Stolen Motorcycle Returned to Iraq Veteran

Iraq veteran Paul Rivera, holds his 3-year-old daughter, as he examines his restored motorcycle with Ryan McDonaugh, one of the Nam Knights that helped rebuild the stolen motorcycle.

Iraq veteran Paul Rivera, holds his 3-year-old daughter, as he examines his restored motorcycle with Ryan McDonaugh, one of the Nam Knights that helped rebuild the stolen motorcycle.

When is a motorcycle more than just a ride? For Iraq veteran Paul Rivera, tinkering with the mechanics was a kind of therapy. It calmed him as much as a ride on the open road.

But his peace of mind was stolen from his apartment parking lot June 18, 2014.

The Hillsborough Sheriff’s Office sent out notices about the veteran’s loss to local news media. The motorcycle was recovered and returned to Rivera on July 4th.

The Nam Knights Westside Motorcycle Club pose before the Iraq Veterans Memorial at Hillsborough County Veterans Memorial Park.

The Nam Knights Westside Motorcycle Club pose before the Iraq Veterans Memorial at Hillsborough County Veterans Memorial Park.

But, the vehicle was in bad shape. It had been stripped of parts and spray painted black.

So, the deputies contacted the Nam Knights Westside Motorcycle Club for help. The non-profit club of military veterans, law officers and civilian supporters stepped up. They raised money from other veteran organizations to cover about $1,500 worth of parts. And two members, Travis Wright and Ryan McDonaugh, completely rebuilt the motorcycle.

Businesses stepped up too.  Stepp’s Towing transferred the motorcycle for free as it was being repaired and repainted. Another donated the oil change and safety check,  another a motorcycle lock.

Saturday, August 16, 2014, at the base of the Iraq War Memorial at Veterans Park, members of the Nam Knights and Hillsborough deputies unveiled the renovated motorcycle to the awe of Rivera.

The sight of the restored motorcycle and the applause from more than 50 people who came to celebrate the return left the soft-spoke veteran almost speechless.

He told the crowd how much the motorcycle meant to him because it was the only thing he and his 3-year-old daughter had left after he got out of the Army in 2011.

Rivera said he didn’t know how he could ever thank them for their generosity.

Then someone from the crowd shouted “We thank you for your service.”

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.

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