An Iraq War Vet: My Name Is on a Monument, Am I a Hero?

The Cape Coral, FL Iraq War Monument.

The Cape Coral, FL Iraq War Monument.

By Alex Cook, an Army veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars

My name is on a monument that claims I’m a hero.

Cape Coral just dedicated a new Iraq War monument on Veteran’s Day.  I avoided the dedication ceremony, worried about just how publicly my heroism might be extolled, but snuck over with my girlfriend on a quiet Saturday afternoon to check it out.  The large stone star, emblazoned with the words “Iraq War Heroes” sits in the shadow of even larger monuments dedicated to the veterans of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.  The top of the star is lined with dog tags bearing the names of local veterans from every service who deployed to Iraq.  I had to gently brush aside a rose someone had placed over the names to find mine.  And there I am, among the “heroes.”

How does it make me feel?

Honored: No matter what I feel about my military service, the merits of the war, or whether I was right or wrong to enlist, a group of people got together to say “thanks” and call me a hero.  They don’t know what I experienced over there.  They don’t need to.  The fact that I went is enough for them.

Hypocritical: Who am I to have my name emblazoned on a monument which dubs me a “hero?”  I didn’t have a combat job.  I don’t recall doing anything very heroic.  I faced a little danger, I did my job, and I couldn’t wait to get home.  I’ve spent way too much whining about it since.  So many others are more deserving of the title “hero” than I.

Alex's tag on the Iraq War Heroes monument.

Alex’s tag on the Iraq War Heroes monument.

Nostalgic:  I always knew I’d never miss my days as a soldier.  I can’t say I miss them, exactly, but fond memories managed to slip in here and there.  I got to know some amazing people.  I had some unique adventures.  I’m amazed that I can get a little misty-eyed thinking about GOOD times I had in the army.  But I can and do.

Hopeful: I remember how I felt when I first exited the army.  I thought everyone could tell I wasn’t a normal person, that I didn’t belong in civilian society.  I tried to suppress every emotion and memory from that time, trying to “start over.”  The past few years have seen slow progress as I struggled to accept and then embrace my past.  Now I can see my name on a monument of heroes and not be filled with rage and disgust.  I went to war for my country.  Not everyone can say that.  And if that’s something worth honoring, I’m ok with that.

When last I wrote for Off the Base, I described a PTSD treatment study that I took part in. I wrote my entries from my little brother’s old room in my parent’s house.  I was unemployed.  Some days I didn’t leave the bedroom, let alone the house.  I’d come a long way in coming to grips with my military service, but I still had a long way to go.

The monument is being covered replicated "dog tags" with the names of Iraq War veterans.

The monument is being covered replicated “dog tags” with the names of Iraq War veterans.

I’m writing this entry from the little place I share with my loving and supportive girlfriend, just a short bike ride from my full time TV news job.  I’m living a pretty good life.  I’m not defined by my time in the army, but it’s very much a part of me.  I’m not perfectly happy, but who is?  I have my dark days.  I get past them.  To my fellow vets, who may be struggling to come to grips with your service: keep moving forward while accepting and embracing what you’ve been a part of.  It’s not easy.  It gets easier.  Let people love you and don’t give up.  Keep living.

And if someone wants to put your name on a monument, go ahead and let them.  It’s pretty cool.

Alex Cook is a former intern with WUSF Public Media who now works for WINK in Ft. Myers, FL. Here’s a link to his experience as a veteran as told to his current employer http://www.winknews.com/Local-Florida/2013-07-17/Iraq-War-Memorial-breaks-ground-in-Cape-Coral#.Uou-YMSsiSo .

The new Iraq War monument is located at the Four Mile Cove Eco Park, Cape Coral, FL and is still taking the names of local Iraq War veterans. Details on how to add a name to the monument are available on the website: http://iraqwarmonumentcapecoralfl.com/.

Taking on Questions About Allowing Women in Combat

Kayla Williams, an Arabic linguist with the 101st Airborne Division, being promoted to SGT/E5 in Tall 'Afar. Photo credit: "Love My Rifle More Than You"/Facebook

Kayla Williams, an Arabic linguist with the 101st Airborne Division, being promoted to SGT/E5 in Tall ‘Afar. Photo credit: “Love My Rifle More Than You”/Facebook

It was January 24th, just a few weeks ago, when Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced he was lifting the ban on women serving in combat.

