Please note, the following story has elements changed intentionally to protect the identity of those involved. Name/initial/title, rank, and other details of a day in combat are altered. However, the core of the story remains pure in honor of the service members involved.
The young lieutenant told me that while lying on an opposite side of the vehicle from where two of his soldiers were desperately scrambling to save remaining platoon members from an explosion, he could hear their cries of battle. The blast (an IED) had taken out 2 armored vehicles and the soldiers inside. Lt. J. was one of them thrown from a vehicle and rendered immobile. In his partly conscious state he realized from their words that they believed he’d not survived and were focused on helping those most directly hit by fire in the event they could save lives. He said he wanted to stand and shout to them in an effort to provide support and leadership. He could not stand. He was alive, but most certainly down. Of course, the fact that he was in my office telling the account of that day lets you know he did survive and was able to eventually stand and walk. In fact, if not for his story I would never have known he’d been scarred by combat.
Now let me emphasize how selfless is the rest of this story. The part of this story most difficult for Lt. J. was his concern for the physical and psychological welfare of those under his command. His eyes welled up with tears that would never fall in my presence – surely left for free-fall in a moment when no one was around. He began to reiterate how he’d tried to shout out to them, though too injured to speak.
He needed them to know that they were not alone.
And so on this day, after having survived his own near-death experience, his focus was not on himself, but on his men. He repeated several times how concerned he was that his surviving men felt so isolated in that fight and now even more since returning home to a land of people who will never understand. He shared that both men had expressed shame for not being able to save their buddies. He stated that each had surpassed him in years served in the army – both being non-commissioned officers with 10+ years in for each, while he’d served but a mere 6 years after attending college. Because of this disparity between their ages and career tenures Lt. J. assumed a position of humility in his responsibility as a leader by rank. He knew his men led by courage and having paid their dues.
The rest of this story has details I will not share here. Details of, albeit temporary, injuries so horrid most of us couldn’t imagine. On the day I heard the story, I’d witnessed many tragedies through the words of the sons, fathers, aunts, uncles, daughters, wives, sisters and brothers who sat with me. By the time Lt. J. sat across from me I was disgusted by my lack of response worthy to meet the moment.
………..response worthy to meet the moment.
When the blonde-haired, blue-eyed lieutenant was done speaking all I could think to do was stand. I humbly explained to him I was at a loss for words and honored he found the words to share his story with me. Asking permission, I stood up to represent that dreadful moment in combat when he could not stand with his crew. We shook hands and he walked away.
Standing with him was all I could do.
And I hope, as a nation, we find ways to stand with our veterans. I hope we can find response worthy to meet the moments created by mankind’s darker side and homecomings that are actually less comforting and joyous for those coming home than for those of us who have been waiting.
Today, every time I stand up from my desk and onto my feet, I stand in the gap to honor the moments on that dusty road when Lt. J. could not stand on his own and assure his soldiers he’d survived and was with them on one of the worst days of their lives. I stand for a captain who once shared with me that he was considering an exit from the military though wasn’t sure what civilian job would ever hire him – “my skills don’t exactly translate well, ma’am”. I also stand for the medics who responded to soldiers in the combat zone and who I later learned now must attend community college and start anew in order to prove themselves worthy to be EMTs, paramedics, or nurses in our civilian world – their training to save lives in the military under the most dangerous conditions doesn’t meet the civilian standard in the healthcare fields. Disheartened, some of them would eventually walk away from a skill set most of us would envy just so they could take more immediate jobs at the local steel mill (where they may or may not have Veteran’s Day off) to feed their families. I stand for the young chaplain’s assistant I once knew who felt insufficient in combat and in life so he laid down forever with one pull of the knot on a rope, hard-pressed to believe his prayers for comrades was an act of service with equal worth. I stand with so many others who are creating ways to stand with our veterans. Like the clinical director in Roanoke, VA who will ensure her clinicians are prepared to offer their best work in healing as veterans in the community gain courage to seek help. Or the therapist in San Diego who is feverishly working with a retired Marine Command Sergeant Major to train corporations in our land to hire veterans and contribute to their reintegration into the civilian workforce while also offering a hotline for therapists who want to be prepared and ready for the mission of healing.
And on this Veteran’s Day, 2014, I stand. Knowing the cup of coffee I might buy for the soldier waiting in line behind me pales in comparison to some act of gratitude more worthy of his sacrifice, I silently pray for a better opportunity to stand in the gap. To Lt. J. – wherever you are – I stand with you as you find your way and hope you are still standing strong today.
Call to action – For more information on how you can help stand with our veterans, please visit these organizations online.
PsychArmor Institute (www.psycharmor.org) – an awesome organization rising to the challenge of bridging the gap between our military and civilian communities.
Give An Hour (www.GiveanHour.org) – an organization that helps providers in the mental health community ‘give back’ by offering free counseling services to our prior and active duty service members.