According to a listing maintained by investigative reporter Sharyl Attkisson, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan 19 times from 2006 to his retirement from the Air Force Reserve in 2015. Senator Graham’s deployments were often coordinated with Congressional recesses – enabling him to balance his duties as a United States Senator with his reserve duties.
Graham would often head over as part of a Congressional delegation, spend one or two days as a civilian, then he’d stay behind and serve for about a week (sometimes more) as a Judge Advocate General in the United States Air Force Reserve.
In a release by his Presidential campaign in 2015 after a Washington Post hit piece, some details of Graham’s service in both Iraq and Afghanistan came to light. Army General David Petraeus and Marine General John Allen both noted that much of Graham’s work was done on detainee policy. Both a former Judge Advocate General and Deputy Judge Advocate General praised Graham’s service in the release.
The deployments came about because Senator Graham had to be transferred from an assignment to the Air Force’s Court of Criminal Appeals — an assignment given in 2003, according to a release from Senator Graham’s office — due to a claim made by an airman fighting charges of wrongfully using cocaine.
Senator Graham was also a veteran of Desert Storm prior to winning election to the House of Representatives in 1994. He was first elected to the Senate in 2002, replacing Strom Thurmond. Graham retired from the Air Force Reserve in 2015 as a colonel, shortly before running for President, ending a combined total of 33 years of active-duty, reserve, and National Guard service.
Air Force Staff Sgt. Srun Sookmeewiriya — or “Sook,” as many people know him — may seem like a happy and carefree airman at first glance.
The 313th Expeditionary Operations Support Squadron’s noncommissioned officer in charge of reports regularly puts forth an earnest effort here to keep his unit alive and running, so his dark past and his struggle with depression and suicidal thoughts come as a surprise to many.
“He’s like the morale person — that’s what everybody else refers him to,” said Air Force Master Sgt. Melissa Vela, the 313th EOSS NCO in charge of console operations. “He’s so full of energy. He’s so infectious, he makes everybody laugh.”
Unknown to many of his wingmen, Sook’s current persona is possible only because he recovered from serious trauma he experienced as a young man. When Sook still lived in his native Thailand, both of his parents committed suicide. He witnessed his mother’s suicide, and he found his father’s body after his father had taken his own life and attempted to kill Sook’s younger brother, Thana.
“I saw him lying there in bed,” he recalled. “I wasn’t sure what happened. I tried to wake him up to see if he was still alive. I thought I was alone, and I didn’t know who I would go to now. My head was just spinning at that point. It was a shock.” Thana survived the gunshot wound, but was never the same, physically or mentally, Sook said.
With his mother and father gone, Thana was the only family Sook had left. He went to a boarding school, where he said depression haunted him and other children bullied him for not having parents. This led to a suicide attempt by ingesting a large amount of over-the-counter medication. He was in a coma for two days.
Sook finished boarding school and eventually immigrated to the United States, where Thana would join him soon afterward. Sook spent his early time in the U.S. with relatives from his father’s first marriage. He would bounce from family to family because of his troubled personality, he said, and he also felt as if he was just an outsider because of his status as a “half-relative.”
“I felt like I didn’t belong, because I wasn’t a part of their family,” Sook said. “I didn’t feel any emotion when I hugged them.”
The feeling of being an outsider overwhelmed Sook, and he tried to kill himself again.
“I didn’t want to deal with the state I was in: not feeling welcome and not feeling like I was part of the family,” he said. “At that time as a kid, I thought that the best way was to just end it all and leave.”
Sook said he tried to hide his attempted suicide, but his relatives eventually found out and sent him to a doctor to get help. His half-sister, Kim, was especially appalled, and confronted him about what he done. She asked, “What about your brother?”
“When she mentioned my brother, I totally thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m leaving him behind,'” Sook said. That’s when he decided to turn around and confront his issues instead of running from them. Sook described his brother as his inspiration in his fight against depression.
“He was the only family I had up to that point. It was me and him. He has been through a lot tougher things than I had. Because of the gunshot wound, he was scarred for life. He didn’t grow up normally, but he never gave up. That’s one reason why I should not and will not give up on him, because he didn’t either.”
Strength in Recovery
As part of his recovery process, Sook found strength in his faith and from Kim, who helped him get back on his feet.
