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

Can A Song Heal The Invisible Wounds Of War?

Richard Casper, a Marine veteran, took a disabled Marine named Jesse to some “experts” to help him heal. Not doctors, musicians. You see, when Richard himself was dealing with the effects of TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) he discovered that writing his story down helped. Turning those stories into songs helped even more. He decided he wanted other vets to experience the tremendous difference this could make. So Richard brought Jesse to Nashville and with the help of the band, Blackjack Billy, Jesse was able to put to music things that were hard to say. It was a life-changing experience for him.

I first became aware of this from Richard’s friend and my fellow blogger, Mother Goose. When I listened to the song I was very moved because some of the lyrics were words I’ve heard before from different troops. It was beautiful and painful at the same time.


Their next goal is to raise $5,000 to produce a music video. If you’d like to be an honorary Producer in this, click here.  If you’d like to help share Jesse’s song, “Til It Feels Like Home,” I know they’d greatly appreciate that.

More voices

I think for vets, and for anyone who loves them, sharing their story can be incredibly healing. While not everyone may know Richard, anyone can access StoryCorps. I found out about them when I attended an IAVA (Iraq Afghanistan Veterans of America) event.

StoryCorps says: Over the last ten years, 2.4 million men and women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan and millions of families have stood behind them at home. The military community knows well the challenges of multiple deployments, combat injuries, and long-awaited homecomings. Yet few civilians truly understand the complex realities of our troops’ service and sacrifice.

The Military Voices Initiative (MVI) amplifies their important stories and lets them know that we–as a nation–are listening.

Each conversation is recorded on a free CD to share, and is preserved at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. StoryCorps is one of the largest oral history projects of its kind, and millions listen to our weekly broadcasts on NPR’s Morning Edition.

The stories are short, powerful, and cover so many perspectives. I listened to a soldier who had sent his wife (also a soldier) on the mission that took her life. I listened to curious kids interview their mom about what she felt like when she had to deploy. And how they felt about her being gone for a year. I listened to a man talk about one of the best days of his life- welcoming his brother home from Iraq. I listened to a father who traveled to Iraq wanting to kneel on the ground where his son had died.

Sometimes, all you need to do is listen. I think Richard and Jesse would agree.

© Gina left the mall, 2013