30 million vaccinations is a big job – and VA can handle it
About six million enrolled Veterans use VA health care, and VA has successfully given at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine to more than two million of those Veterans, with more getting vaccinated every day.
But there’s still more to do: VA will vaccinate every Veteran and spouse and caregiver.
In recognition of our success, Congress passed and the President signed the SAVE LIVES Act. This act gives VA the job of delivering vaccine to all Veterans in America – whether they’re enrolled in VA health care or not – as well as their spouses and their caregivers.
Within 48 hours after the President signed that bill, we began testing our existing vaccination delivery systems in order to determine how long it will take us to get about 30 million additional people enrolled and vaccinated. In two days of testing, we safely and successfully vaccinated 1,000 Veterans, spouses and caregivers who would not normally be eligible for a VA vaccination. That vaccination rate will only increase as we expand our capacity and take delivery of more and more doses of vaccine.
It’s a big job, but we can handle it
As we do that, I’d like to ask you for a bit of patience. It’s a huge task, but VA health care can handle it, as we have handled every new challenge during this pandemic. We just need a bit of time to make sure that Veterans, spouses and caregivers who are eligible for a COVID-19 vaccination can sign up and get vaccinated as quickly as possible.
We will continue to update you as we move ahead. Thank you for trusting us with your care and with your vaccination.
Dr. Richard Stone is the acting secretary for health at the Veterans Health Administration. He is a retired Army major general and Veteran of the war in Afghanistan. He was born and raised in Michigan and is a proud alumnus of the Wayne State University School of Medicine.
You’d think that employees at the Department of Veterans Affairs would be spending every bit of their time on the job helping America’s veterans. But that may not be case — some of them may instead be working on “union business.”
Worse, there may be no way to know how much time they have spent on their outside work for federal employee unions.
According to a report by Government Executive, the VA has no standardized method of tracking how much “official time” is spent by government employees on union activities like mediation. The Office of Personnel Management website defines “official time” as “paid time off from assigned Government duties to represent a union or its bargaining unit employees.”
The report noted that 350 of those employees are working full-time on union activities, and that almost 1.1 million man-hours were spent on official time in Fiscal Year 2012.
A 2015 Government Accountability Office report done at the request of House Veterans Affairs Committee chairman Rep. Phil Roe (R-TN) casts doubt on those reported figures.
The GAO said, “the data VA provided were not sufficiently reliable to determine the amount of official time used by VA employees and the purposes for which it was used for the period of our review.”
The biggest reason for the lack of reliability was due to the fact that the VA had no standardized means to track the amount of “official time” used by employees of that agency.
The report noted that the VA had arrangements with five unions: the National Association of Government Employees; the American Federation of Government Employees; National Nurses United; the National Federation of Federal Employees; and the Service Employees International Union.
Government Executive reported that the VA had agreed to resolve the time-tracking issues.
Celebrating their 1st anniversary this month, Spouse-ly is “Etsy meets Angie’s List” – an aggregate site where veterans and milspouses can share and market their small businesses. Since its initial launch with 30 vendors, the site has grown to a platform that represents more than 300 businesses. What makes the Spouse-ly website unique is that it combines serviced-based brands and products. The only requirement? Having a military affiliation, whether as a spouse or a current or former service member.
It’s a passion project that was brought to life by Monica Fullerton. She said she saw the need for such a venue and made it her focus to fill that gap.
“I saw Facebook groups recommending a different business or service. I wanted to create a central location where they could all come together,” she said.
Fullerton, an Air Force spouse, decided to take a leap of faith in putting this platform together. Spouse-ly = online marketplace for all veteran and spouse-owned brands.
There is a wide variety of industries covered: handmade items, crafts and trinkets, to ads and reviews for services, such as local realtors or plumbers.
Spouse-ly launched in February of 2020, right before the onset of the pandemic.
“I was devastated, I thought it wasn’t something that could grow during challenging times.” However, Fullerton saw just the opposite take place. “We’ve continued to push forward and create a space for our community to grow and shine in,” she said.
From marketing all areas of companies, to helping others accomplish their dreams, Fullerton has a natural motivation for the job. In fact, months into the launch, she quit her full-time career as an Executive Director for the Northwest. Working with Fortune 500 companies, she handled shipping logistics for brands with large budgets. After seven years in corporate logistics, her heart was no longer in the game, it was with Spouse-ly.
