Help Celebrate 250,000 Visitors Reading Your Stories

Off the Base creator, Bobbie O’Brien, at the controls of a C-17 Globemaster III, thanks to the generosity of the pilot, Maj. Gaulin, and the 621st Contingency Response Wing, based at McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey.

On a Saturday afternoon in October 2010 – this blog was created as part of my Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism 2010-2011.

My deepest thank you to Mrs. Carter and to my many contributors and readers.

Off the Base has thrived and surpassed the milestone of 250,000 views – in just over two years.

Giving Thanks

The success is due to writing and photos from contributors such as Army spouse Jackie Dorr. Her first blog post: Five Years, Two Kids and Four Deployments Later.

Thanks to Dorie Griggs‘ insight and research – a lot more parents understand what their son is experiencing at the Citadel. One of Dorie’s biggest challenges now: A Citadel Mom Marks Her Son’s Transition to Army. Her son deploys soon.

Tracie Ciambotti shared so much of her heart as her son served multiple tours in Afghanistan and she got her daughter-in-law to contribute. Tracie wrote several entries and penned a book about her journey: Battles of the Heart: Boot Camp for Military Moms.

There are many more contributors including some I’ve yet to meet. But, a thanks is also due to Air Force Senior Master Sergeant Rex Temple – for our joint radio series My Last Tour (the inspiration for this project) – and to his wife Liisa who helped me establish the blog and contributed: What I Wish I Had Known About Military Retirement.

What You Can Do

The mission was and continues – to give voice to veterans, active duty military and their families  and help civilians better understand military life and tradition.

Help celebrate your veterans and military – share your story with Off the Base. How do you recognize Veterans Day – will you:

  • visit a VA Hospital
  • stop by a military cemetery
  • send a thank you note to a veteran you know

Veterans what is the most memorable thing a civilian did to acknowledge you and your service? Send me your suggestions and stories at bobrien@wusf.org or write them in the comments section.

Thank you — your stories are being read and shared!

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A Nod to My Favorite Psychiatrist on World Mental Health Day

I have never served in combat. I will never “know” how it sounds, smells, looks, feels and tastes. I will never know how the experience changes you – forever.

But, I am lucky to know Rod Deaton through his blog Paving the Road Back: Serving Those Who Served in Combat.

Deaton is a psychiatrist who serves at the Richard L. Roudebush Veterans Administration Medical Center in Indianapolis, Indiana.

An example of his writing: Deaton offered this insight when the New York Times published a photographic tribute to all the soldiers killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. On his blog, Deaton wrote about meeting with a veteran soon afterward:

He is not doing well.

He is not suicidal.  He is not giving up.  But he is tired.  He wants to move forward in his life.  He wants at least some of it, the pain, the memories, please, God, to stop.

I debate whether to say anything to him.  He is distressed already, after all.  Yet I also wanted him to know that I had not forgotten, neither him nor the name of his best friend.

I still will never “know” combat, but thanks to Deaton, I can better understand how combat changes soldiers and how civilians,  like me, can support them. This week, Deaton is writing essays on The War Within:

It’s the only math worth remembering: troop arrives, troop + War returns.

Never forget: in the current conflicts, there is no such thing as “the back lines.” All lines are front lines…

When one lives with that reality, all-hands-on-deck even when at-ease, months at a time, hour after hour, one acquires an internal companion that invites itself in, settles itself down, and gives new meaning to the phrase adverse possession: the War.

So, on World Mental Health Day, I thank psychiatrist Rod Deaton for helping me better understand the mental health challenges faced daily by veterans of all wars.

And, I also want to thank Mrs. Rosalynn Carter. It is her Mental Health Journalism Fellowship that opened my eyes and allows me to keep growing in my understanding of mental health.

Off The Base: A One Year Summary of Military Families

This is a modified version of the presentation I gave for the conclusion of my yearlong Fellowship as a Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalist.

A Seminary Student, Now an Army Mom Reflects on 9/11

The new second lieutenants, family and friends. L-R: Phil Warner, 2LT Brian Papke, 2LT Nelson Lalli, SFC Keith Polidoro, Dorie Griggs, Chelle Leary. photo by Stanley Leary.

