Michael Whittaker joined the military in July 1982 through the delayed entry program. He served in the U.S. Navy for 24 years, including 16 active and eight years in the Ready Reserve. Today, he lives with Multiple Sclerosis.
The following was written by Whitaker:
I remember a moment where an enemy was in sight during Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and my fingers became numb. It felt like I had frostbite. I reported what happened to the physician, but he couldn’t find anything wrong. When I returned to the US, I had a series of tests and they figured it out. I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) in 2006.
When I was diagnosed with MS, I knew nothing about the disease. While I was extremely active before I had MS, my activities diminished as MS started to change my body. Before MS, I felt there were no barriers to what I could do.
Getting Diagnosed with MS
With MS, I found myself having a pity party and I stopped participating in the things I loved. It didn’t help that I pushed my family and friends away following my diagnosis. Everyone seemed to have a suggestion on what I should or shouldn’t be doing. I didn’t want to hear people’s home remedies, that they “understood” what I was going through, or that I could still do so much even though I had MS. It wasn’t until I became affiliated with VA’s spinal cord injury program that my outlook started to improve.
I joined an MS support group where I could talk about what I was feeling and experiencing. MS symptoms are different for everyone, but members of the group understand and can relate to how I feel. They understood not just about living with MS, but about serving in the military and dealing with the PTSD I was diagnosed with. Talking with others helped me to look at things as achievable.
I found that I didn’t have excuses not to do things, I just had to do them differently. I discovered adaptive sports through VA: riding a bike, golfing, air gun shooting and sailing were now things that I could do again. I even took some cooking classes at my local VA. In September 2019, I attended the National Disabled Veterans Tee Tournament in Iowa City, Iowa, with about 400 other Veterans. It was amazing to see so many Veterans together, competing in sports and making the most out of life.
While my diagnosis of MS was difficult to accept, I’ve now educated myself about the disease and feel prepared to take on anything that comes my way. Whenever I tell my providers that I can’t do something, they don’t accept the excuses. They help me to break down barriers that MS has caused, or that I’ve created myself. Everyone is dealing with changes and difficulties in life, and I’ve learned that adapting is the best way to move forward.
Accepting the Challenges and Changes
I’ve also learned the importance of communicating, not just with family, friends and my healthcare team, but with others going through the same thing. MS has changed me. There are days that I miss my military lifestyle, but I’ve learned that I’m not that guy anymore and that’s okay. Life changes us. I feel I can lift my head high now because of all the amazing staff, nurses and doctors at the Long Beach, CA VA medical facility who have helped me.
Visit VA’s website https://www.va.gov/ms/ for information on Multiple Sclerosis (MS), VA services, benefits and MS resources.
Fox News anchor of The Story is committed to veterans issues and their stories being put at the forefront of news. For Martha MacCallum, it’s personal.
Growing up, MacCallum often heard the stories of her cousin, Harry Gray. A Marine who’d enlisted during World War II, his letters home were treasured among the family. She’d spend hours in her grandparents’ basement, pouring over those letters and the weathered newspaper clippings from the war. He lost his life during the final days of the Battle of Iwo Jima in 1945, fighting alongside his brothers in the 3rd Marine Division.
The legacy of his heroism and sacrifice would not only lead her to traveling to Iwo Jima but writing Unknown Valor, a book dedicated to sharing the lives of Marines like her uncle who gave all in the name of American freedom. “I was always really moved by his letters and ever since I wrote the book, which his letters were such a big part of, I keep receiving similar letters from families all across the country. I am just so moved by them,” MacCallum explained. “The humility and dedication to something bigger than themselves is a quality that’s scarce these days. I think that the military is one of the places where it exists in a real way.”
After going deep into the lives of those Marines, MacCallum found herself forever changed from the experience. “I admire them greatly and they have courage that I could have never had. It really comes from that story,” she explained.
It led to a commitment to tell the stories of veterans of all wars, she said. Since then, she has championed a number of veteran issues and highlighted them on her show. Well-known for her dedication to journalism, MacCallum has received the American Women in Radio and Television award twice for her reporting and journalistic approach.
Recently, she interviewed Jon Stewart. Currently advocating for veterans impacted by the toxic burn pits and fighting for the recognition of the devastating harm they caused, he implored the Department of Defense and Congress to act. MacCallum said she was moved by it.