For months, Fullerton balanced her full-time job, her side gig, and her 4.5 year old twins. That is, her second side gig – she also co-owns and runs a t-shirt venue with her mother-in-law, an experience which she said gave her insider insight to selling on Etsy.
With the growing stress of kids at home, and a thriving platform that needed more of her attention, Fullerton and her husband decided to make the adjustment to Spouse-ly as her full-time gig. And while the transition was a financial adjustment for the family, she said they’re better off for the change.
“When you do something that you truly love and are passionate about, there’s no better feeling.This has really provided [military business owners] with a new sense of hope and something fun. It’s a community where we can all relate and support one another.”
Spouse-ly is free for shoppers to browse or seek out recommendations. For businesses, an annual slot is $35 for service-based brands, while retailers give 10% of each sale, with platform options that start at $1 a month for hosting their online store.
“My goal is for Spously to be a household name,” she said. “I cannot wait for the day when people can log in and see all these businesses that they can support. There was such a proven need for something like this – it’s an amazing way to support the veteran community.”
Food pantries are cropping up at various VA medical centers across the country. VA providers screen patients during clinical assessments for signs of food insecurity. If Veterans are in need, food pantries supply them with a week’s worth of groceries before they leave the medical center.
This screening takes place whether the visit is for inpatient or outpatient services. In some cases, Veterans are connected with an on-site coordinator to explore other available resources.
This food pantry program is making it easier than ever for Veterans to obtain and sustain comprehensive support for their whole health. It also extends VA’s commitment to former service members beyond the point of care and takes into account the environmental contributors to a person’s well-being, known as the social determinants of health. Food security is one example of a social determinant of health. Some others that VA supports for Veterans include education, employment and housing.
Food insecurity is not only about grocery supplies. It’s also about planning, social dynamics and the competing demands that many families face.
“I remember one 32-year-old Veteran who worked at a gas station. You could just tell he was malnourished,” says Mary Julius. Julius is a registered dietitian. She also is the program manager for diabetes self-education and training for the Northeast Ohio VA Health Care System.
Ate his kid’s leftovers
“At first, he denied that he was having trouble, out of pride,” Julius said. “But when I asked him what he ate, he said he was eating whatever was left over from the food he bought his kid. We were able to provide him groceries and instructions.”
The pantry project is a public-private partnership between VA and Feeding America, which has a nonprofit network of more than 200 food banks nationwide. There are 18 sites in operation, and Feeding America collaborates with VA to identify potential sites with the need and capacity for enrolling in this program.
Local facilities work through their VA Voluntary Service to make the arrangements for outside donations. As of January, the program has served more than 710,000 meals to Veterans nationwide, including options that account for dietary and health restrictions, such as diabetes.
Partnerships support Veterans’ health and well-being
This innovative resource is an example of what is possible when VA partners with community resources.
“Offering food on-site, when the Veteran is there for a visit, makes it convenient and safe for the Veteran to receive quality food and explore options to meet future needs,” said Dr. Tracy Weistreich. Weistreich is the Office of Community Engagement (OCE) acting director. “These partnerships are essential to the well-being of Veterans and support programs available through VA.”
The OCE team helps build relationships with community and national organizations that support Veterans’ health and well-being.
“When you come into the ER with an open wound, we stitch it up right away,” says Julius. “When you come in and need a bag of food, we can provide that too.”
Victor Medina has an actual video of the moment that changed his life forever. One day, his unit in Iraq was forced to take a detour around its planned patrol route. It was June 29, 2009, and Sgt. 1st Class Medina was the convoy commander that day. After winding through alleyways and small villages around Nasiriyah, his convoy came to a long stretch of open road. That’s when an explosive foreign projectile struck the side of his Humvee.
He was evacuated from the scene and diagnosed with moderate traumatic brain injury, along with the other physical injuries he sustained in the attack. It took him three years of rehabilitation, and his wife Roxana became a caregiver – a role that is only now receiving the attention it deserves.
The footage of the attack in the first 30 seconds of the above video is the moment Sgt. 1st Class Medina was hit by the EFP, a rocket-propelled grenade. There just happened to be a camera rolling on his Humvee in that moment. The TBI that hit Medina affected his balance, his speech, and his ability to walk, among other things.