10 years ago on September 11, 2001 I was supposed to be serving on jury duty.  As a full-time seminary student my service that day was differed and I attended class instead.  It was a World Missions class.  After class ended I headed to the chapel like many of my fellow students did every morning for the daily chapel service.

When I arrived outside the chapel, I saw a group gathering.  It isn’t unusual to see something different outside the chapel.  I just assumed we were going to process in together.  As I got closer I realized this gathering focused their attention on a TV screen. The first tower of the World Trade Center had been hit. My fellow seminarians stood around in shock, a scene that was repeated in various forms around the world that day.

Today, 10 years later, about 11 of my oldest sons classmates report to Ranger School at Ft. Benning.  They have completed their training in Infantry Basic Officer Leader Course. These young men were in Middle School on September 11, 2001. I imagine some decided that day ten years ago that they would serve their country.

In four weeks my oldest son will graduate from Armor Basic Officer Leader Course then three weeks later report to Ranger School.

10 years ago while standing in front of that television set on the campus of Columbia Theological Seminary, I couldn’t have imagined how the following ten years would unfold.  I was about to start a year-long unit of Clinical Pastoral Education.  My focus was on developing a model of chaplaincy to journalists who cover traumatic events.

I knew through my journalist friends that they, like other first responders, saw and experienced trauma up close.  I also knew then, as I do now, unlike firefighters, police EMS and other first responders journalists do not get the same training or support the others have.  My call to be a supportive presence to journalists who risk their safety to keep us informed was formed leading up to and including the 2001 – 2002 school year.

Dorie Griggs with Dart Center Ochberg Fellows, Mike Walter, John McCusker, Moni Basu at the screening of Mike Walter’s documentary, “Breaking News, Breaking Down.” photo by Stanley Leary.

Since 2001, I have had the opportunity to meet and be mentored by some of the leading researchers in the area of traumatic stress studies. The Rosalyn Carter Mental Health Journalism Program have afforded me tremendous opportunities to meet and learn from scholars and researchers in the area of traumatic stress. The leadership of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma has taught me a great deal about the trials journalists go through.  I’ve had the privilege to also learn from and listen to the struggles of journalists who have covered some of the world’s worst disasters, both natural and man-made.

A few of these journalists were there at the World Trade Center and at the Pentagon the morning of 9/11/01. Photojournalist David Handschuh was at the foot of the WTC when it began to collapse.  He was seriously injured that day.  Mike Walter was on his way to the DC TV station, where he served as an anchor, when a plane hit the Pentagon. Both journalists are fellows with the Dart Center and members of the Dart Society.  I am grateful to them for sharing their personal stories.

I am still on the journey to be a supportive presence to journalists. My call has expanded to also teach civilians about traumatic stress and how to be supportive to our returning veterans. I now serve on the board of directors for the nonprofit, Care For The Troops.

10 years ago standing in front of that TV on the seminary campus I could not have predicted the wide variety of journalists I would come to know both in the US and abroad.  I could not imagine that my then 12-year-old son and his friends from The Citadel would be second lieutenants training with the U.S Army Rangers, or that I’d even know what that training entails.

I am grateful to the many people who have seen the importance of this call to be a supportive presence to journalists and also to the members of the military and veterans.

A Military Mom Meets Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell, IV

Bill Maddox greets Lt. Gen Caldwell.

Every once in a while I have the opportunity to meet some interesting and sometimes very important people.  Today  (Tuesday) was one of those days thanks to an Atlanta Press Club luncheon.

The guest speaker was Lt. Gen William Caldwell, Commander, NATO Training Mission – Afghanistan/ Combined Security Transition Command – Afghanistan.  I attended because of my growing interest in all things military.  Now that my son is a second lieutenant, I take any opportunity I can to learn more about our involvement in conflict areas. I arranged to meet some friends there one who used to serve with the General 30 years ago when they were both Captains.

Dorie Griggs with Lt. Gen. Caldwell.

I arrived early to stake out good seats.  Fortunately, it worked and we sat very close to the podium.  While the guests waited for the arrival of Lt. Gen Caldwell, we all began to visit.  I had the pleasure of riding the elevator with retried General Burba who it turns out was the top person at Ft. Benning where my son is now in training in the Armor Basic Officer Leaders Course. At our table, I met John King, who it turns out is not only the Chief of Police for the City of Doraville, GA, but is a Colonel in the U.S. Army having served in Iraq Afghanistan with the Lt. Gen.

