3 Things Vets Want You To Know

November 11th is a day of national attention and affection that we honor our vets with. Of course, how we treat them after all the parades matters even more. So I’m re-posting the 3 things I learned after I attended the NYC parade last year. As for today, I’m headed out to celebrate with IAVA (Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America) I hope that whatever your plans are, you take a moment to think of our vets and thank any that you know. Our men and women that have raised their hands to serve are pretty incredible.

3 Things…

As the NYC Veterans Day Parade was about to start, I asked a few Vets this question: What three things do you want civilians to know? These were not in-depth interviews as there was an impending parade. You’ve heard of speed-dating? This was a speed-survey. But I got a lot for investing just a few minutes.

Tireak, Marine Corps Veteran 

1. We need a hand up not a handout. We’re proud.

2. We’re normal. Don’t be afraid to learn about Veterans

3.  Tom Hanks had an interesting idea about service in a speech he made at Yale. He talked about our years of service and challenged them to match that service by helping Veterans transition from soldier to citizen.

I pulled this excerpt from Tom Hanks’ speech:

We all will define the true nature of our American identity, not by the parades and the welcome home parties, but how we match their time in the service with service of our own….Give it four years, as many years as you spent here at Yale, in acts both proactive and spontaneous and do the things you can to free veterans from the new uncertainty that awaits them.

Lyndsey, Army Veteran 

1. Please don’t forget the family. I get a lot of thanks. That doesn’t recognize the strength this takes for our family members.

2. Not everyone has PTSD. (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder)

Lyndsey mentioned trying to do a project at work involving soldiers. It was not embraced for fear that “something might happen” because of PTSD. She felt this was an inaccurate perception and an overreaction.

3. Take advantage of our leadership skills. Capitalize on our service. We can handle stress and deadlines. We already have.

Moses, Marine Corps Veteran

1. We’re still people. We’re human, not robots. I still yell at the TV during the game. My Giants are killing me. (NY Giants lost that day)

2. We’re not helpless. We’re used to leading and we love to serve.

3. Serve with us. You see Vets doing Team Rubicon, helping with Hurricane Sandy. Involved in giving back in so many ways. Serve with us in the community.

Matt, Air Force Veteran

1. We’re very motivated.  We continue to serve in different ways after [our military] service.

2. “Thanks” goes a long way. When I travel I shake the hand of someone in uniform….I know it meant something to me.

3. Employing a Veteran is the best decision you’ll ever make. They’ll be the best employee you ever had.

Maria, Army Veteran 

1. Embrace PTSD as normal. It’s not a stigma.  It’s normal to be different. Handling this kind of stress can take even greater strength.

2.  Employers shouldn’t think we are without experience because we don’t have industry experience. Our skills are transferable.

3.  I would also say more support for the families.

Tom, Vietnam Vet

1. jobs

2. we want to know people care

3. jobs

ME:  Okay Tom, everyone wants jobs. Could you be more specific about what Veterans need?

TOM:  We need mentors in different fields. Vets often don’t know how the skills they have acquired translate to a specific industry. Personal attention makes a difference. I organized a job fair but kept it small so they got personal attention.

A few more voices

This is obviously not the entire list of everything Veterans may wish to share. (Also I’m missing Navy and Coast Guard here) but maybe it’s a conversation starter. I didn’t speak with Paul Rieckhoff who leads IAVA, but I heard him say three things that day that stood out to me so I’m adding them in.

1. Vets aren’t a charity, we’re an investment.

2. We’re not a problem, we’re the solution.

3. Make every day Veterans Day. Put them on the frontlines of your company.

One day closer

Almost all of my volunteer work has been for deployed troops. But each day, every one of them gets one day closer to completing their service. To becoming a civilian again. They will be shaped by their experiences. Some will have scars both seen and unseen. But whatever their individual story, I hope they will find the support they need to come home and thrive. Last, but of course not least, thank you to all our Veterans and their families.

My first soldier's platoon in Afghanistan, 2009

My first soldier’s platoon in Afghanistan, 2009

© Gina left the mall, 2013

When Uncle Sam Breaks Up With You

A while back I told you about my soldier who was fighting to stay in the Army despite his many injuries. The post was called Beating The Odds. I shared our unlikely friendship (we don’t have much in common) and how our paths would never cross except in a cafe in Iraq over a $2 donated cup of coffee (Cup of Joe.) I also asked for some supportive comments he could share with the Medical Evaluation Board. Readers responded and he and his family were very touched. This post is the update to that story.

It worked before

Staff Sergeant RD had been injured before and forced to medically retire before. He fought his way back by getting stronger and getting waivers. That was a good thing because when it came to being a civilian, his transition was like something out of a movie. Specifically, the second act of a movie where the hero is in trouble and the zombies are winning. It was a nightmare.