“It’s referred to as an invisible wound,” Victor says, referring to his traumatic brain injury. “In my case, you can’t see it, but I feel it every day.”
Since 2000, the Department of Defense estimates more than 383,000 service members have suffered from some form of traumatic brain injury. These injuries range in severity from ones caused by day-to-day training activities to more severe injuries like the one suffered by Sgt. 1st Class Medina. An overwhelming number of those come from Army personnel. Of the 225,144 traumatic brain injuries suffered by soldiers, most are mild. But even a moderate injury like Victor’s can require a caregiver for the veteran.
This video is part of a series created by AARP Studios and the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, highlighting veteran caregivers and the vets they care for. AARP wants to let families of wounded veterans know there are resources and support available through AARP’s Military Caregiving Guide, an incredible work designed to start your family off on the right foot. Some of you reading may not even realize you’re a veteran’s caregiver. Like Victor Medina’s wife Roxana, you may think you’re just doing your part, taking care of a sick loved one.
But like Roxana Delgado, the constant care and support for a veteran suffering from a debilitating injury while caring for the rest of a household, supporting the household through work and school, and potentially caring for children, can cause a caregiver to burn out before they even recognize it’s happening. It took Roxana eight months to realize she was Victor’s full-time caregiver – on top of everything else she does. It began to wear on her emotionally and strain their relationship.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Roxana Delgado and Victor Medina before his deployment to Iraq in 2009.
With AARP’s Prepare to Care guide, veteran caregivers don’t have to figure out their new lives on their own. The guide has vital checklists, charts, a database of federal resources, including the VA’s Caregiver Program. The rest is up to the caregiver. Roxana Delgado challenged her husband at every turn, and he soon rose to the challenge. He wanted to get his wife’s love back.
Before long, Victor was able to clean the house, make coffee in the morning, and generally alleviate some of the burdens of running their home. After 10 years in recovery, Victor Medina has achieved a remarkable level of independence, and together they started the TBI Warrior Foundation to help others with traumatic brain injuries. Roxana is now a health scientist and an Elizabeth Dole Foundation fellow. AARP Studios and the Elizabeth Dole Foundation are teaming up to tell these deeply personal stories of caregivers like Roxana because veteran caregivers need support and need to know they aren’t alone.
Three nurses and a physician’s assistant have resigned from an Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs facility after maggots were discovered in a veteran’s wound.
The center in Talihina, Oklahoma, has reportedly had staffing issues.
According to a report by the Tulsa World, the veteran, Owen Reese Peterson, 73, who served during the Vietnam War, arrived at the center with an infection prior to his Oct. 3 death.
Oklahoma Secretary of Veterans Affairs Myles Deering, a retired major general in the Oklahoma National Guard, claimed that Peterson “did not succumb as a result of the parasites” but instead died from sepsis.
According to WebMD.com, sepsis is a “serious medical condition” that is triggered when chemicals released to fight an infection in the body instead cause inflammation. It can lead to organ failure and death. As many as half of those with severe cases of sepsis end up dead.
“During the 21 days I was there, … I pleaded with the medical staff, the senior medical staff, to increase his meds so his bandages could be changed,” Raymie Parker, Peterson’s son, told the Tulsa World. Parker claimed that his requests were “met with a stonewall” by senior medical personnel and administrators.
“The Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs is required to maintain certain staffing levels and currently is unable to meet them,” Oklahoma State Sen. Frank Simpson, Senate Committee on Military and Veterans Affairs chairman, said. “At Talihina, they had to reduce the population of veterans there due to the inability to staff the facility.”
The four personnel resigned prior to the commencement of termination proceedings. In 2012, the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs was rocked when two veterans — 86-year-old Louis Arterberry and 85-year-old Jay Minter — died in the Claremore Veterans Center. Minter died after he was scalded in a whirlpool, and Arterberry died of a stroke.
A physician’s assistant was indicted on two counts of second-degree murder and two counts of caretaker neglect. He ultimately served a 90-day jail sentence.
On December 3, Brian’s mother posted a video of him reciting his poem on her Facebook wall. At the time of this writing, the video had been shared over 103,700 times. The video was intended to be shared with friends and family, but it had such a powerful effect that it was published to YouTube in order to mitigate comments to her Facebook account.