While many women deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan argue they’ve been in combat for years, they welcomed the news as yet another step in getting rid of gender-based barriers in the military.

But that announcement didn’t automatically open up all roles to women.  Some units, for example the Navy SEALS, can apply for an exemption and  have until 2016 to decide whether or not they want to include women.

Women in Combat: The Changing Roles of Women in the Military” was the online forum sponsored by the Center on National Policy in Washington D.C.

It featured Kayla Williams, a sergeant and Arabic linguist with 101st Airborne, who served almost a year in Iraq. She went on foot patrols with the infantry, yet wasn’t even given the protective plates for her flack vest because as a woman she was not considered in combat.

More than 280,000 women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan where there are no more traditional battle lines and everyone is exposed to combat conditions.

“I know I don’t have the right haircut, but I also went to war,” Williams explained when asked by an audience member if women had a harder time transitioning to civilian life. “Feeling invisible, having people ask me if I was allowed to carry a gun because I’m just a girl, having other people ask me if I was in the infantry when that is still not authorized. It really made it harder for me to transition back into a society that had no conception what so ever of what I’ve been through.” Continue reading

Tammy Duckworth Named as One to Shake Up Congress

Tammy Duckworth arriving for her speech at University of South Florida Oct 12, 2010.

Tammy Duckworth arriving for her speech at University of South Florida Oct 12, 2010.

An news article by US News names former assistant secretary at the VA and Iraq combat veteran Tammy Duckworth as one of seven new members expected to shake up Congress.

Illinois Democratic Rep. Tammy Duckworth - One of the first female Black Hawk helicopter pilots to fly combat missions, Duckworth survived a 2004 rocket-propelled grenade attack. She lost both legs and part of her right arm, but managed to safely land her helicopter before attending to her injuries.

Duckworth competed in one of the most bitter races in 2012, against Tea Party incumbent Republican Joe Walsh. Duckworth proved herself as a hefty fundraiser, outspending her opponent by more than $3 million.

Continue reading

PTSD: An Army Veteran Writes to Find Peace

Alex Cook in Afghanistan.

Hi, Internet.

I’m Alex.  I’m a veteran who has been struggling with what I call the “Army Sads.”  I guess it’s PTSD.  I went to Iraq and Afghanistan, but I wasn’t a combat arms guy.

I’ve been out for three years, but I’m not quite over it.  I’m trying.  I don’t wake up in the middle of the night screaming about IEDs, and I have all my limbs.  I feel guilty that I’ve let my time in the army affect me so deeply when so many have had it worse.  I’m only now able to confront my feelings and work on getting through them.

I can only imagine how many people like me are out there.  People who “served their country” and haven’t quite come to grips with what that means.  Maybe they’re mostly fine, but something inside them keeps them from being who they wish they could be.

Maybe they have trouble leaving their own room, the way I did for months on end.  People who don’t even want to acknowledge that they were ever in the military, or people who miss it.  People that bristle at being called heroes and don’t want anyone’s pity.  People that aren’t sure how they feel about anything, but worry that what they do feel is wrong somehow.

I want to talk to those people.

We may be Veterans with a capital V, but we’re just people.  We happened to go to war, is all.  We’re all unique: we all feel something different.  We’re connected, though, whether we like it or not.  We can help each other.  We can find meaning and purpose in a confusing world.  We can become who we want to be.  We’re not defined by our experiences or our emotions.  We can make ourselves be understood.  We can find peace.

I’m going to start writing regularly for this blog.  I’ll be sharing my personal experiences as I try to find my own way in the world.

Hopefully it will help someone.  It’ll definitely be therapeutic for me.  I’ve suffered alone and I know how miserable it can be, but we’re not alone.  We have people who want to help us and we have each other.

I’ll write about a new form of therapy I recently tried in my next entry.  It’s called Accelerated Resolution Therapy and it’s available for free at USF.  They even pay you to fill out some surveys.

It sounds a little scary, but maybe with my account you’ll decide it’s something for you.

(Spoiler alert: it probably is.  Check it out at http://health.usf.edu/nocms/nursing/restore-lives/ss_2.html or call (813) 974-9310 if you’re interested.  They’re very nice.)

If you’re a vet, or just care about one, and have a story to tell, this blog might just be the place to do it.  If you want to get in touch with me, e-mail me at operationfindingfreedom@gmail.com.  I’m not an expert on anything, but I know some people who care.  I care.