North Georgia College and State University helped to sponsor the luncheon and several of the Army ROTC staff members from the school attended. I made sure to say hello to them and tell them of how impressed I was by their cadets when I met them at the funeral for Spc Gary L. Nelson, III a few months ago.

Dorie Griggs holding her Challenge Coin, Police Chief John King (left) and an aid to Lt. Gen Caldwell (right) .

The General and his team arrived and began to mingle with the guests. My friend, Bill Maddox, went to say hello. It had been 30+ years since Bill and Lt. Gen Caldwell served together, but they greeted each other like it was yesterday. I snapped a few photos for Bill, then he returned the favor by introducing me to the general.  I told the general my son is a graduate of The Citadel and is now a second lieutenant.

The general is really big on using social media. I thanked him  for his work in that area then told him how great it has been as the mom of a new 2LT to follow the Armor BOLC training via their Facebook group.  Bill snapped a quick photo of us together before the official luncheon began.

The Challenge Coin given to Dorie by Lt. Gen. Caldwell. Photo courtesy of Stanley Leary.

Lt. General Caldwell educated the gathering about the NATO mission in Afghanistan. The Vision as stated in his PowerPoint presentation is as follows “An Afghan National Security Force that transitions to full security lead in Afghanistan by the end of 2014.” He explained that the training of the police, Army, Air Force, medical staff and other services are key to transition.

Only 1 in 10 Afghan citizens is literate which means they need to educate people in basic reading and counting before they can take on certain tasks like inventory and training and eventually leadership.  So far, the NATO efforts there have brought 100,000 Afghans to some level of literacy –  50 percent of the military and police are now literate.  In answer to a question about whether the people of Afghanistan want them there, he replied, “They want  us there only as long as needed to help them take the lead.”

Flip side of the Challenge Coin. Photo courtesy of Stanley Leary.

After the Q&A period my friend Bill wanted to thank the general.  I stayed to take more photos. As it turned out, the general took photos with both of us.  He thanked me for coming to the luncheon and supporting my son.  I told him about Off the Base and the creator of the blog Bobbie O’Brien and her fellowship with the Rosalyn Carter Mental Health Journalism Program.  When I told him I am on the board of  the nonprofit, Care For The Troops, and that after getting my master of divinity I found my calling is to educate people about traumatic stress, he told me his wife also has her M. Div. degree.

That is when something really neat happened.  He reached into his pocket and asked me if I knew what a military coin is.  I said yes. He then said, “You tell your son I gave this to you for supporting him.” He handed me a coin that reads:

For Excellence

Presented by

Commander

NATO Training Mission

Afghanistan

Yes, some days I have the opportunity to meet some very interesting and important people.  Today was one of those days.

Former First Lady Deserves Credit

Rosalynn Carter, provided by The Carter Center.

Rosalynn Carter deserves credit for this blog. No, she’s not a contributing author. But, my “Off the Base” blog is a direct result of her dedication to improving news coverage of mental health issues.

In my case, Mrs. Carter and her advisory board selected me as a 2010-2011 Rosalynn Carter Fellow for Mental Health Journalism in part because of my  focus on covering the stresses and successes of military families undergoing multiple deployments.

I was already reporting on military life and veterans issues before blogging. But as a general assignment reporter at WUSF 89.7, Tampa’s NPR affiliate, I also have to cover a lot of other topics. The journalism fellowship that Mrs. Carter created gives me the time, financial resources and access to mental health experts to improve and expand my reporting.

I’m only a few steps into the yearlong fellowship.  Yet, I have met some incredibly resilient veterans and some passionate active duty military and their families. I am learning and sharing information on research into PTSD, TBI and other issues. And there’s much more to come.

Just taking a moment to share my thanks and the credit with Mrs. Carter who beyond my selection as a fellow sponsored the Rosalynn Carter Symposium on Mental Health Policy  in November,  A Veterans Journey Home: Reintegrating Our National Guard and Reservists into Family, Community, and Workplace. She’s given voice to veterans, to active duty, to families, to those dealing with mental health issues and to reporters.

And, she asked for no credit.

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