“It took me a while — basically, a couple years,” he said. “I think I’m still bouncing back to this day. I think of this tragedy as a lesson, and that lesson is to not repeat the same thing that [my parents] did.”
Sook joined the Air Force as a civil engineer airman, and cross-trained to be an air mobility controller. He adopted Thana as his dependent, and eventually married and started a family. He noted that although his life still has its ups and downs, he copes by confiding in his wife. He also expressed gratitude for the support his coworkers give him continuously.
“Having a good work center in the Air Force actually helped me out a lot,” he said. “When I have other issues, they continue to help me out.”
Vela described how surprised she was when Sook opened up to her about his past, saying that she would have never guessed that an airman like Sook would have experienced so much trauma.
“I was speechless the whole time he told his story,” she recalled. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, are you OK?’ To me, I can see the strength in his words and his actions. Seeing the strength that he had to come forth and tell his story is amazing.”
Encouragement for Others
Sook shares his story occasionally with the public, hoping to encourage people suffering from depression to seek help and not to try to survive on their own. He said he emphasizes how important it is to open up to people who care, and that many people are standing by at agencies on the base ready to assist in their battle against depression.
“Don’t bottle up those issues,” he added. “If you stress out, talk it out. Find somebody who is willing to listen.”
Sook said he encourages airmen to look for a cause and to do what it takes to survive so they can continue to fight for it.
“Don’t give up. Look for what you’re fighting for,” he said. “I fight for my brother, my wife, and my kids. It’s their future and my future.”
Recently, a video of Secretary of Defense James Mattis surfaced as the retired, decorated Marine met with a group of deployed service members. As the former general started to speak, a school circle quickly formed around him as his words began to motivate those who listened.
Mattis is widely-known for his impeccable military service and leadership skills, earning him the respect by both enlisted personnel and officers.
Mattis broke the ice with the deployed service members by humorously introducing himself and thanking them in his special way — an epic impromptu speech.
“Just hold the line until our country gets back to understanding and respecting each other and showing it of being friendly to one another, you know, that Americans owe to one other,” Mattis said. “We’re so doggone lucky to be Americans.”
Moments after Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), the U.S. House Majority Whip, was shot in the hip during an attack on a practice for the upcoming Congressional baseball game, an Iraq War vet was treating his wound.
“You never expect a baseball field in America to feel like being back in a combat zone in Iraq, but this morning it did,” Rep. Brad Wenstrup tweeted. The Ohio Republican congressman later told an aide the only difference between the Alexandria shooting and Iraq was being “without his weapon.”
According to a report by WLWT.com, Wenstrup began to treat his wounded colleague after Scalise dragged himself off the field. Wenstrup had seen wounds like that before he had ever entered politics.
According to the official biography on his web site, that is because Rep. Wentrup is also Col. Wenstrup in the U.S. Army Reserve – and he’s has served in the Army Reserve since 1998, after his sister had a battle with leukemia. During a tour in Iraq with the 344th Combat Support Hospital, Wenstrup was a combat surgeon, which he described as “the worst thing that ever happened to me, and the best thing I ever got to do.”
“I remember one Marine we lost on the table, and the anesthesiologist saying, ‘I had breakfast with him this morning.’ Or having to tell a group of Marines their buddy didn’t make it. Those were the tough days,” he told the college’s magazine.
He had good days, too, including helping to treat a four-month old girl who had pneumonia. Eventually, the doctors figured out the girl also needed gluten-free formula, and raised over $400 to help make arrangements for a U.S. company to send the girl’s father the right baby food.
Veterans of World War II and the Korean and Vietnam Wars gathered at the White House May 8, honored for their selfless service and the freedoms that endure to this day because of their brave actions.
The veterans at the White House ceremony were part of an Honor Flight from northern Colorado. Honor Flights are conducted at no cost to the veterans and enable them to see the national memorials of the wars in which they fought.
The men and women who have served and fought for freedom are the nation’s most cherished citizens, and are owed a debt of gratitude that will never be fully repaid, Vice President Mike Pence said.
“Today it is my great honor, on behalf of the first family, here on National Military Appreciation Month, to welcome so many heroes to this special place,” he said.
The veterans are “patriots of the highest order” who stepped forward and served with courage to “protect our nation and the values that we hold dear,” Pence said.
