Wednesday, May 26, 2010
Friday, May 21, 2010
TAPS is a high musical moan, part love song, part hymn. Composed in battle by a Civil War general to order lights-out, it also signaled that all was well: the day is over, you are safe, now rest. So it goes at military funerals: a last bugle call, a life is over, you are safe, now rest.
TAPS is also the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, and if you do nothing else this Memorial Day, take a moment to learn about what it does.
"It's a hard day for us," says Stephanie Dostie, whose husband Sergeant First Class Shawn Dostie was killed by an IED in Baghdad in 2005. For military families, loss recoils and ricochets: you live on or near a base, pick a portable career, get to know the other families. "You become part of the military family, and then in an instant, you're a civilian again," Dostie says. "Your whole life changes." Her family was allowed to stay in base housing at Fort Campbell for 12 months, but she had to fight for her children, who were 5 and 8, to remain at the base school after they moved off post. "The concern was that if we kept them in the school system, they were not moving on," Dostie recalls. She confronted Army officials: "'You cannot tell my children when they are moving on. They want to be with teachers who supported them when their dad died.' To me, it was cruel to remove them." (See "Photographing the Remains of the Fallen.)
Death ends a life, says TAPS founder Bonnie Carroll. It does not end a relationship. What do you do with the boxes in the attic? How do you handle the grief? Honor the life and learn to make a new one.
Carroll founded TAPS in 1994, after her husband Brigadier General Tom Carroll died in the crash of an Army C-12 plane, to help surviving families find a safe place to land. It offers peer mentoring, grief counseling and all kinds of social support, and for five days over Memorial Day weekend there's a mass gathering in Washington that families like the Dosties attend. The kids go to a Good Grief camp, where they are matched with mentors, take tours, write journals, bond with other kids who have lost a parent. They lay wreaths made of their handprints, each with a message to their loved one, at the Tomb of the Unknowns. The adults attend workshops like Grief Support for Siblings, Dream Visits, Creating a Facebook Memorial, Coping with Suicide Loss. There is one conducted by military physicians called Did My Loved One Suffer? "It's a very tough session but always the most packed," says Carroll. "It's an opportunity for families who don't understand elements of a traumatic, horrific death to ask questions of absolute experts." (See TIME's photo-essay "A Soldier's Final Journey Home.")
Almost every weekend, somewhere in America there is a gathering of dozens, sometimes hundreds, of survivors looking to help one another cope — 30,000 families registered to date. It is a far cry from the days of early Vietnam when the Army was so overwhelmed with casualties that it enlisted cabdrivers to deliver the telegrams with news of a soldier's death and when fierce opposition to the war sometimes translated to an inhuman lack of sympathy. "We'd hear things like 'We're glad he's gone. He was a baby killer,'" recalls Kit Frazer, president of Gold Star Wives of America. "It was a very unhappy time. Now there's an outpouring of love for widows and widowers and an attempt to help them." Children get medical and dental benefits until they are 21, rather than just for three years after the death; the Army has a 24-hour call center for survivors with benefits questions, a new family center at Dover Air Force Base and Survivor Outreach Services to coordinate the efforts.
But there is also, sadly, a growing need, which private groups like TAPS are serving. Many of today's soldiers are older — reservists or National Guard members — and more likely to leave a spouse and children behind, as well as grieving siblings and parents. Ask soldiers and survivors what they need from civilians, and it too has to do with memory. Fort Campbell is about to deploy again. "These troops want to know that we haven't forgotten that the war's not over," Dostie says. "Civilians need to understand that those guys are over there fighting for our lives and their lives and leaving behind families worried every day that they are going to get that knock on the door."
In my town on Memorial Day, we will wrap bikes with streamers and put bandannas on puppies and march in messy rows down Main Street behind the Cub Scouts and VFW and League of Women Voters. The flags will be flying and waving. Most of us haven't had to bear the presentation into our hands of a folded one. But somewhere close by, there is probably someone who has.
Tuesday, May 18, 2010
These soldiers are bridging the gap between armed forces and America through song.