Brian delivers a powerful and sincere peek into his scars of war that were inspired by a grocery bagger’s clueless comments.
Clearly upset, he took to poetry to express his experience.
VA is teaming up with the Elizabeth Dole Foundation (EDF) and the American Red Cross Military Veteran Caregiver Network (MVCN) to provide one-year, free, premium LinkedIn subscriptions to Veteran caregivers. Donated by LinkedIn, the free premium subscriptions help Veteran caregivers get noticed by recruiters, build out a network, stay in the know on new jobs that fit their skills, and apply for new opportunities.
In addition, LinkedIn offers a free year of unlimited access to over 15,000 business, creative and technology courses. The courses are all taught by industry experts through the LinkedIn Learning platform. Veterans may also request a free one-year premium subscription here: www.linkedin.com/military.
Caregivers support one of VA’s key priorities
VA values its long-standing relationships with the Elizabeth Dole Foundation and the American Red Cross. Together, we work to strengthen and bridge the gaps in services and resources in the community for caregivers.
The Elizabeth Dole Foundation will soon share this offering with their military and Veteran caregiver community. Over the coming weeks, the Dole Foundation will be sharing this with the Foundation’s Hidden Heroes Caregiver Community, an online platform that connects thousands of military caregivers to a network of peer support and other resources.
The American Red Cross MVCN welcomes Veteran caregivers to join their Employment and Workplace Support Group if they are interested.
Specifically for the Veteran community, LinkedIn has created two learning paths.
Transition from Military to Civilian Employment: This learning path will help youis designed to navigate your job searches, helping you while building youra professional identity, assists in preopreparing prepare for interviews, negotiatinge salariesy, and even get promotionsed once you’ve after been hired.
Transition from Military to Student Life: Covering everything from ACT/SAT/GRE test prep to essay writing, study skills, time management tips, and how to land an internship, this learning path propels Veteransshould set you on a course to success – graduation and beyond.
To make the most of LinkedIn, use these resources:
LinkedIn for Veterans: This course provides a “LinkedIn 101” tutorial for everything from selecting and uploading the right picture to searching and applying for jobs.
Finding Your Purpose After Active Duty: This course is all about the intangibles of transition – understanding the Veteran’syour value to civilian employers, dealing with the uncertainty of transition, and wrestling with some of the challenges inherent in this process.
“LinkedIn is exited to support the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) who has teamed up with the Elizabeth Dole Foundation and the American Red Cross Military Veteran Caregiver Network to offer Premium to family members of wounded veterans. These parents, spouses, and children of returning service members often disrupt their career paths to take on the important role of a caregiver.” Sarah Roberts, Head of Military and Veterans Programs, LinkedIn.
The Elizabeth Dole Foundation is excited to share this new, free offering with their military and Veteran caregiver community. Over the coming weeks, the Dole Foundation will be sharing this with the Foundation’s Hidden Heroes Caregiver Community, an online platform that connects thousands of military caregivers to a network of peer support and other resources. This offering is also available to military and Veteran caregivers who request to join Hidden Heroes in the coming weeks!
“We’re very excited to team up with LinkedIn and the VA on this very exciting offering,” said Steve Schwab, CEO of the Elizabeth Dole Foundation. “Finding flexible employment has always been a challenge for the military caregivers we serve, and in the midst of COVID-19, this continues to be a top need for caregivers. We are excited to make this offering available to our community and continue to find ways we can creatively support military families during this difficult time.”
The American Red Cross MVCN welcomes Veteran caregivers of all eras to join their custom, secure, caregiver– only Network. The MVCN is delighted to host Sarah Roberts, Head of Military and Veteran Programs at LinkedIn to demonstrate how LinkedIn can support caregiver employment. Caregivers interested in a free Premium LinkedIn Subscription are encouraged to join the Employment and Workplace Support group where the ongoing issues of caregiver employment are shared.
Several small groups of soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division have deployed in early 2017, bound for the Middle East and the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
That fight, according to U.S. officials, includes the “most significant urban combat to take place since World War II.”
“It is tough and brutal,” Lt. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend said from Baghdad late March, describing the ongoing operation to liberate Mosul, Iraq, from ISIS.