The Department of Veterans affairs has estimated that around 3.5 million service members have been exposed to the fumes from toxic burn pits. President Biden has said that he believes it was those pits and the fumes that caused his own son to develop brain cancer and eventually lose his life.
MacCallum shared that essentially the service members who return home after being around all of those toxic fumes become defendants in a trial for their own healthcare. “I had read about it all and was aware of it but became more aware of it because of his [Jon Stewart] work,” she explained. “That’s really sad. That’s not where we want to be as a country. We have to respect the sacrifice of these individuals. I just hated seeing them fighting for benefits for medical impact that clearly they would never have if they hadn’t gone to war.”
“We can’t forget the sacrifices they’ve made whether it’s World War II or Afghanistan…It is incumbent upon us that we recognize their sacrifices and their struggles,” MacCallum implored. She went on to explain that in the generation of World War II, everyone knew someone who was serving and it was a war that was deeply felt by most. As America approaches 20 years at war against terrorism, it’s vital that civilians know the cost of their freedom.
7,036. That’s how many lives have been lost to combat against the enemy. Almost 1 million service members have suffered from injuries, both visible and invisible, due to the War on Terror. The number of troops who’ve sacrificed their lives in training accidents or lost their internal battles to suicide has surpassed combat deaths.
MacCallum encourages the public to dig in and research their own ancestors and uncover the lives of the veterans in their own families. “Once you start digging and you find those people who have served, it gives you a connection in your own life and I think it makes you respectful of those who are still doing it today,” she explained.
It was this approach of researching her own family that led her to writing about World War II and the Battle of Iwo Jima for Unknown Valor. “It was really the most rewarding experience of my professional life. I spent three years studying this period. When I began I couldn’t have found Iwo Jima on a map,” MacCallum said. “It was a real eye opener for me in understanding what pacific island fighting was like…how incredibly difficult it was and how incredibly brave they were.”
“Through the course of writing the book I was astonished that I actually found two living World War II veterans who were with my cousin when he was killed,” MacCallum said. She called one of those veterans, George, one day. When she explained who she was, he was stunned and told MacCallum that he thought of her cousin every day. “It gave me a window into that depth of brotherhood and friendship that I never understood before.”
As citizens of a country where only 1% of the population wears the uniform of service, we owe it to them to find those windows of empathy and understanding. To truly thank someone for serving, it starts with knowing what raising their right hand means and the cost of stepping forward, so you don’t have to.
To find out more about Martha MacCallum’s book, Unknown Valor, click here.
Secretary of Defense James Mattis warned NATO defense ministers in a speech that the “impatience Secretary Gates predicted is now a governmental reality” when it came to America’s share of the military burden of the alliance. “Americans cannot care more for your children’s future security than you do,” he added.
According to a report by the European edition of Politico, Mattis was passing on a warning from President Donald Trump, who had been critical of the lack of defense spending by NATO allies.
“Disregard for military readiness demonstrates a lack of respect for ourselves, for the alliance, and for the freedoms we inherited, which are now clearly threatened,” Mattis told the assembled ministers according to the Defense Media Activity. Mattis particularly mentioned the events of 2014, including Russia’s seizure of the Crimean peninsula from the Ukraine.
Mattis wasn’t only there to spank NATO for being defense-spending cheapskates, though. Referring to the alliance as “my second home,” he noted that NATO “remains a fundamental bedrock for the United States and for all the transatlantic community” in his opening remarks.
M1A2 Abrams Tanks belonging to 1st Battalion, 68th Armored Regiment, 3rd Armored Brigade, 4th Infantry Division fires off a round Jan. 26, 2017 during a gunnery range. The Soldiers are completing gunnery ranges before taking part in combined exercises with their NATO counterparts later this year. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Corinna Baltos)
In remarks welcoming Secretary Mattis, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg cited Secretary Mattis’s past service as Supreme Allied Commander for Transformation, saying, “You made sure that NATO adapted to a new and more demanding security environment. But NATO has to continue to adapt and that’s exactly what we’re going to address at our meeting today, how NATO continues to adapt to a new security environment.”
Stoltenberg also addressed concerns about NATO members paying their fair share, saying, “Our latest figures, which we published yesterday, show that defense spending among European allies and Canada increased by 3.8 percent in real terms in 2016. That is roughly $10 billion U.S. dollars. This is significant, but it is not enough. We have to continue to increase defense spending across Europe and Canada.”