This is especially true when he took a few sleeping pills to deal with his insomnia. His mother didn’t know this and struggled to wake her groggy son. She grabbed his shoulders roughly. In that moment, he thought he was being attacked. He flipped her to the ground and it wasn’t until he had a knife to her throat that he realized that she was not the Taliban. He was so devastated by this event that he left. He disappeared for a year. It took him a few more years to get healthier from that point. But he did it. And Uncle Sam took him back.

10 years later

Since then, RD has done a lot. Most soldiers don’t like to talk about medals, but I found out that his include: 2 Purple Hearts, 2 Bronze Stars, and 2 Army Commendations. But along the way his injuries have gotten more serious, numerous, and include the bonus thrill of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) He was hoping to teach. To train soldiers and share the benefit of his knowledge. But the Medical Evaluation Board turned him down. He will be retiring in the coming weeks.

Most of the troops I know are active duty. A few have retired but that was their choice. I asked RD how he felt about all this.

RD: Borderline failure. The mission’s not complete.

ME: You wanted to go for 20 years? 

RD: I wanted to go till my grave.

ME: How do you feel about returning to civilian life?

RD: It changes. Sometimes it scares the shit out of me. I remember the first time, which was horrible. Then I think, well…I’m 10 years older, more life experiences… I’ll handle things better. Plus maybe doing it once before gives me insight.

ME: You also have a strong marriage and other connections you didn’t have before. And a job lined up.

RD: That’s true. And all that matters. It does. But it’s hard to lose the sense of brotherhood. I can’t talk to my wife or my mom about the things I’ve done and seen. I don’t want them to know. I don’t want my wife to roll over and look at me and think: What the “F” did I marry? And all the people I can talk to are dead or won’t be around me. Plus it’s hard to watch the news. To know I can’t do anything. To know that my brothers are there. I feel like I let them down.

ME: What could a family member or civilian do to help with your transition?

RD: I honestly don’t know. If I did know the answer to that, I wouldn’t be worried about transitioning.

ME: Are you okay if I share this?

RD: G, if it helps one person, it’s worth it. In fact, I participated in a study about PTSD at the college nearby. They hooked me up then showed me images of dead bodies. Friendlies, enemies, children…all sorts of horrible things. They measured how my brain reacted. MRIs etc. Then they made me talk about my worst stories. It tore me up. But I did it. Because if me being torn up for one week helps even one guy not suffer like this, it’s worth it.

ME: How does your wife feel about you retiring?

RD: She’s excited. And worried. You know, because she knows it was rough last time. It’s also something new…having me around. Me not leaving for 12-15 months at a time. It’s a new part to our relationship.

ME: Will you always feel like a soldier? Is that your identity?

RD: The day I turn in this uniform, is the day I’ll stop being a soldier. But I will always be a patriot. I will always care.

Second chances

I told RD that I was feeling hopeful. I readily admit that I am no psychologist. But looking from the outside, I see a man with a self-awareness that he didn’t have 10 years ago. RD knows his strengths and weaknesses. And he voluntarily put himself through personal hell to be part of that study. He chose to take his pain and try to make some good come out of it. I also think his strong family connections are vitally important. As is the job he lined up.

Maybe I’m being naive, but I believe in his resilience, passion, and determination. I believe in him. And I like his chances of moving on from Uncle Sam.

soldier's boots

© Gina left the mall, 2013

The 3 Things Veterans Want You To Know

Before the Veterans Day Parade in NYC, I asked a few Vets this question: What three things do you want civilians to know?  I spoke to some Vets that were there with IAVA (Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America) and a Vietnam Vet. These were not in-depth interviews as there was an impending parade. You’ve heard of speed-dating? This was a speed-survey.  But I got a lot for investing just a few minutes.

Tireak, Marine Corps Veteran 

1. We need a hand up not a handout.  We’re proud.

2. We’re normal.  Don’t be afraid to learn about Veterans

3.  Tom Hanks had an interesting idea about service in a speech he made at Yale. He talked about our years of service and challenged them to match that service by helping Veterans transition from soldier to citizen.

I pulled this excerpt from Tom Hanks’ speech:

We all will define the true nature of our American identity, not by the parades and the welcome home parties, but how we match their time in the service with service of our own….Give it four years, as many years as you spent here at Yale, in acts both proactive and spontaneous and do the things you can to free veterans from the new uncertainty that awaits them.

Lyndsey, Army Veteran 

1. Please don’t forget the family.  I get a lot of thanks.  That doesn’t recognize the strength this takes for our family members.

2. Not everyone has PTSD.

Lyndsey mentioned trying to do a project at work involving soldiers. It was not embraced for fear that “something might happen” because of PTSD.   She felt this was an inaccurate perception and an overreaction.