“House by house, block by block fights. Despite that, the Iraqi Security Forces continue to press ISIS on multiple axes, presenting them with multiple dilemmas. We know the enemy cannot respond to this. Tough fighting in one sector provides the opportunity for other elements to advance in other areas, and that’s what the Iraqi Security Forces have been doing.”
Townsend is the commander of the anti-ISIS coalition, known as Combined Joint Task Force — Operation Inherent Resolve. He’s also the commander of the 18th Airborne Corps and Fort Bragg.
U.S. Army 1st Lt. Branden Quintana and Sgt. Cory Ballentine, both 82nd Airborne Division, pull security with M4 carbines on the roof of an Iraqi police station in Habaniyah, Anbar province, Iraq, July 13, 2011. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Kissta Feldner/Released)
The coalition he leads includes dozens of countries making varied contributions to the fight. The 82nd Airborne Division’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team is a key contributor among U.S. forces, with more than 1,800 paratroopers deployed in support of an advise-and-assist mission, training and equipping Iraqi forces before battle and providing intelligence, artillery support and advice during combat.
The latest 82nd Airborne troops to deploy in support of the fight are also from the unit, known as Falcon Brigade. Although they are not expected to remain in country for the entirety of what’s left of the nine-month deployment.
Army leaders first discussed the additional deployments last month, when a three-star general told members of Congress up to 2,500 soldiers from the brigade could join the rest of their unit on the deployment.
But officials have said more recently that it’s unclear if that number will be called forward. Instead, smaller groups — such as the two companies of about 200 soldiers who left Fort Bragg last Tuesday — have been deployed.
Speaking to reporters at the Pentagon via telephone last week, Townsend said ISIS was causing massive human suffering and would continue to do so if the Iraqi forces and their coalition partners do not prevail.
“Our enemy, ISIS, are evil and murderous butchers, engaged in purposeful and mass slaughter,” he said. “There are countless mass graves surrounding Mosul. ISIS put those bodies in there…the savages that are ISIS deliberately target, terrorize, and kill innocent civilians every day. The best and fastest way to end this human suffering is to quickly liberate these cities and Iraq and Syria from ISIS.”
Townsend said officials have observed civilians fleeing ISIS-held buildings. They’ve heard reports that ISIS was shooting civilians trying to leave Mosul. Iraqi forces have reported houses filled with hostages and rigged to explode.
“This is a difficult and brutal fight on multiple fronts,” he said. “…it is the toughest and most brutal phase of this war and…the toughest and most brutal close quarters combat that I have experienced in my 34 year of service.”
“ISIS is slaughtering Iraqis and Syrians on a daily basis,” Townsend added. “ISIS is cutting off heads. ISIS is shooting people, throwing people from buildings, burning them alive in cases, and they’re making a video record to prove it. This has got to stop. This evil has got to be stamped out.”
You see and hear this term all the time: “former Marine.” And, wherever you see it, you’ll also see Marines telling you (and everyone else) why we hate it. Sure, there are a few folks out there who agree with it, but those of us who hold the title near and dear to our hearts will tell you a different story.
In my opinion, there’s a damned good reason for the expression, “once a Marine, always a Marine.” Others disagree.
To be fair, this is not a mentality exclusive to Marines. Just because you “get out” doesn’t mean you’re no longer a Marine, soldier, airman, coast guardsman, etc. You don’t just instantly forget everything you’ve learned and experienced over the past few years once you get your DD-214. Joining the military makes you a part of a fraternity and you’ll find that you resonate better with other veterans than you do with people from any other walk of life for one simple reason: You became a part of something much larger than yourself.
Your membership was paid for in blood, sweat, and tears, along with the countless hours you spent dedicated to the cause. To say a veteran is an “ex-” anything is highly inaccurate.
However, there are certain qualities (mostly conscious choices) that define a former Marine. These are just a few of those qualities:
Maybe you just need some new Drill Instructors…
(U.S. Marine Corps)
Severe lack of discipline
It’s easy to fall into the trap of letting your discipline slide when you get out — in fact, a lot of us are guilty of this. But at some point, we pick it back up and we reintegrate it into our lives. To allow this discipline to drop off entirely is most definitely a conscious choice — one that can lead to the discontinuation of other hard-earned qualities.