The vice president said it is especially humbling to welcome the veterans since he had not served in the military himself.
Pence noted the event comes on the 72nd anniversary of Victory in Europe Day.
“It’s an honor and privilege more than I can say to be here with so many who fought in the greatest conflict of the 20th century, and who won freedom in World War II,” he said.
Debt of Honor and Gratitude
The Honor Flight trips to Washington are deeply meaningful, Pence explained.
“All the people that make these honor flights possible know that this is just about paying a debt of honor and a debt of gratitude that our nation will never be able to fully repay to all of you,” Pence said. “But we hope this experience fills your hearts with the absolute assurance that we’ll never forget what you’ve done for us.”
Because of the service and sacrifice of those in the room, freedom endures to this day, the vice president said. They fought on the front lines of freedom.
“You are among the rest of us, but make no mistake about it, you are the best of us,” he said. “On behalf of your commander in chief, I’m here to say thanks and to salute your service.”
“I didn’t have a normal and safe childhood,” Pvt. 1st Class Yasir Kadhum said woefully. “I did this so my kids could live, and be safe.”
Kadhum was born and raised in Baghdad, Iraq. Growing up, he never considered the life he lived was anything out of the ordinary, until he was an adult and attending his first year of college in 2003, when U.S. forces entered Iraq.
“It was a complicated feeling then,” Kadhum remembered. “We were happy, but it was also scary, because during the Saddam regime we had nothing. In 2003, we had hope.”
Iraq had become a warzone right in front of his eyes.
“When the coalition forces had come to Iraq to free us from Saddam, I was in college and decided I needed to help.”
Kadhum was hired by a U.S. contractor and used the time to establish himself and work on his English. When the request for translators was made from the U.S. Army, he knew he could do more.
Kadhum learned immediately that his job as an interpreter could have either a negative or positive effect based on his translations.
“If I missed one word when translating, then something could have happened,” he said.
Kadhum started his job as an interpreter working with a Military Transition Team. His team worked directly with the Iraqi army, training them and providing guidance on how to use equipment, clear rooms and other necessary tactical skills.
Being in the position he was in, Kadhum was sometimes the only connecting piece between the Iraqi forces and U.S. forces. Eventually, he would become a target of the enemy and had to start concealing his identity whenever traveling outside of his job.
“Our people think we aren’t good people because we help the U.S. Army,” he said. “They started threatening us and following us many times. They would threaten us either directly or indirectly.
Pvt. 1st Class Yasir Kadhum, an 88M (truck driver) assists in fueling vehicles during a driver’s training class, July 26, 2018.
(U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Jessica DuVernay)
I had to move my family with me from place to place. “
As a result of the threats, Kadhum felt pressured to leave the Military Transition Team and started working at a prison, still as an interpreter.
“This was another challenge for me,” he said. “To help the prisoners, and most of them were terrorists. But it was their human right.”
Kadhum said he gained experience in the proper and fair treatment of prisoners, despite the crime they committed. Ensuring the imprisoned received the right food and water in accordance with their rights was, at times, difficult for Kadhum, but despite his struggle, he continued to help facilitate the standard.
In 2007, Iraq had become a more dangerous place. Enemy forces were relentless with their attacks on the government, U.S. forces and the people of Iraq.
Kadhum’s main purpose for working with U.S. forces was to benefit the country and people of Iraq. Unfortunately, others did not feel that was the purpose of the interpreters.
“I felt like I was serving my country more than I was serving the U.S. Army,” Kadhum said. “I don’t feel like I did something wrong in my country, but other people did.
“All the time I must hide everything, even the ID I had, I had to hide in my boot. We had to travel together [the interpreters] to go home to make sure we were safe.”
Kadhum continued his support to the American forces until he determined it was no longer safe to stay in Iraq.
“I was scared for my son when he went to school,” Kadhum explained. “My wife would go with him and wait because maybe someone would kidnap him; every time he went to school my wife stayed with him.”
With the help of the program established for interpreters who assist the U.S., he was able to get a Special Immigration Visa and come to America with his wife and two children in August 2016.
“I feel like at first when I came here I felt safe,” he said. “My oldest is almost ten and my daughter is now three. Now I feel safe.