Politico noted that NATO has set a benchmark of 2 percent of GDP as the minimum size of a defense budget. An April 2016 report by CNN.com noted that only five NATO countries met that benchmark.
Janae Sergio came into the idea of joining the military a little differently than the rest of us. Homeless since the age of 15, she happened to meet a Navy recruiter through a friend. Being a sailor was not something she ever saw herself doing, but the decision changed her life. Now she’s looking to help others avoid similar situations.
These days, Janae has a full life, working for the federal government and managing a $5 billion budget for U.S. Navy Pacific Fleet maintenance. She has a husband and two children. Her life sounds a lot like many veterans’ lives, and it is. All that changed a little bit when she became Insta-famous, the kind of fame achieved through having many, many followers on Instagram.
Her fame came as a total shock. She was only on the app to make sure it was safe for her daughter. The next thing Janae Sergio knows, she has 30,000-plus followers and is gaining more every day. When she found out about the Maxim Cover Girl contest, it seemed very far from possible.
Janae and the Sergio family at their home in Hawai’i.
(Courtesy of Janae Sergio)
“Some of these girls, they dedicate their lives to their physical appearance and I haven’t had that option,” she says. “I’ve been busy working. So I was like, you know what, let me just put my name in the hat and see what happens… and it’s been like this huge whirlwind.”
Sergio began her adult life at a little bit more of a disadvantage than most of us. Between the ages of 15 and 18, she lived on the streets of Los Angeles. She credits her Christian faith with keeping her from the all-too-common trappings of many women forced to survive the streets. She never fell into drugs or prostitution to survive. She turned to the strict, structured life of homeless shelters.
“At the time, I didn’t realize it, but there were a few people on the streets who were homeless as well, who felt kind of protective of me because I was just this tiny little, naive, pretty girl,” Sergio says. “You’re just trying to live day to day and you don’t know what the future holds. You don’t know whether the situations you’re in are good or bad, you’re just trying to survive.”
One day, it all changed. Through a friend, she met a Navy recruiter. A few of her friends had joined, but she wasn’t really the type of girl, so she thought, to join the Navy. Still, it ended up capturing her attention for the same reasons as many others; a new career, the possibility for travel, and, of course, that reliable paycheck. But she didn’t even have a high school diploma yet. When she decided to join, she was able to make her case to the Navy, who accepted her. She could get her diploma later.
Janae Sergio took to the Navy very well. Basic Training life wasn’t so bad for her. She was used to a rigid living structure after three years of homeless shelters— only in the Navy, she didn’t have to cook for herself. She spent eight years in the Navy, joining in 2000 and sticking around for the post-9/11 era.
She’s worked very hard all her life, often doing more than one thing at a timein order to make the best of the situations she’s in. While she was in the service, notonly did shereceiveher diploma,she also earned a Bachelor’s in Business Management. She got married, had a baby, and lived the life of a sailor, deploying to sea twice in her career.
“I feel like once you have been at the bottom, rock bottom, you know what it’s like to be there and you don’t ever want to go back there,” she says. “You know what I mean?”
Then, one day, she accidentally became an Instagram model.
The thing for Sergio is that she can’t just be a visible person with a huge following and not do something responsible with that kind of fame. She now coaches service members who achieve similar Insta-fame and wants to use her popularity to do good things. That’s why the Maxim Cover Girl contest is important to her.
“It’s not so much about the photo or the magazine,” Sergio says. “I’m actually still a little nervous about that. The Maxim contest has this thing called “Warrior Votes,” where you vote for a small payment. That donation goes to the Jared Allen Home for Wounded Warriors. I wasn’t a homeless veteran but I was homeless and then the Navy changed my life. So I thought, what better thing for me to get involved with so that I could share my story on a grand level and really inspire people in the masses.”
The Maxim cover competition also comes with a ,000 prize which Sergio plans to put to good use as well. First, another issue close to her heart is helping at-risk youth in Hawai’i, giving part of that prize to a local organization called Hale Kipa. Second on her mind is, of course, helping veterans and their families through some of the hardest times of their lives. For that, she wants to donate to the Fisher House Foundation, who provide housing and food to loved ones of military and veterans to stay close to their wounded or sick troop as he or she recovers.