What do soldiers do after they leave the service? If they can sing, maybe they form a group, make a CD, and perform on U.S. Army bases to inspire other soldiers. At least that’s what the members of 4TROOPS did.Retired Staff Sgt. Ron Henry, 41, former Capt. Meredith Melcher, 29, and former Sgts. Daniel Jens, 36, and David Clemo, 31—all of whom served multiple tours in Iraq or Afghanistan—sing a mix of pop and country, including “Here We’ve Been,” with its opening lines “Raised my hand/Raised my weapon/Now I raise my voice .” The vocalists, whose album was released by Sony Masterworks in April, are touring military bases around the country and will donate a portion of proceeds from the sale of their CD to veterans’ charities. “We hope our music will help bridge the gap between the armed forces and the rest of America,” Henry says.
Garage sales and quilt raffles helped a determined group of female World War II veterans raise money to transform a rundown wall at Arlington National Cemetery into a grand stone memorial to women who served their country. But those women are dying off, even as the memorial runs short of funds.
With women now involved more heavily in combat jobs, those early organizers hope a new generation will step up to the challenge of keeping the memorial open so military women’s stories won’t be lost.
The dedication of the memorial that today is visitors’ first view of the cemetery was such a joyous event that 40,000 people attended in 1997. One of them was a 101-year-old World War I vet named Frieda Mae Hardin, who was met with cheers when she told the crowd that women considering military careers should “go for it!”
Even as a steady flow of visitors enters its doors, the deaths of about three- quarters of the 400,000 women who served in World War II has left the memorial honoring military women of all eras without many of its loyal benefactors, though some still visit.
“Most of them are in wheelchairs, and they are ill. All of their hair is white, and I look and I think, who knows how long we’ve got left. We just want to do our best while we’re here,” said Lorraine Dieterle, 84, a World War II veteran stationed in New York as a photographer for the Coast Guard who volunteers at the memorial.
The recession and a post-Sept. 11 decline in bookstore sales inside the memorial have made it harder to raise the private dollars that make up a large share of the memorial’s $2.7 million annual budget.
Things looked so bleak last year that keeping the memorial open became an “iffy” proposition, said retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Wilma Vaught, 80, a Vietnam veteran and president of the board of directors of the Women In Military Service For America Memorial Foundation.
The memorial remained afloat thanks to a $1.6 million congressional appropriation and a special fundraising drive that’s brought in $250,000. But paying bills remains a challenge, Vaught said.
“You’re constantly wondering if you’re going to get enough money to pay for the rent, pay for the electricity for the building, pay for the people that work,” Vaught said in an interview near the entrance of the memorial, which features exhibits and rooms used for gatherings after funerals and support-group meetings of families of the fallen. “It’s always with you.”
The fund-raising problems come as U.S. service women serve in combat as convoy drivers and gunners. More than 230,000 women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and more than 120 have died in the wars.
Memorial organizers hope the newest generation of female service members will step forward. They want more of them to donate as well as participate in memorial activities and enter their stories into the memorial’s computerized registry, which includes the biographies of an estimated 241,000 of the 2.5 million women who have served in the U.S. military.
“For some women, they have this idea this is something you do when you retire or it’s something you do when you’ve done some accomplishment. That really isn’t it,” Vaught said. “The mere fact that you’re serving is all that needs to be true.”
What started out as a one-night gathering inside Lambeau Field has turned into a three-day celebration that will be the biggest non-Packers and non-sporting event in the history of the renovated stadium.
It's called "LZ Lambeau: Welcoming Home Wisconsin's Vietnam Veterans" and it's coming up May 21-23. Between 20,000 and 25,000 people are expected to attend the keynote ceremony inside the stadium bowl on Saturday night, May 22, with thousands more potentially passing through during a weekend designed to honor Vietnam-era veterans for their service and sacrifice for our country.
"The Green Bay Packers are proud to be involved in this unique event and to be able to host it at Lambeau Field," President/CEO Mark Murphy said. "It will be a special three days to reflect on a very important time in history."
The event was developed through a partnership involving Wisconsin Public Television, The Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs, the Wisconsin Historical Society and many veterans organizations. The highlight will be the premiere of excerpts from Wisconsin Public Television's documentary, "Wisconsin Vietnam War Stories," to be shown on the stadium TundraVision.
That was the original idea for the event, which is named "LZ" for the "landing zones" that Vietnam veterans were often deployed to. The ceremony has since blossomed into a much larger event that includes Wisconsin Vietnam Veterans Museum educational displays inside the Lambeau Field Atrium, the Moving Wall (a traveling replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.) in the Ridge Road auxiliary lot, an entertainment stage in Lambeau's east parking lot, Vietnam War-era vehicles and aircraft on display at the stadium and Austin Straubel International Airport, respectively, and a motorcycle "Honor Ride" arriving at the stadium on Friday, May 21, to kick off the weekend.