“If my son wants to go to the playground, I’m not scared someone will kidnap him. I’m not scared someone will be threatening me through him,” Kadhum continued. “Now I feel like my kids can grow up normal.”
A few months later, Kadhum was in a U.S. Army recruiter’s office looking for a way to give back to the very institution that he had already given so much.
“Right now for me the Army is not a job, it’s not a career,” he started. “I’m serving. This is what I feel because at least I can pay back what the U.S. Army did for me.
I came here and the first thing I thought was I needed to serve; because this Army has worked to help people to do better in their life. I believed it at the time even when I was an interpreter.”
In early July 2018, Kadhum recited the Naturalization Oath of Allegiance to the United States, and became an official U.S. citizen with more than 15 other soldiers during a ceremony on Fort Hood.
“I’m really happy but at the same time it is a big responsibility,” he said. “While serving in the Army it is a responsibility, but even if I get out of [the] Army as a civilian I still have more responsibility.
When you choose to get that citizenship it is different from the people who are born with the citizenship. When it’s harder to get it, it is a big commitment. I have more appreciation for it.”
Kadhum is looking ahead to the future for himself and his family.
“The best thing is because of the naturalization, I can do anything now,” he said. “My hopes are for my kids that they get to live a normal life and every thing will be perfect for them.”
Jake Wood has seen and done a lot in his life, so you know when he calls receiving the Pat Tillman Award for Service “humbling,” it’s a meaningful statement. The co-founder and CEO of Team Rubicon was a United States Marine and scout sniper in Iraq and Afghanistan. He’s testified in Congress on veterans’ mental health and briefed the last three Presidents of the United States about the issues returning veterans face.
Now, he’s been recognized by the ESPY awards, the annual presentation from ESPN and ABC honoring athletes for their performance in sports and sports-related activities. While deploying American military veterans to help disaster areas other rescue organizations won’t touch isn’t necessarily a sport, one can argue it’s definitely athletic.
But you don’t have to argue for Jake Wood.
Tillman as a Ranger and as a Cardinal.
The Pat Tillman Award for Service is presented at the ESPYs to honor an individual with a strong connection to sports who has served others in a way that echoes the Tillman legacy. Previous honorees include 2016’s Sgt. Elizabeth Marks, who overcame hip injuries sustained in Iraq but still became the world’s number one paraswimmer. In 2015, it was awarded to Danielle Green, who joined the military after playing basketball at Notre Dame and lost her arm in Iraq. Green returned to help other veterans struggling to adjust to life after the military.
For Jake Wood, this award hits close to home. Wood was playing on the offensive line at the University of Wisconsin when Pat Tillman was killed in action in Afghanistan in 2004. It was after Tillman died that Wood told his coach he was off to join the Marine Corps, where he spent four years.
He was out for just three months before he saw the devastation in Haiti. It was in Port-Au-Prince that a handful of volunteers formed the first heartbeat of what would be come Team Rubicon. Now, the organization is 80,000 members strong.
Wood in Haiti on Team Rubicon’s first mission.
And Jake Wood, the former o-lineman for the Badgers, is being recognized for forming a group that helps those most in need while giving struggling military veterans a new mission in life.
The persistence of serious problems endangering America’s veterans at the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Washington, DC has employees begging Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie for assistance.
“We ask you, our respected leaders, to stop this coverup and incompetence, to really care and live up to America’s promise to its Heroes,” the employees wrote to Wilkie and other senior Department of Veterans Affairs officials in correspondence obtained by USA Today.
“Enough is enough,” they added in the letter, which called attention to soaring infection rates and plummeting patient and employee satisfaction.
The response from the employees comes after reports of horrific conditions at the facility, which serves tens of thousands of veterans in Washington. Deemed high risk in January 2018 and designated “critical” in a leaked memo written in July 2018 and obtained by Stars and Stripes on Aug. 1, 2018, the hospital is presently under investigation. VA staffers, however, are not optimistic, even with the prospect of leadership changes following administrative review.
Robert Wilkie, acting United States Secretary of Veterans Affairs.
A scathing report from April 2017 revealed that not only did the hospital lack essential equipment and fail to meet necessary cleanliness standards, but senior leaders were aware of the problems and had not properly addressed them. The VA removed the hospital director, and sent teams of experts to the medical facility to improve the situation. It didn’t help.