“I always encourage people, if they want to give back to the homeless, to do it in their community. So I found [an organization] that was local,” she says. “And the Fisher Houses are a really cool cause that gives families an opportunity to stay together during treatment. And so I love that.”
You can vote for Janae while helping homeless veterans find housing through the Jared Allen Home for Wounded Warriors. When she wins, you can feel good about being part of an effort to get young Hawaiian children off the streets and keep a roof over the heads of the families of America’s wounded warriors.
Think you can hack competing as a top CrossFit athlete while on active duty? Former Navy SEAL and top CrossFit athlete Josh Bridges thinks so, too.
Bridges, who while a member of SEAL Team 3 placed second in the 2011 worldwide CrossFit championship, known as the Games, told Military.com that given enough motivation, dedication and a friendly command, an active duty athlete could have what it takes.
“As long you had the right command who was willing to be like ‘yeah, we’ll let you train’ – as long as you’re doing your job and getting all that stuff done, why not?” Bridges told Military.com during a recent interview. “I think it’s doable.”
Since 2011 when he first competed while on active duty, Games-level CrossFit competition has shifted from a field of athletes who hold full time jobs outside of the sport, to athletes who train fulltime. That change, Bridges said, would undoubtedly make it harder for an active duty service member today to make it than it was for him in 2011.
Still, he said “If you really want to be a competitive athlete and be in the military at the same time, it’s doable. You’re going to have to put in long hours, and when your friends and buddies are going out to the bars on the weekends, you’re not going to be able to. … There’s going to be some sacrifices you’re going to have to be willing to make.”
To make the Games while on active duty he said he had to get permission from his Chief to miss some training. He also had to sacrifice a lot of time at home.
“It was tough,” he said. “There were definitely days where I’d be out doing land warfare drills in 105 degree temperatures, and then on a one or two hour break in the middle of the day, I’d have to go into the gym and train. You definitely had to set your priorities right and just be like ‘this is what I have to do if I want to go to the Games. It is what it is.'”
Competing at Games level and successfully training as a SEAL share some of the same skills, Bridges said, in that sometimes you have to just “shut your brain off” about the physical demands.
“In CrossFit, at the Games, you’re going to be asked to do workouts that you’ve never done and movements that you’ve never practiced,” he said. “Being a SEAL is the same way – you almost have to shut your brain off and stop thinking. …You definitely have to be 110 percent into it.”
Bridges, 34, finished first this year in CrossFit’s California regional Games qualifier and will compete in the Games in Madison, Wisconsin August 3 to 6. Bridges left the Navy in 2015 as an E-6, and spent the last three years of his active duty time in a training command as a master training specialist while rehabbing from knee surgery for a torn ACL, PCL and MCL sustained during deployment.
Anyone familiar with CrossFit knows that thanks to the sport’s focus on movements that rely heavily on knee strength and mobility, including heavy barbell and odd weight work, getting back into competition shape after a major knee injury is no small feat. But Bridges said he keeps the fire burning by focusing on his goals.
“It’s not easy, for sure, to sit there and go into the gym day in and day out and grind, and grind and grind,” he said. “When I went to start competing I had a goal to win the Games. I fell just short. After the injury I was like ‘hey, you can have same goes, it’s just really going to be hard. … I’m a little hard-headed sometimes, that once I have that goal, I’m going to make it happen no matter what.”
Call of Duty was first released way back in 2003. The game series became wildly popular, with 24 games available as of 2020, not including add-ons. The game’s popularity also imbued it with real-world influence. In 2009, a philanthropic organization called the Call of Duty Endowment was founded. Inspired by a conversation with former VA Secretary, Jim Nicholson, the Endowment’s primary mission is to help place veterans into high-quality careers.
Last year, the Call of Duty Endowment hosted the First Annual C.O.D.E. Bowl to help raise funds for veteran employment. This year, they’re taking the event to even greater heights. On December 11th, 2020, the C.O.D.E. is hosting the Second Annual C.O.D.E. Bowl presented by USAA; this time, with top streamers from every U.S. military branch, plus teams from the UK military!
The 2020 C.O.D.E. Bowl will be the first-ever Trans-Atlantic Military Esports competition, featuring a brand new game.
