenn Curtiss and Ely if they would attempt to land on a ship if he supplied one. (Another account has Curtiss and Ely making the offer, and Chambers saying he had no money to finance the experiment but would provide a ship.)
On November 14 — a Monday soiled by fog and intermittent rain — a Curtiss Pusher biplane with floats mounted under the wings was loaded aboard the Birmingham. The US Naval Institute identifies the aircraft as a Hudson Fulton Flyer.
The cruiser was equipped with an 83-foot runway on its deck, but that length meant Ely only had 57 feet to take off.
Though the original plan was to steam into the Chesapeake Bay and launch the plane while underway, which would provide extra lift, it was foiled by the weather. That afternoon, Ely launched his biplane from Birmingham’s deck while the ship was as anchor.
After his wheels left the deck, Ely guided the plane toward the water to build up speed. But he miscalculated, and witnesses watched as the plane smacked into the water and bounced back into the air. The collision damaged the propeller and sprayed Ely’s goggles with saltwater.
After less than five minutes in the air, Ely set the plane down on a nearby beach. He had flown less than 3 miles.
‘The most important landing of a bird since the dove flew back to the ark’
A reporter for the Indianapolis Star noted afterward that, “Aerial navigation proved today that it is a factor which must be dealt with in the naval tactics of the world’s future.”
Ely and the Curtiss team had plans to fly on the West Coast in January 1911, and Chambers made arrangements to follow up their feat in Norfolk by landing on a ship.
The armored cruiser USS Pennsylvania, anchored in San Francisco Bay, was outfitted with a 120-foot platform. Ely, wearing a padded football helmet and bicycle inner tubes around his body for protection, took off from a nearby race track on the morning of January 18, 1911, flying a Curtiss Pusher with hooks on the landing gear.
Thousands of spectators watched as Ely made a safe landing on the Pennsylvania, with the plane’s hooks catching ropes stretched across the ship’s deck. After lunch with the captain, Ely took off from the Pennsylvania, landing safely at the race track.
Capt. C. F. Pond, commander of the Pennsylvania, called Ely’s feat “the most important landing of a bird since the dove flew back to the ark.”
Ely continued flying at sites around the country, earning acclaim. But his life was cut short by a crash at the Georgia State Fair on October 19, 1911. Though he was a civilian flier, Ely was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross by the Navy in 1933.
In 1943, although B-17s had been used regularly in daylight bombing raids over Europe, nighttime bombing was still a relatively new concept to the U.S. Army Air Corps. Tactics were being developed in a hurry to satisfy the increasing demands of the war, and pilots were being trained at a rapid clip.
It was against that intense backdrop that four B-17s took off one night from Dalhart Army Airfield in Texas. The target was in Conlen, Texas, a mere 20 miles from Dalhart Airfield. It was supposed to be marked with four lights at each corner, creating an “X-marks-the-spot” for the student aircrews to hit. Instead, a young navigator led the bomber formation 40 miles in the other direction, to Boise City, Oklahoma.
At zero-dark-thirty, the bombers approached their target, not realizing it had taken them twice as long as it should have to get there. The townspeople were asleep by this time, and the town’s lights were out — except for the four lights around the Cimmaron County Courthouse.
The crew in the lead bomber, thinking they reached their target, let fly a couple of sand-filled training bombs over the population of 1,200. They hit the town butcher’s garage, taking out its roof. The next plane’s drop fell just short of a Baptist Church. The third and fourth bombers’ bombs narrowly missed hitting some of the town’s fuel stores.
The sheriff immediately called the base at Dalhart. Dalhart radioed the wayward planes to ask them to ensure they were on target. The crews ensured Dalhart that they were over the training target and were not bombing civilians, which led to an argument between the bomber crews and Dalhart’s tower. That’s when an electric company engineer shut down the town’s electricity, hiding it from the bombers. In all the bombers dropped six training bombs on Boise City.
The crews returned to Dalhart immediately. The navigator was (understandably) fired, while the rest of the crew were faced with a choice: go right into combat as soon as possible or face a court martial. It was a big decision: The Eighth Air Force casualty rate for all of World War II in Europe was a whopping 41 percent, with 26,000 killed in action. These crews would later fly in formations over Berlin.