Forgotten core values
No matter which branch you join, you’ll first learn the core values and then you’ll embody them. Those values shape your personal code and you live by them while you’re in the military. When you get out, if you aren’t still using them to find some direction in life, you’ve earn the “ex” in front of your title.
Just remember what you learned.
(U.S. Marine Corps)
Lack of leadership
Almost everyone comes out of the military with some type of leadership capabilities. Something you hear often in the military is, “in the absence of leadership, be a leader.” This applies heavily to civilian life because there’s often severe absence of leadership. If you get out of the military without learning how to take control from time to time, you likely didn’t learn much else.
Lack of punctuality
We’re all guilty of being late to something at some point. It just happens, it’s the way of life. But, those who learned anything from time in service will remember the factors that played into that tardiness, both self-inflicted and external, and ensure it doesn’t happen again.
If you’re choosing to be late because you just don’t care — you’ve given up your title.
If you define yourself as an “ex-Marine,” by all means.
(U.S. Marine Corps)
A conscious decision to no longer be a Marine
There’s a common belief among those who served that states you should always work to justify the fact that you’ve earned the right to be called a Marine (or solider, or airmen, etc). You should continuously employ the values learned in service in forming your civilian life.
There is, however, another side to this — and it’s simple. If you decide you’re no longer fitting of that title because you’ve grown a beard or whatever other, arbitrary reason, then you aren’t.
Many of us still believe in our titles and we’re willing to continue to honor it. It’s a lifetime effort and, if you’re not willing to make the commitment, nobody else will make it for you.
The 1968 World War II film “Where Eagles Dare” thrilled some viewers — and scared the bejesus out of others — with its tale of commandos storming a snow-covered mountain fortress and a scene of Richard Burton wrestling with Nazi thugs on the roof of a swaying cable car.
But for an Omaha teen named James Stejskal, seeing the movie inspired his life’s work as an Army Green Beret.
“I was always interested in that kind of life,” said Stejskal, 63, now retired from careers as a soldier and CIA agent and living in Alexandria, Virginia. “A small unit fighting against the bigger enemy (using) a combination of military and intelligence operations, not just brute force.”
Green Berets standing proud. (U.S. Army photo)
This spring, Stejskal published a book called “Special Forces Berlin: Clandestine Cold War Operations of the U.S. Army’s Elite, 1956-90,” about the secret unit with which he spent nine of his 23 years in the Army. Its work was so sensitive that the Pentagon didn’t acknowledge its existence until 2014.
“That’s when we finally came in from the cold,” said Tom Merrill, 63, of Martinsburg, West Virginia, who served with Stejskal in Berlin and remains a friend.
Stejskal enlisted in the Army in 1973, a year after graduating from Central High School. Soon he became a Green Beret, serving on small special ops teams. He was a weapons sergeant and a medic, known to his buddies as “Styk.”
“He was the consummate operator — natively smart, well-educated, thought well on his feet,” said Merrill, who lived in Council Bluffs as a boy.
The Berlin unit, created in 1956, was blandly named Detachment “A.” It disbanded in 1990, after the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War ended.
The soldiers of Detachment “A” didn’t look much like soldiers. They dressed in modish clothes, wore beards and long hair, made local friends, lived in off-base apartments. All spoke German, many of them fluently.
“Working in civilian clothes, blending in with the locals, doing cool stuff in West Berlin and the middle of (Communist) East Germany,” recalled Stejskal, who served in the unit from 1977 to 1981, and from 1984 to 1989. “It was a very ambiguous kind of duty.”
They were expert at soldierly skills like marksmanship, wilderness navigation, rappelling from helicopters, urban combat. But they also learned the tradecraft of spies, including surveillance and secret messaging.
In the event of a Soviet-led invasion of Western Europe, the detachment’s job was to melt into the population of Berlin and engage in acts of sabotage behind enemy lines. In his book, Stejskal describes it as a “Hail Mary plan to slow the (Soviet) juggernaut they expected when and if a war began.”
Each of the detachment’s six teams was to be responsible for sabotaging bridges and railroads, harassing the enemy in designated slices of East Berlin and East Germany.
The work evolved as new threats emerged in Europe, and encompassed training in guerrilla warfare, direct-action precision strikes, and counterterrorism.