Is it Friday yet, because we can’t wait! Three new competing teams from the US Marine Corps, the US Air Force, and the US Space Force, plus the United Kingdom’s British Army, Royal Air Force, and Royal Navy will go head to head against last year’s teams, playing the recently-released and eagerly anticipated game “Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War”.
Here’s how it’s going to work.
The eight epic teams participating in the tournament will be led by some of the top Call of Duty streamers and influencers. So far, the streamers logging on will include CouRage, Swagg, TeeP, Espresso, Vikkstar, Tommey, Spratt, C9Emz, Husckerrs and LEGIQN. To add to the excitement, each team will also be coached by a Call of Duty League Pro before the event to give them a leg up on the competition.
In a recent press release about the upcoming tournament, Dan Goldenberg, the Executive Director of the C.O.D.E, shared his excitement.
“We are proud to have the United States and the United Kingdom militaries come together to participate in the C.O.D.E. Bowl. This will be the first time all military branches have come together for a spirited esports competition with the added bonus of raising awareness for veteran employment and we couldn’t be more excited to partner with USAA to make this happen.”
The C.O.D.E. Bowl will be a blast, but its purpose is to help.
Presented by USAA, the competition aims to help veterans in more ways than one. Scuf Controllers is also contributing to the event, and Ram Trucks is donating a special edition 2021 Ram 1500 to a veteran who was recently placed in a job through the Endowment’s program.
To comply with federal rules, none of the participating U.S. military teams will endorse the event or help raise funds, but the impact of the tournament will be substantial all the same. At the end of the event, all proceeds will be used by the Endowment to help find veterans the jobs they deserve.
Where to watch the battle go down
The C.O.D.E. Bowl starts at 10:00 a.m. Pacific Time on December 11. To tune in, visit either the Call of Duty channel on YouTube or Twitch to catch the action live!
So far, the Call of Duty Endowment has helped to find job placements for over 77,000 vets, with a goal of placing 100,000 by 2024. To learn more about the organization or send a donation, visit www.callofdutyendowment.org.
Editor’s Note: An earlier story posted at WATM on this subject claimed that only seven women had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. After readers notified us that our list was incomplete, we decided to post a new story with the additional information about women who received the Distinguished Flying Cross. A heartfelt thanks to all our readers for keeping us honest and accurate!
Women make up a smaller percentage of the military than men, but they have proven themselves throughout history to be brave, competent, and heroic. Take these sheroes for example:
1. Col. Andra V.P. Kniep
When then Capt. Andra Kniep took off for a mission in her A-10 over Afghanistan on March 5, 2002, she had no idea she was about to accomplish a most unlikely feat — receiving two Distinguished Flying Crosses in two days.
On that first day, Kniep coordinated and led deadly night attacks against Taliban vehicles and positions, destroying numerous enemies. Once the nearly eight hour mission was completed, she then led her element to a “remote, unfamiliar, classified location” for recovery, according to her Distinguished Flying Cross citation.
The next day Kniep once again led her element against the enemy, this time taking control of the Operation Anaconda airspace. Kniep successfully coordinated attack elements using multiple platforms totaling fourteen aircraft. Due to her exceptional ability all elements in the congested airspace were able to complete their missions and support coalition ground forces. For her actions on March 6 she was awarded a second Distinguished Flying Cross.
2. Lt. Col. Kim Campbell
On April 7, 2003, then-Capt. Kim Campbell, piloting an A-10, was part of a two plane sortie flying close air support over Baghdad. When a call came over the radio of troops in contact, Campbell and her wingman responded. After numerous gun and rocket runs supporting the troops on the ground, Campbell’s aircraft took heavy fire.
As she fought with her stricken aircraft, it hurtled towards Baghdad and she faced the possibility of ejecting into hostile territory. Luckily, the A-10 has triple redundancy in its controls, and though both the hydraulic systems were inoperable, the manual reversion system was still functioning. Using this system “of cranks and cables,” Campbell said she was able to “fly the aircraft under mechanical control.”
On the same day of Capt. Campbell’s heroics, Capt. Tricia Paulsen-Howe and the rest of the crew of a KC-135 aircraft flew their unarmed tanker into harm’s way. According to the Air Force, Paulsen-Howe and crew entered hostile airspace to assist in the combat search and rescue mission of a downed F-15 north of Baghdad. They provided critical refueling assets during the operation. For their bravery the entire crew were each awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
4. Col. Tracy Onufer
Col. Onufer had been an officer aboard Air Force Special Operations aircraft including the AC-130H and AC-130U flying combat missions in both Iraq and Afghanistan. She is currently serving as the Vice Commander of the 352nd Special Operations Wing and according to her Air Force biography is the recipient of a Distinguished Flying Cross for her actions overseas.