The motorcycle ride will traverse the state, beginning in La Crosse, Wis., with the final stage coming from Fox Cities Stadium in Appleton to Lambeau Field. The ride will include 1,244 motorcycles, representing the number of Wisconsin soldiers who did not return from Vietnam.
The festivities are open to the public, with the film tribute inside the stadium bowl the lone portion that requires a ticket. More information on tickets can be found at www.lzlambeau.org.
For the Packers organization, the event requires coordination and participation of several departments. In addition to the special events staff, others involved include security, the ticket office, public relations, facilities and stadium personnel, and video board operations, just to name a few.
"It's very exciting, and the project itself is a lot of fun to work on, just because it means something to so many people," said Beth Magnin, special events corporate sales manager for the Packers and Lambeau Field. "A lot of people have connections to Vietnam veterans and they're eager to do whatever they can to help out."
The Packers have shown their support for the military in the past with send-offs for deployed soldiers and a military cap campaign through the Packers Pro Shop, but this event has involved the organization in another way.
Magnin likened the management of the event to handling the annual Family Night Scrimmage during training camp. That event also has activities going on inside and outside the stadium at the same time, which otherwise only happens on a large scale on gamedays in the fall.
"We've tried to model it after Family Night, as far as looking at what works well and doesn't work well," Magnin said. "For us it's kind of a learning experience because we don't do many things in special events that involve the stadium bowl."
Perhaps success with LZ Lambeau could lead to more large-scale events for the stadium, but time will tell. But for now the focus is on helping LZ Lambeau's organizers make the event the memorable tribute they've envisioned.
Iraq war veteran Robert Wake, who was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, talks to physical therapist Nicole Bormann before a session in the VA Medical Center on Aug. 10, 2009, in St Louis, Mo. Wake served in Iraq from 2003-2004 and was seriously wounded by a mortar shell in Najaf.
Last year was the first in which hospitalizations for mental disorders outpaced those for injuries or pregnancies in the 15 years of tracking by the Pentagon's Medical Surveillance Monthly report.
Hospitalizations for mental disorders have increased significantly among troops since 2005, said Lt. Gen. Eric Schoomaker, surgeon general for the Army. "War is difficult. It takes a toll," he said.
Mental health treatment expenses are helping drive up the overall cost of military health care, USA TODAY reported last month. Last week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in a speech that "health care costs are eating the Defense Department alive." Schoomaker said the Army's increased attention to mental health issues is another reason for the rise in hospital admittances.
In 2009, there were 17,538 hospitalizations for mental health issues throughout the military, the study shows. That compares with 17,354 for pregnancy and childbirth reasons, and 11,156 for injuries and battle wounds.
In 2007, there were 18,201 pregnancy and childbirth hospitalizations, 13,703 for mental health and 12,531 for injury and battle wounds, statistics show. In 2005, mental health was the third leading cause with 11,335.
Mental health care accounted for almost 40% of all days spent in hospitals by servicemembers last year, the report said. Of those hospitalizations, 5% lasted longer than 33 days. For most other conditions, fewer than 5% of hospitalizations exceeded 12 days, the report said.
Psychological issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder exact a toll in lost manpower, the study said. Four mental health issues — depression, substance abuse, anxiety and adjustment problems such as PTSD — cost the Pentagon 488 years of lost duty in 2009.
That's "the equivalent of 488 soldiers spending an entire year in the hospital for mental disorders," said Army Col. Robert DeFraites, director of the office which produced the study.
The Pentagon is learning that mental health issues can take months or years to develop, he said. "Mental disorders are a trailing indicator of health issues to a prolonged period of war fighting, and these figures reflect that," DeFraites said.
"Our troops are facing multiple deployments and experiencing psychological stress due to prolonged exposure to combat," said Brig. Gen. Loree Sutton, director of the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury.
The Army, which has 138,000 soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, had 10,222 mental health hospitalizations last year. They accounted for almost 19% of all Army hospitalizations.
Ten percent of Marine hospitalizations were for mental health reasons, while they were about 8% for the Navy and 7% for the Air Force.
The costs of treating mental disorders will only grow, said Christine Eibner, an economist with the RAND Corp. A night in a military hospital cost $3,000 in 2009, said Austin Camacho, a spokesman for the military health care program. When the Pentagon pays for private hospital care, the average daily cost is about $1,300, he said.