Internal reports in November 2017 highlighted the findings of VA sterilization specialists, who discovered rusty medical instruments and bacteria in the water intended to sterilize the equipment. With limited sterilization supplies on hand, the hospital was reportedly borrowing them from a neighboring private hospital. The facility in DC is one of 15 VA hospitals with a one-star rating, despite it being a flagship medical care center for the VA.
Other alarming reports noted consistent cleanliness failings and incidents in which the hospital was forced to borrow bone marrow for surgeries.
In March 2018, a report from the VA Office of Inspector General revealed that a “culture of complacency” had allowed problems to persist for years, putting the lives of US veterans in danger and wasting taxpayer dollars. The report concluded that officials at every level of the Department of Veterans Affairs — local, regional, and national — were aware of the serious shortfalls at the hospital in DC, but those officials were either unwilling or incapable of fixing the problems.
President Donald Trump previously described the VA, which has an annual budget of 0 billion and runs the nation’s largest integrated health care system, as “probably the most incompetently run agency in the United States government.” The department, as well as a number of medical care facilities, have repeatedly been plagued by problems and scandal.
The DC hospital has made headlines numerous times, and after multiple inspections and leadership changes, the situation continues to deteriorate, which is why employees are now begging the new VA secretary for help. Wilkie was sworn in as the VA secretary just two days ago.
“VA appreciates the employees’ concerns and will look into them right away,” VA Press Secretary Curt Cashour reportedly said in response to the pleas of the DC hospital’s employees. “Veterans deserve only the best when it comes to their health care, and that’s why VA is focusing on improving its facilities in Washington and nationwide.”
He told the media that the VA is “taking additional measures to support the facility.”
The VA hospital in Washington was not available for comment at the time of publication.
This article originally appeared on Business Insider. Follow @BusinessInsider on Twitter.
When people visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., they can see the 58,279 names on The Wall, The Three Servicemen statue, the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, the In Memory plaque, and a flagpole that flies both the U.S. and the POW-MIA flag.
While the memorial and names provide an obvious visual reminder, Army Veteran Jan Scruggs wants people to know the story behind the memorial. It involves a poncho, a promise, PTSD, an Academy Award-winning movie and a focus on warriors instead of a war.
A poncho creates a promise
Scruggs landed in Vietnam as an Army infantryman after volunteering for the draft. He spent most of his time firing 81mm rounds at targets, also carrying an M-16 and M67 90mm recoilless rifle.
One day in May 1969, Scruggs was in his first battle. The next day, an armored unit came in to pull his unit out. Scruggs said an eerie feeling crept over him.
“You know what, I got a feeling I’m going to get hit today,” he said.
That day, he placed his poncho behind his pistol belt and tied it tight, like in basic training. That small tip was a lifesaver. Enemy shrapnel hit Scruggs in both legs and right arm, but the majority hit his poncho.
“It would’ve split my spine in half,” he said.
Severely injured, Scruggs made a promise: “As I was laying there, literally dying—I was bleeding out, I could see the blood pumping out—I knew, maybe a few minutes to go. I just said the Lord’s prayer and said, ‘Look, God, if you can get me out of this mess here, I’ll do something to pay you back.’”
An explosion that still resonates
While still in Vietnam, Scruggs experienced another life-changing moment. One morning, a huge explosion rocked his camp from multiple exploding mortar rounds. Scruggs ran from his morning shave with medical bandages to see a truck on fire.
“All these guys, they were all laying on the ground,” he said, choking back tears. “They weren’t moving. They were all dead.”
Panel 14W lists the 12 men who died, a day Scruggs still struggles to deal with 41 years later. One of those was John D. Pies, who happened to walk past as the mortars as they were exploding.
“I was with them. It’s very difficult for me,” Scruggs said, saying he’s only touched the name twice in 39 years and thousands of Wall visits. “These were all great guys.”
Army Veteran Jan Scruggs touches panel 14W at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial March 15. VA photo by Tass Mimikos.
A promise kept
While at American University, Scruggs said he realized he suffered from PTSD. After writing a few articles, he testified in front of Congress for the Vet Centers program. Congress established Vet Centers in 1979 because a significant number of Vietnam combat and era Veterans were not accessing VA services at the same levels as Korean and World War II Veterans.