Fifty years after the bombing, the citizens of Boise City erected a memorial to the event, complete with concrete crater and WWII-era training bomb.
This post is reprinted with permission from NationSwell, new digital media company focused on American innovation and renewal.
Phil Ruddock had trouble adjusting when he returned home to rural Louisiana, disabled by a traumatic brain injury he received during an Air Force tour of duty during Desert Storm. He had all the classic symptoms of PTSD: “I drank all the time, I couldn’t get along with anyone, I kept checking every room in the house to make sure it was clear every time I came home, I got up and checked the locks on the doors and windows too many times to count, I was always depressed and pissed at the world, and I never slept. I drove my family so crazy that they wanted to leave,” he says with a country twang. “I still do some of those things,” he adds, “but it’s getting better.”
Sit. Stay. Lie down. They’re the words that helped him through his recovery.
Ruddock’s now assisting other veterans afflicted with post-traumatic stress disorder from Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan the same way he survived his night terrors and flashbacks — with service dogs. His nonprofit Brothers and Sisters in Arms is a boot camp of sorts based out of central Louisiana, where he’s teaching veterans to train their own service dogs, all adopted from shelters. The repetitive learning of commands works like physical therapy for disabled vets and gives them something to work towards. Once they’ve completed the program, they gain a loyal companion and a sense of accomplishment, “a pride that you can’t imagine,” Ruddock says.
“When a soldier is deployed or on base, they feel secure because they have all the other soldiers there watching their back. But when they are out of the military, when their spouse goes to work, their kids go to school and they’re left alone, they have nobody watching their back,” Ruddock says. “It makes them very anxious, paranoid. A dog turns out to be their battle buddy and watches their back. It never leaves them, it never judges them, it never asks questions that they don’t want to answer. It gives them unconditional love,” Ruddock explains.
A program connecting veterans and rescue dogs may sound cutesy, almost saccharine, but for Ruddock, it’s serious — vital even. He asks the veterans to list Brothers and Sisters in Arms as the primary contact associated with the animal’s microchip, rather than the owner’s home phone. “The suicide rate for veterans is 22 per day,” Ruddock says, about 8,000 every year. “If that dog would show up at a shelter and they ran the microchip, chances are that veteran is not going to answer his phone.”
Ruddock started the nonprofit in November 2012 after his personal experience with an abandoned pit bull. Following a nervous breakdown, he lost his job as lead clerk at the local VA outpatient clinic. His spent his days walled alone up on his remote property, until a friend arrived with a pit bull for him to train. “She was as beat up and as messed up as I was,” he remembers of his white-faced, brown-eared dog, Mia. “She kind of rescued me.” The dog sat in the passenger seat of his truck on rides into a nearby village and eventually gave him confidence to travel farther.
Within the past couple months, Ruddock logged more than 20,000 miles in his sojourns across the Sugar State, from Slidell, a town across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans that butts up against Mississippi, all the way out west to Fort Polk, an Army installation near the Texas border. Last year, he certified 31 service dogs, which are specially licensed after 120 hours in public, and 15 companion dogs.
At the pound, Ruddock seeks out the calmest dogs. “We look for dogs with a good disposition. We don’t want the ones that jump and bark and get with the other dogs,” he says. He generally avoids puppies — too much added stress — and certain breeds like German shepherds that can become overprotective if they’re not socialized regularly, but otherwise he’ll take every breed from a 20-pound Jack Russell terrier to a 200-pound mastiff.
Training sessions run one hour a week for roughly eight weeks, though he’s come to expect a few absences. “A veteran may have problems one day. Some demons may come up and he may not be able to show up. It may take a little longer,” he says.
Besides the essentials — what Ruddock calls good citizenship for canines (think: table manners for children) — the service dogs learn three main commands that are unique for handlers who still carry wounds from the battlefield. The dog learns to “block,” inserting itself into the space between the owner and somebody else so that a person keeps their distance. “Cover” sends the pup to its owner’s back or side, facing away as a kind of lookout that allows a vet to relax at, say, a counter or cash register. The last is “grounded.” If the soldier faints or has a nightmare, the dog lays on top of the owner and licks his face, prompting a welcome (if wet) return to reality.