3. Take advantage of our leadership skills.  Capitalize on our service.  We can handle stress and deadlines.  We already have.

Moses, Marine Corps Veteran

1. We’re still people. We’re human, not robots.  I still yell at the TV during the game. My Giants are killing me. (NY Giants lost that day)

2. We’re not helpless.  We’re used to leading and we love to serve.

3. Serve with us. You see Vets doing Team Rubicon, helping with Hurricane Sandy. Involved in giving back in so many ways.  Serve with us in the community.

Matt, Air Force Veteran

1.  We’re very motivated.  We continue to serve in different ways after [our military] service.

2. “Thanks” goes a long way.  When I travel I shake the hand of someone in uniform….I know it meant something to me.

3. Employing a Veteran is the best decision you’ll ever make.  They’ll be the best employee you ever had.

Maria, Army Veteran 

1. Embrace PTSD as normal.  It’s not a stigma.  It’s normal to be different.  Handling this kind of stress can take even greater strength.

2.  Employers shouldn’t think we are without experience because we don’t have industry experience.  Our skills are transferable.

3.  I would also say more support for the families.

Tom, Vietnam Vet

1. jobs

2. we want to know people care

3. jobs

ME:  Okay Tom, everyone wants jobs. Could you be more specific about what Veterans need?

TOM:  We need mentors in different fields.  Vets often don’t know how the skills they have acquired translate to a specific industry.  Personal attention makes a difference.  I organized a job fair but kept it small so they got personal attention.

A few more voices

This is obviously not the entire list of everything Veterans may wish to share.  (Also I’m missing Navy and Coast Guard here) but maybe it’s a conversation starter. I didn’t speak with Paul Rieckhoff who leads IAVA, but I heard him say three things that day that stood out to me so I’m adding them in.

1. Vets aren’t a charity, we’re an investment.

2. We’re not a problem, we’re the solution.

3. Make every day Veterans Day.  Put them on the frontlines of your company.

One day closer

Almost all of my volunteer work has been for deployed troops.  But each day, every one of them gets one day closer to completing their service.  To becoming a civilian again.   They will be shaped by their experiences.  Some will have scars both seen and unseen. But whatever their individual story, I hope they will find the support they need to come home and thrive.  Last, but of course not least, thank you to all our Veterans and their families.

© Gina left the mall, 2012

A Sailor Wrecks My Indifference

Life-Changing Event wasn’t my plan that morning. We had no plans. But the USS Intrepid had a plane with shark teeth, my 4-year-old daughter was in a “shark phase” and that’s how we found ourselves on a flight deck.

Sofia (the 4-year-old) wanted to leave immediately because flight decks are hot. On August 16, 2009, a sweltering NYC day made it “super hot.” Instead, I took her to the air-conditioned lower deck.  One exhibit had a film playing about the ship. We had missed most of it, so I pulled her away. But with pre-K mega-strength, she dragged me back.

The Sailor

I stood there watching black and white footage of the ship being attacked. I sensed the man to my right moving closer. I turned towards him and he said, “I was there that day. I was there.” Then he turned back to the screen and stared intently. He was an elderly gentleman wearing ID badges that said Former Crew Member and Plank Owner.

When the film ended, he walked away to talk to a few people. At that point, I had no idea that walking up to someone in the military and personally thanking them was something people did. I didn’t know anyone in the military. I never ran into troops. But I said to Sofia, “do you see that man over there? He did something brave on this ship that helped protect us. I want you to go say thank you”

Pre-Wreck

Sofia started buzzing around the group trying to get this Sailor’s attention. He kept talking to the adults. I thought to myself that this was a mistake. Retract!! Retract!!

But after a few long minutes he finally said very loudly and with mock exasperation, “Yes, little girl…what can I do for you?” Just as loudly, Sofia replied, “Thank you for being brave on the boat! I like your boat!!!”

Everyone stopped talking. His eyes filled with tears. His wife became teary. So did the others with them. I walked over to see what was wrong and his wife said to me under her breath, “Thank you for her words. You have no idea how much they mean. This is the last time he can visit the ship. This is his last time here.”

Then It Hit Me

As we walked away I started thinking about my Mom. She’s from the Philippines and if it wasn’t for American G.I.s, she might not be here, then I wouldn’t be here and Sofia wouldn’t be here. And I don’t remember thanking a single one of those thousands of Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen.

So that night I went home, did some research, and adopted a U.S. Soldier who was deployed to the mountains of eastern Afghanistan. I never imagined where that first step would lead me.

My adopted soldier's Combat Outpost in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan

My adopted soldier’s combat outpost in the mountains of Afghanistan.

© Gina left the mall, 2012