After going to the movie theater to watch “The Deer Hunter” with his wife, Scruggs told his wife he learned how to keep the promise he made in 1969.
“I know what I’m going to do,” he told his wife. “I’m going to build a national memorial in Washington, D.C., and have all the names on it, and it will be great, and I’m going to do this.”
His wife told him to sleep on the idea overnight. He read Carl Jung about warriors and shared memories, which lead him to the idea of placing every name on the Wall. He sold a piece of land he owned in West Virginia for $2,800, which started “this crazy idea.”
Using West Point graduates who went to Harvard’s Business School, a team went to work. On May 28, 1979, Scruggs rented a room at the National Press Club and told the media in attendance that there would be a national memorial.
“In order to get this memorial, we had the largest architectural design competition in the history of Western civilization,” he said.
Over 1,400 teams submitted, with Maya Lin’s design chosen.
Two and a half years later in November 1982, Scruggs stood at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, opening it to a crowd of about 50,000.
“Because I was so tortured by what had happened in this incident, this created the Vietnam Veterans Memorial,” Scruggs said.
Names as a tribute
Scruggs said putting the names of the casualties on the wall was a befitting tribute, albeit with substantial controversy. Some Veterans advocated for a war memorial, while Scruggs and his team wanted a memorial for the men and women who died. The 58,279 names are by date of death, with names in alphabetical order if they died on the same date. The Wall is intentionally devoid of ranks or service.
“We decided that all were equal in their sacrifice, no need to pay attention to military rank,” Scruggs said. “It would distract from the experience.”
The intention was for visitors to remember each person who died.
“They remember him the way he was when he was 19 or 20 years old, before he got killed in Vietnam,” Scruggs said. “They think, ‘what would he have done in life?’ Doctor, lawyer, fireman – he would’ve done something, something good and had a family. But at a young age, he was robbed of his youth.”
Focus on the warrior instead of the war
Because of the unpopularity of the war, Scruggs said people wanted the focus on the warrior instead of the war.
“You got to remember how divisive that war was,” he said. “The guys who were killed, it was pretty obvious to us nobody was ever going to remember these guys. Many of the people who are related to people on The Wall, they know they didn’t die for nothing. This is where the living and the dead commune.”
That fact is not lost on those who served, said then-Secretary of Defense and Vietnam Veteran Chuck Hagel during a Veterans Day speech in 2014
“This Wall means many things to many people as it records the names of the past and reflects on our hopes for the future,” Hagel said. “It also offers a reminder, a message that carries across generations. The Wall reminds us to honor those who defend our country for making sure they’re treated with the dignity and respect and appreciation they deserve.”
Super Bowl commercials that honor military veterans aren’t new, and odds are they’re not going anywhere because dammit they’re effective.
The 2017 Hyundai Super Bowl commercial is no exception. Troops stationed in Poland were treated to a surprise when Hyundai gave them a special Super Bowl screening experience. What they didn’t know was that a few of their family members were also getting a treat.
While the service members watched the game in fully immersive, 360-degree live streaming pods, their families joined them via a Super Bowl LI box suite, complete with huggable high-tech teddy bears (wearing the uniform of the day) and cameras that allowed the family members to livestream with their heroes.
Hyundai teamed up with director Peter Berg (Deepwater Horizon, Lone Survivor) to shoot, edit, and broadcast the event.
“I’m honored to have worked on this project with the troops and [Hyundai] for the Super Bowl. Thank you for your service, and thank you for letting me be part of this,” Berg said.
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.
Veterans receiving care at the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center in Houston, Texas, can now connect to mental health services remotely using a computer, smartphone or tablet. The system, called telemental health, has helped nearly a thousand Houston area veterans get the care they need.
telemental health uses the VA Video Connect app, which provides a secure connection between veteran and provider no matter where the veteran is located. Seventy-five Houston VAMC mental health providers are equipped to provide remote services.
“The technology is ideal for veterans who live far away, have medical problems or find it difficult to leave the house,” said Houston VAMC psychologist Dr. Jan Lindsay.
“Often, coming to the clinic is a big burden for our veterans. Barriers include child care, traffic, parking, taking off work or feeling anxiety when leaving their homes for treatment.”
telemental health eliminates those barriers. “When we provide psychotherapy via telehealth, some veterans report that being at home makes it easier to focus on the work being done and acquire the skills they need to engage their lives more fully,” said Lindsay. “They feel safer at home.”