Brothers and Sisters in Arms is different from many other groups that provide service dogs. For one, Ruddock doesn’t charge for his services or the animal. His operation is funded entirely by donations; the bill from other groups can run as high as $25,000. (“These guys get out of the military, and they’re just above poverty level. They can’t afford that,” he says.) His classes are all one-on-one, making it easier for vets who can be skittish around crowds, nervous about competition and failure. And every instructor is a former soldier, because, as Ruddock says, “There’s no better therapy than a veteran talking to another veteran.”
Ruddock wants to see the program expand across Louisiana. He’s already processing five to 10 applications a week, and he’s starting to get referrals from VA psychiatrists who can’t officially recommend a service dog but still send warriors his way. “It’s not about the fame or fortune. It’s about that feeling you get when you help somebody. The warm fuzzies, the goosebumps, whatever you want to call it,” he says of his motivations. “It’s about doing what’s right.”
It’s for the men and women, his brothers and sisters, that Ruddock keeps trekking across the bayous, working with soldiers, like the young man he met last month. “You can tell he’s had it rough,” Ruddock says. “He couldn’t even stand the sound of a loud car going by. He kept moving around and shaking. He couldn’t look you in the eye. He constantly looked down, and if he did catch your eye, it was a white stare like he could see right through you.” The man expressed no emotion, until Ruddock brought out a puppy. As if he was emerging from a daze, the man started petting the dog. He smiled, and Ruddock knew another soldier was safe.
Wreaths Across America (WAA) is a national non-profit organization best known for remembering fallen veterans with wreaths placed each December at Arlington National Cemetery. However, the organization and its mission to Remember, Honor, Teach, is much more.
In the beginning, founder, Morrill Worcester, a 12-year-old paper boy in Maine won a trip to Washington D.C., where Arlington National Cemetery became an inspirational location. His pilgrimage served as a consistent reminder, through career and life, that opportunities stemmed from the values and freedom afforded to us by our nation’s veterans.
After years of hard work, Morrill founded Worcester Wreath Company in Harrington, Maine. In 1992, Worcester Wreath had a surplus. Morrill saw this as his opportunity to honor our veterans with hopes of returning to Arlington. With the aid of Maine Senator Olympia Snowe (ret.), the first 5,000 wreaths were placed that year at Arlington National Cemetery. As plans were underway, other individuals and organizations shared Morrill’s spirit and working together built an annual mission that went unnoticed for many years.
In 2005, a photo surfaced of Arlington covered in snow, adorned with wreaths. This picture became a viral internet sensation! After, thousands of requests poured in, from people wanting to help emulate the Arlington success on the local level, prompting the official formation of Wreaths Across America the national nonprofit in 2007.
The newly formed 501c3 began its national effort by sending seven ceremonial wreaths to every state (one for each branch of the military, and for POW/MIAs). The ceremonies took place in nearly all of the 50 states and Washington, D.C., with a focus on family during the holidays. As the organization grew from volunteer support, a network of local groups and cemetery locations began to emerge.
Presently a small, but dedicated staff and more than 7,000 core volunteers across the country, work tirelessly on year-long programs that help accomplish this ongoing mission to Remember, Honor and Teach. That number grows to more than 2 million, a third of whom are children, who participate in the annual wreath laying events nationwide!
What does it mean to sponsor a wreath? It means you’ll honor an American hero at one of more than 2,500 locations nationwide this year on Wreaths Across America Day… a day that’s been set aside to pay tribute to their sacrifices.
This year, National Wreaths Across America Day is Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020.
We can only do this with YOUR support. Your sponsorship will ensure that a wreath is hand- crafted of all-American balsam and hand-tied with a red velvet bow will be sent to one of our participating locations, where a volunteer will place it on the marker of a fallen hero. That volunteer will then “say their name” to ensure that the legacy of duty, service and sacrifice of that veteran is never forgotten.
Give the gift of remembrance this holiday season and join a grateful nation in saying “thank you” to our veterans. Visit www.wreathsacrossamerica.org to sponsor a wreath for a participating location near you!