As radical groups spread terror across Europe with kidnappings, mass shootings and hijackings in the 1970s, Detachment “A” practiced rescuing hostages from trains and airplanes. Pan Am let them drill using airliners stored in its hangars at Berlin’s Tegel airport.
The detachment’s highest-profile mission had little to do with the Cold War and didn’t even take place in Europe. In 1980, the detachment was tapped to help rescue 52 U.S. diplomats held hostage in Tehran by radical Iranian students.
Soon after the embassy was captured Nov. 4, 1979, the U.S. military began developing a plan to seize the hostages. Most were held in the main embassy compound, but the job of Detachment “A” was to snatch three who were being held separately at the Iranian Foreign Ministry.
The first rescue attempt, Operation Eagle Claw, ended in disaster when a plane and a helicopter collided in the dark in the Iranian desert.
Operation Eagle Claw ends in failure, 1989. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)
The military quietly began planning a second rescue attempt, again including members of Detachment “A.” Stejskal and Merrill, who hadn’t been part of Eagle Claw, were involved in the second, Operation Storm Cloud. It involved using Air Force transport planes to fly partly disassembled helicopters into an airfield commandeered in the desert. The helicopters would be quickly reassembled and used to assault the Foreign Ministry.
The team traveled to Florida to conduct live-fire drills and spent weeks rehearsing with helicopter crews. They honed their weapons skills with extra-long hours on the shooting range.
“We were blowing (our weapons) up, we were firing them so much,” Stejskal said.
They ran a dress rehearsal in late November 1980, but soon the word came down: The mission had been scrubbed.
“It was deflating, extremely,” Stejskal said. “It’s like preparing for a big game and then being told you can’t play.”
The hostages were released Jan. 20, 1981, the same day President Ronald Reagan was inaugurated.
President Reagan’s inauguration, 1981. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)
Stejskal soon rotated out but returned to the unit in 1984. The 1980s are remembered now as the death throes of the Soviet empire. But at the time, it wasn’t clear whether popular movements like Poland’s Solidarity might provoke a Soviet crackdown.
“No one was really sure how it would all play out,” he said.
Stejskal left Berlin in the spring of 1989, but he flew back in November when he heard that the Wall had fallen. He wanted to see the end of the Cold War icon that had shaped his life.
“In one way, it was a relief: The mission as I knew it in Berlin was over, or soon would be,” Stejskal said. “On the other hand, there was a bit of nostalgia for the way things were.”
Not that his life on the razor’s edge ended when the Wall fell. In December 1992, Stejskal was badly wounded when his car drove over a land mine in Somalia.
Stejskal suffered a serious head injury and a shattered leg.
“I basically had 3½ inches of bone that was turned to confetti,” he said.
Stejskal returned to duty a year later. But he knew he would never regain his former strength. So he retired in 1996.
Green Berets. (U.S. Army photo)
That was the same year he married Wanda Nesbitt, a State Department foreign service officer he had met five years earlier during an evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Kinshasa, in the country then known as Zaire.
At his first overseas posting with Nesbitt, Stejskal said, someone handed him a sticky note with a telephone number on it and said to call if he wanted a job. That led to a 13-year stint with the CIA.
In recent years, Stejskal has attended Detachment “A” reunions, where the stories flow along with the beer.
“Somebody said, ‘We need to get this down on paper. We’ve got a history. Who’s going to write it down?'” he said.
Stejskal volunteered. Merrill said the book, published in March by Casemate Publishers, has taught him a lot he didn’t know about the unit’s history.
“He gave it the respect it deserved,” Merrill said. “He was able to take his insider knowledge and transfer it to something an outsider can understand.”
Active-duty servicemembers and veterans share many common experiences which often sets us apart from civilians. We can come together over a tour-of-duty station, a shared commander or unit, or the unforgettable aspects of our training. But it’s often our dark sense of humor — stories about Jody, tales of ass-grabbing antics on and off post, and the ribbing of comrades and competing branches alike — which underpins military culture and unites the community. That’s why I was excited when I recently discovered a growing non-profit organization, Irreverent Warriors, whose mission is to bring service members and veterans together using humor and camaraderie. Their target is to improve mental health and end veteran suicide through humor.
I was intrigued.