Houston VAMC social worker Veronica Siffert places a consult for a veteran to receive telemental health services.
“It is actually easier than coming into the facility,” said Air Force Veteran Christopher Banks. “I can be in my own home, which helps me with sharing.”
Banks, who has trouble walking, often had to cancel his in-person mental health appointments. When he did make it to the provider’s office, he had to fight traffic to get there. “I’d get so stressed from the drive that I would spend 90 percent of my therapy talking about why I’m so angry,” he said.
telemental health is “a major benefit for those with mobility issues,” agreed Dr. Kaki York, deputy clinical executive with the Houston VAMC Mental Health Care Line.
“We have vets with ALS or Parkinson’s or who have had a stroke, who for whatever reason cannot get here to continue treatment. Also, family therapy services. Have you ever tried to coordinate an entire family? It’s very difficult. Video allows them to get in the same place at the same time instead of getting all of them to the VA.”
Veterans who travel for work also benefit from using telemental health. “Houston has a lot of oil field workers who live here for part of the time but somewhere else the other time,” said York. “They’re here for three months, then travel for six months. If they have an internet connection, we are here for them.”
For Banks, another plus is that reading material his therapist recommends is right at his fingertips. “When I was with the providers, they would recommend different links or health guides and I had to wait to get home to pull it up,” he said. “With telehealth, it’s right there. Memory is not the most reliable, especially with some of us vets. At home, I can open a search bar and go straight to it.”
There are advantages for clinicians as well. For example, during an office visit, if a therapist asks a veteran what medications she is taking, the veteran might not remember them all. Using remote video, the veteran can just show the therapist her medication containers.
“It’s up to each veteran how much he or she uses remote services,” said Lindsay. “If you like coming into the clinic to see your provider, you can continue to do so and only use video telehealth when convenient,” she said. For veterans who lack the means to connect remotely, equipment is available to use for the duration of treatment.
“Our goal would be that any mental health clinician at the main facility will be able to provide telehealth services when the patient wants it and provider thinks it would be helpful,” said York. “We are not quite 100 percent there yet, but we are getting close.”
This article originally appeared on VAntage Point. Follow @DeptVetAffairs on Twitter.
UAP recently sat down with U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officer Eric Gilmet, a MARSOC Special Operations Independent Duty Corpsman (SOIDC) and veteran of the Marine Reconnaissance community as a Special Amphibious Reconnaissance Corpsman (SARC).
Gilmet was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is married to Mindy Gilmet and they have three beautiful young children. Gilmet enlisted in the Navy on 3 September, 2002, and his personal decorations include the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal with Combat Distinguishing Device, two Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medals, and three Combat Action Ribbons.
Enjoy this exclusive interview with Chief Gilmet, a trained lifesaver and Special Operations medic.
Why did you join the military and what led you to eventually pursue being a SARC and SOIDC?
I was in my senior year of high school – about halfway through. I had already applied for college. I got accepted to Western Michigan University. Then one day there was a Navy recruiter at the school, and I talked to him a little bit and then went to the recruiting station. I’ve always been interested in medicine because my mom is in the medical field.
The recruiter told me about Navy Corpsmen and about how the military can help pay for college. Paying for college was actually one of my fears at the time. I had slacked off a lot my senior year, and I didn’t want to just go there and waste all of my money and my parents’ money.
So, I signed up that day and I went home and told my parents about it. They were kind of stunned, but either way, the whole premise was to come in, get money for college, go to college, and then eventually maybe become a doctor.
After I joined, I realized I didn’t know a lot about the military at all. When I was in basic training, our equivalent of a drill instructor talked about Corpsmen and how they can go work with Marines. I had no idea before that. I asked him what it was like and he said, “it’s a living hell” (laughs).
And for some reason that just caught my attention and that’s what I wanted to do. That really changed my outlook on what I wanted to do as far as my career. I really enjoyed being on the combat side of medicine and doing things along that line of work, although that wouldn’t come until a little later.
I was around 24 years old when I was about ready to get out of the Navy. I had already started my final physical, and something inside me was just telling me, there’s more that you need to do. And I just didn’t want to look back on my life and be disappointed that I didn’t take the opportunity to try to become a Recon Corpsman.