The important thing to remember is that we’re not alone.

So let’s get better.

Soldier and Family Live with Harsh Realities of War, Economy

A typical U.S. Soldiers' patrol of an Iraqi village, April 2009. Photo courtesy of the Army website.

I heard the compelling voice of U.S. Army Specialist Jeff Taylor on National Public Radio Tuesday morning. Taylor was 22 and stationed in Baghdad when he was first interviewed by NPR’s David Greene in 2009. The economy was bad, Taylor was worried about finding a job to support his wife and two children, so he reenlisted. There was a $12,000 bonus for him to sign up for another six years and he went back to Iraq.

“I know I’m going to have food at the table. I know we’re going to have money for what we need. We’re going to be taken care of,” Taylor told Greene.

Although she wanted her husband home, Sarah Taylor told Greene she agreed it was better for their family for her husband to reenlist. “It’s stable, it’s secure. And you have to really mess up to get fired. And you can’t quit. So the deployments are risky. But, I don’t know…”

And it did get risky, while deployed Taylor developed an extreme anxiety disorder and eventually had a psychotic breakdown in Iraq and had to return to the U.S.

“I was seeing things and hearing things that weren’t there,” Taylor told Greene. “I didn’t really want to be around large crowds.”

You  can read a full transcript of their conversation HERE.

You can listen to the interview HERE.

Iraq War Veteran, Poet on NPR; PBS’ Elmo on Deployment

National Geographic July issue: Baghdad after the storm, Tigris River.Photograph by Lynsey Addario.

Haunted by its beauty and its difficulties – award-winning poet and former U.S. soldier Brian Turner wrote about his recent return to Baghdad as a civilian for the July issue of National Geographic.

Turner talked to National Public Radio Friday Morning  about his trip and magazine article. He told Steve Inskeep of Morning Edition that even after seven years, he still carries the baggage of war. From the NPR transcript:

The things that I did as a soldier, many of them I’ve sort of sloughed away. Like when I drive down the freeway, I don’t catch myself off in sort of scanning the overpasses and underneath them for people that might be above the overpass, might drop a hand grenade or shoot at us. But there are other habits that are hard to break. Like when I go into a restaurant I often want to sit where I can see everything, with my back to a wall. And I also sometimes catch myself watching mirrors to see what’s, you know, glass windows to see who’s behind me. Or I’ll make turns, slow turns, here and there – and sometimes, especially when I’m in a crowded environment.

You can listen to the full NPR interview by clicking HERE.

Children of deployed U.S. troops are the focus of another Public Broadcasting stalwart, Sesame Workshop. The multimedia series Talk, Listen, Connect features the character Elmo to help military families prepare for the emotions experienced for events like deployment, grief and change like a wounded parent.

Military Homefront recently featured Talk, Listen, Connect on its website:

“If even Elmo and his family are feeling it, then there are other families feeling it too,” said the wife of a deployed Army Sergeant First Class. “This helps us feel like we’re not alone in this.”

In addition to the kits, Talk, Listen, Connect created a free, traveling Sesame Street Live! show, and its first PBS television special, “When Parents Are Deployed.”

Free videos and support material are available for military families HERE.

An Army SGT Recovering from TBI, Works to Stay in Uniform

A young Army sergeant who was selected to train as an explosives expert is now in a fight to stay in uniform.

Earlier this year, 22-year-old Army SGT Amber Greer was looking forward to settling in at her new post, Eglin Air Force Base in Florida’s panhandle and beginning training as an Explosives Ordinance Disposal (EOD) expert.

Army SGT Amber Greer helps show off Haley's new Polytrauma Unit equiped with flat screen TVs, private rooms and showers.

March 30th she was driving through a thunderstorm on I-10. Her vehicle hydroplaned. She lost control and hit a tree.

Greer was in a coma for eight days. When she awoke, it took a couple more weeks for her to grasp what happened.

“I literally felt like I was in some dream for a few weeks,” Greer said. “It was like – ‘I’m going to wake up and I’ll have my hair back,’ They had to shave my head for a procedure they had to do so I could live.”

Greer showed me a photo of her with strawberry blonde hair below her waist. But, hair grows back. She had a bigger worry right after her accident.

“The big shock to me was ‘why am I not at work? Why can’t I go to work? I don’t understand why I can’t be around people I served with.’” Greer said. “It was a huge shock to me and something that was so foreign to me. I probably cried for about a week that I couldn’t go to work.”