Fortunately for me, Irreverent Warriors was organizing a very popular event that I could attend right in New York City: a Silkies Hike. The hike was designed to get veterans, active-duty soldiers, reservists, and retired servicemembers together (in Silkies shorts — also known as “ranger panties” or “Catch-Me-F**K-Me’s”) to be among friends and build new bonds. The New York City Silkies Hike was just one of five going on that day. The hikes were held throughout the country and drew hundreds of hikers.
“As of now, we have 65 hikes scheduled for 2021,” Irreverent Warriors CEO Cindy McNally said. “We doubled the number of hikes in two years!”
But the group does more than Silkies Hikes. According to McNally, the organization has put together “camping trips, Silkies Olympics, boat trips, community clean-ups, events to serve disabled and senior vets, and much more.”
And the events are strictly for the military. The purpose is to ensure that members know that everyone who participates either wears the uniform or has worn it before.
That was reassuring for me. I knew my dirty jokes and endless f-bombs would be welcomed — even encouraged. That toilet humor doesn’t always fit well with civilians, but a soldier, airman, marine, or seaman (quick chuckle) will always get it.
So I went for it, Silkies and everything.
Warriors SP at 0830 hours led by event organizer, Marc Herzog, taking point and donning the black Irreverent Warriors flag.
As if sensing my newness, Irreverent Warriors New York Area Leader Marc Herzog told me that his first social event in 2017 “was the most amazing experience ever.”
“I found my people for the first time,” he added.
Another Irreverent Warriors member, a Marine named Kevin Bunn, assured me: “Many of us shared your experience… we’re not gonna push you. I know where you were and I know what you’re going through.”
In fact, I was quite comfortable around every hiker. I knew what type of people was around me: gritty, hard-working, selfless Americans who would jump at any opportunity to help a brother or sister in uniform.
Kevin confirmed what my gut knew: “[The vets] need these events to keep them from feeling isolated,” he said. “Just one or two events gets them through the year.”
The Warriors report to formation for a photo in Times Square, NYC. (Photo courtesy of Arturo Martinez, Marine.)
I also knew they can party, as I have done many times before (probably too much). And some partying was the first thing I saw that morning.
As we mustered at the start point in Central Park, many Irreverent Warriors members cracked open beers. I’ll admit I was a bit nervous that this affair would get out of control. As a former officer, I knew the math: soldiers + booze = debauchery.
But it turned out to be everything but that.
No matter how many drinks some Warriors had, (and a few had a lot!) they knew what line not to cross. No one urinated on the street, left garbage behind, or damaged any property. With the exception of some slurring and a little stumbling, it was pure professionalism at its finest. I was impressed, a little relieved, and totally at home.
On many occasions, curious onlookers asked the Warriors about the purpose of the group. No matter who answered, the response was always the same: “We bring veterans together using humor and camaraderie to improve mental health and prevent veteran suicide.”
A small platoon-sized element poses for a picture at one of the checkpoints, Washington Square Park, NYC.
Another Warrior, “A.A. Ron,” was asked what the group meant to him: “I met a lot of vets through IW,” he replied. “Regardless of when you served, we’re the same. We’re here for each other to lift our spirits and to enjoy our lives and the lives of others lost.”
The New York City hike hit its climax at Ground Zero. As we rounded a city corner in the Financial District, we were confronted by the Freedom Tower. The direct view of the building and how it dominated the landscape captured everyone’s attention. The party atmosphere quickly dipped into a somber state. The group, whose mood had been one of partying and incessant chanting, became silent. We all felt the same way, we all knew what this meant.
As we mustered outside the Freedom tower, several Warriors took the stage to tell their stories of those lost and remembered. The message was clear: you are not alone!
After a moment of silence, a prayer, and warm hugs we gathered our belongings and carried on with the mission, as all Warriors do.
Not too long ago, WATM ran a story featuring a TV show host who wanted to know what it felt like to carry the typical combat load a Vietnam War GI would haul. If you didn’t get a chance to see it, click here: This is why grunt gear isn’t for the average man
Many members of our loyal audience took the opportunity to chime in after reading the article and commented about what the heavy equipment they had to lug around during their time serving “in the suck” and here’s what they had to say.
1. The veteran grunt
2. The motivated Corpsman
3. The usual checklist of gear for this grunt was…