So, I stopped the process of getting out and reenlisted. In February of 2009 I began the Recon Corpsman pipeline and that’s how I got on the path to where I am today.
In your experience, what was the most difficult military school – or aspect of your training as a SARC or SOIDC – that most people wouldn’t be aware of?
I actually really enjoyed all the schools to become a Recon Corpsman. I enjoyed all of them. I feel like I did pretty well in most of them, but the one I struggled with a great deal was actually dive school. You know, to be able to do PT (physical training) and workout on land, it’s totally different than being in the water.
A lot of people don’t realize that it’s so physically and mentally demanding. I struggled with that a good amount. But I was able to push through and obviously finish it, but that was definitely the most difficult portion of the training for me.
What part of your training came most naturally to you, and why do you think that was?
I think it would be the combat medicine portion of the medical courses that we go to. I believe most Corpsmen who attend that course excel in that area because we have already learned the basics of that stuff earlier on. We have a good base before we attended the special operations medical course.
I already had some real-world experience too – I spent three years in the infantry and done a few deployments – so I felt confident in my skills. I’m more of a hands-on learner anyways.
It’s interesting that the first part of that training is all didactic learning, which is very strenuous in how much information they give you in a short amount of time. A lot of people, I think just struggle with that. Not necessarily their ability to learn the knowledge, but their ability to retain a lot of knowledge in a very short amount of time and then remember that for a test it’s very, very difficult. But I always appreciated and enjoyed the hands-on portion of medicine.
What are some of the traditions or history from the Navy Corpsman community that more people should know about?
One thing that’s interesting about Navy Corpsman history is that there are more Corpsmen who have received the Medal of Honor than any other job in the Navy. And, you know, that has to do with the fact that we are on the ground, fighting alongside Marines.
I think that’s something that’s interesting that people don’t really know about. There are at least 23 recipients that I am aware of, and that of course includes several Corpsmen who went on to join the Navy SEAL community at some point in their careers.
History and traditions are definitely a big thing in the Navy, especially for Chief Petty Officers. Chiefs are tasked by the Chief of Naval Operations to maintain and teach our history and heritage to junior sailors. Even before I became a Chief, naval history was just something I liked anyways. And I take that responsibility very seriously because it is important to know our history and where we come from and the things that people have done before us. It lays a good foundation of principles for us, as sailors.
One notable Medal of Honor recipient was a Corpsman (Hospitalman) named John Kilmer. He was from the Korean War era. At one point in my career, I was stationed in Texas, and we did Recon Corpsman screeners for reserve Corpsmen that wanted to try to get into that pipeline. On the last night of it, during the final exercise, we would always complete it by going to a local cemetery in the middle of the night where John Kilmer was buried.
I would read his Medal of Honor citation out loud to the group and it was actually very emotional. Every time we did that, we just went through this, you know, long two days of land navigation, running around and getting yelled at, and having to do all these physically demanding things. And then we would always point out while at Kilmer’s gravesite that, while what each participant just went through was difficult, they should think about what John Kilmer had to go through, how he lost his life.
It was just a powerful way, I think, to finish the exercise. It was this tiny, tiny headstone. Nothing elaborate or anything. You literally would not see it unless you stumbled across it by accident or knew exactly where it was. Just this tiny little gravestone on the ground, but it was so powerful.
Is there a moment or accomplishment that you’re most proud of in your military career?
For me, it was becoming a Recon Corpsman. I wanted it really bad. That was probably the most satisfying moment in my career.
There are only about three hundred SARCs in the Navy/Marine Corps, and it was just a difficult process.
What personal accomplishment are you most proud of?
Well, I think I’m a good dad (laughs). I’m not perfect – that’s for damn sure – but I like to think that I’ve done okay with that in spite of the challenging circumstances involved with being in the military.
What’s your favorite thing to do in your spare time?
It would have to be woodworking – whether it be making wooden American flags or furniture – and stuff like that. Mixology would be another one.
For me personally, when it comes to a hobby, I like to do things that will take my mind off of everything else going on in my life and just be able to focus on the now. For me it is carpentry and mixology.
A few months ago, I made some new mobile woodworking benches in my garage and bought some new tools and stuff like that. I love it.