Greer is recovering at Tampa’s James A. Haley VA Hospital. She arrived with several skull fractures, Traumatic Brain Injury, three broken ribs, collapsed lungs and both hips fractured.

She’s expecting a 100 percent recovery and feels fortunate. Greer has been in the Army almost four years is a veteran of the Iraq war and also deployed to Kuwait from her first post in Hawaii.

Right now Greer’s fight is to stay in the Army.

“Due to my brain injury, I cannot do EOD anymore.” Greer said, confessing that her mother is relieved that she will not be an explosives disposal expert. Greer is disappointed but hopeful she will find another specialty. “I cannot be exposed to blast waves for the next year or so due to my injury, but that’s okay I’m going to be picking another new job in the Army and still staying in that uniform hopefully.”

I talked with Greer three days after she officially put back on her uniform more than 10 weeks after her accident.  She’s in Haley’s transition unit and volunteered to talk with reporters who came to the VA to cover the opening of a new Polytrauma Unit. Greer is anxious to help in any way she can.

“I absolutely love serving my country and I couldn’t imagine doing anything else with my life,” Greer said that’s what got her out of bed every morning and into rehab.

I share Greer’s story because it goes to the heart of who is serving in our country’s military ranks – young women and men of courage, determination and dedication to their country.

Here’s hoping Greer’s wish of a full recovery and staying in uniform comes true.

Dissipating My PTSD: Working on Large Crowds

When spring semester started, Off the Base blog contributor Cheyenne Forsythe found he had to overcome another challenge associated with his PTSD. He’s sharing that journey in the hopes that others can learn from his experiences.

Army Specialist Cheyenne Forsythe served on a Combat Stress Control Team in Iraq, 2003.

By Cheyenne Forsythe

I’ve gradually seen the signs of PTSD dissipate over the last few years.

Number one on my list was scanning. Being the driver for a Combat Stress Control Team has its hazards. One of the ways you manage these hazards is by monitoring the horizon and the road ahead, looking for anything out of the ordinary in hopes of spotting an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) or signs of an ambush.

This was the first thing I noticed when I came home. I couldn’t stop scanning anytime I got in a car. Over time, I’ve taught myself to see the road as a peaceful place.

For therapy, I worked for a bus company in Killeen, TX, called, “The Hop”. I drove our peaceful streets for two years, managing to work my way into a para-transit route, shuttling dialysis patients to treatment, mentally challenged children to school, seniors to activity centers, and poor children to the dentist. Along with enriching my life, I learned to trust the road again.

Cheyenne is now a USF student studying business.

Well, I’ve got a new challenge now. It’s not really new. I’ve been working on it for a year. I isolated myself last year. Didn’t go out, didn’t date, just stayed in my room, when I wasn’t at counseling or school.

Last week was my first week at University of South Florida‘S Tampa campus. Class sizes on campus are in the 400 range. Going from a class size of 30 at the St. Pete campus to 400 doesn’t go unnoticed by the good old nervous system.

That first class was certainly a shock. In order to acclimate myself to the new environment, I’ve taken steps to be more outgoing. To do that, I have to pay attention to what’s happening on campus. A few weekends ago, I volunteered for the Stampede of Service and did some community revitalization.

Cheyenne represented veterans with "invisible wounds" during the 2010 Florida Ride 2 Recovery from Tampa's MacDill AFB to Jacksonville.

Since I moved to Tampa, I’ve been to a Tampa Bay Ray’s game and caught a USF Bulls football game. I have to admit, the Ride 2 Recovery event put it in perspective for me. I had become accustomed to small groups of people.

I’m going to use USF for more than just an education. The activities on campus offer a chance help me work on my issue with large crowds. Basketball season has started already. I’m going to make sure I get to more than one game.

Contributor Cheyenne Forsythe is a University of South Florida student and a 6-year Army veteran who served with the 85th Medical Detachment. He was on one of the first Combat Stress Control Teams sent to Iraq’s frontlines in 2003 to help soldiers with combat stress symptoms while still “in country.” After surviving two IED attacks, Cheyenne now lives with PTSD as well.  Speaking out on veterans’ issues has become his self-ascribed mission because as he puts it: “It’s just the right thing to do.”  His other contributions include:

Learning to Take a Break

Serving on a Combat Stress Control Team

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