5. Capt. Lindsay Gordon
Capt. Lindsay Gordon was serving as an AH-64 Apache pilot with the 101st Airborne Division when she and Chief Warrant Officer David Woodward were called upon to support an exfiltration of a Ranger element in contact.
When 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment helicopters extracting the Rangers came under heavy fire, Gordon maneuvered her Apache into harm’s way to draw fire. Gordon and Woodward’s action were credited with saving numerous lives and aircraft. For their actions they were both awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
According to a report by the Washington Examiner, President Donald Trump today announced that former New Mexico Republican Rep. Heather Wilson is his pick to serve as Secretary of the Air Force.
“Heather Wilson is going to make an outstanding Secretary of the Air Force,” Trump said in a release. “Her distinguished military service, high level of knowledge and success in so many different fields gives me great confidence that she will lead our nation’s Air Force with the greatest competence and integrity.”
Wilson took the post in June 2013 after two failed senate races. According to a release from the school, it was listed among the most veteran-friendly schools throughout her tenure as president of that institution.
2. She was a Rhodes Scholar
According to her official biography at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, Heather Wilson’s graduate studies were at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. She earned both a master’s degree and a Ph.D from the institution in 1985.
3. She would be the first Air Force Academy Graduate to serve as SECAF
According to the Air Force Times, Wilson is the first graduate of the United States Air Force Academy to be nominated for this position. Wilson was among the first women to attend the Air Force Academy and received her commission in 1982. She served for seven years mostly as a defense planner to NATO and the U.K. She separated as a captain and became an advisor to the National Security Council under President George H. W. Bush.
4. She is an instrument-rated private pilot
Congresswoman Wilson’s official bio at the home page of the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology reveals she is an instrument-rated private pilot. We don’t know if that means she gets to fly any of the Air Force’s planes, though. We hope it does.
5. She served just over 10 years in Congress
Wilson first won a special election in 1998 to replace a congressman who lost a battle with cancer. According to the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, she served until 2009, when she stepped down after losing a senate primary the previous year. She served on the Energy and Commerce and Select Intelligence Committees, according to the 2008 Congressional Directory, and also served on the House Armed Services Committee.
“America and our vital national interests continue to be threatened,” Wilson said in a statement after her nomination. “I will do my best, working with our men and women in the military, to strengthen American air and space power to keep the country safe.”
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.
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.
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.”
Lou Gehrig’s Disease – amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – causes the death of motor neurons in the spinal cord and muscles. As a result, the body experiences an eventual weakening of the muscles, respiratory failure, and death.
It doesn’t matter which era the veterans served. From World War II through the Gulf War and even in peacetime, multiple studies show that the rate at which vets develop the condition is still twice as high as non-vets. In fact the evidence is so convincing, the Department of Veterans Affairs has assumed since 2008 that a veterans’ ALS is automatically service-connected.
Harvard University, The National Institute of Health, DoD, the VA, and the University of Texas have all done studies that show the condition is twice as likely to occur in veterans. None of those studies show why.
Anecdotes compiled by CNN tell the stories vets from different eras and different branches.
David Masters, an airman serving in Kuwait in 2004, was training to be a bodybuilder. Six years later, he had full-blown ALS and was in a wheelchair. Carlo Russo, a Marine photojournalist in the Vietnam era was stationed in Hawaii. By age 55, he was diagnosed with ALS. Tim Hoyt, another Vietnam era veteran, spent two years in Germany and he was diagnosed at age 65.
The prognosis for someone diagnosed with ALS is to survive two-to five-years after their diagnosis, depending on the spread of the condition. No known cure exists and what doctors and researchers do know about the disease is very little. Risk factors include smoking, and being a white male over age 60. The Harvard study shows a 60 percent increased risk of ALS for military veterans.
The ALS Association also noted that the condition is rare, occurring in 2 of every 100,00 people. Even though veterans are twice as likely to develop the condition, ALS still strikes a small minority, even among veterans.