In Honor of all our Service Members this Veteran’s Day
Yesterday we celebrated my brother’s birthday. I love my brother we have an inexplicably tight connection that I would not even dare to try to explain with words, they would fall short. As part of his celebration last night we did what we invariably do, because his birthday is the day before Veteran’s Day we discussed veterans, particularly the veterans in our family. We honor them and remember their sacrifice.
This Veteran’s Day has been more prominent in our thoughts because we lost two veterans very dear to us last year, we lost my dad who served in the Navy and our friend Colton an Army Soldier and war veteran. Both men, sadly, were let down by the very military institution that are tasked with taking care of them, albeit in very different ways, but the end result was the same. I want to be very clear I wholeheartedly support our military men and women. The intent of my words here are to inspire a change in the system that provides care to our military members so it matches the level of care they deserve. I want to inspire action to support our military.
My Dad and our family was let down by the VA who are tasked with providing health care to our veterans. The VA treated my Dad for over a year following an “infection” before realizing that in fact he had cancer. We will never know if that year would have made the difference in his survival. Being the tough Navy man that he was, he fought valiantly for two years before the cancer took his life. My Dad lived a great life, while we feel he was cheated on time, he was able to see his children grow up, he met all his grandchildren and they know him, he experienced some great adventures and had a wonderful loving wife by his side for much of it. Colton, however, was only 25 years old and in the absolute prime of his life, his life was just beginning.
Even though Colton was a mere 25 years old his accomplishments are incredible. I could write a blog about this young man’s achievements alone and here are some highlights; a state and national champion in high school wrestling, a cowboy who competed in bareback, saddle bronc and bull riding, and in support of America’s War on Terror during Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, SGT Derr, US Army 1st Division, completed over 500 combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
My last memory of Colton shows his amazing humanity and compassion. Days before he had to report to duty he promised to come over to a friend’s house and play his video games for him, you see our friend Jarret could no longer play them himself, Jarret has Duchenne muscular dystrophy, and it is slowly paralyzing him. Jarret only lets a select few play his games while he watches, Colton was one of those special people. I just happened to be at Jarret’s when Colton stopped by, I remember hugging Colton when I left and I told him to be safe. When I said that I imagined the danger he faced was from an enemy force firing weapons at him, not a misguided leader he served under.
Colton reported for his third combat tour last April, it was to be his second tour in Afghanistan and he knew something was not right, he was struggling. He told the “correct” people at the Army base where he was about to deploy from about his struggles and feelings and the medical expert he consulted decided he should NOT deploy. We all, especially his family, wish that was how this story ended. However, what happened next was the medical expert was overruled by a commanding officer, this misguided leader determined Colton was to be deployed.
That night I imagine the demons unleashed by his prior combat experience, which he was trying to battle being the great soldier he was, became too much for him to bear. Colton ended his life that night. Can you possibly imagine a young man who was tough and brave enough to win a national wrestling title, to ride bucking bulls, to go out on 500 combat missions, can you imagine what he must have been going through before taking his own life? I can’t and I feel sick and overwhelmed whenever I go there. I think about how I could have handled this and know there is no way I could, I am not as tough and brave as Colton. And some leader in our military decided they knew more than the experts, they knew more than Colton, and after this brave soldier spoke up decided to send him back to the very hell he could not escape even here at home. Colton unfortunately was forced to make a decision he should not have been put in a position to make. We now know he suffered with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a result of his combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
My Dad’s and Colton’s stories are not isolated incidents. Which brings me to the intent of this blog – to inspire; inspire anyone willing to stand up for our service members, to inspire anyone in our military institution to act with the same honor our soldiers, sailors, marines, air force and coast guard show us everyday, to inspire any of our leaders to acknowledge the system is broken and badly in need of repair, to inspire those same leaders to make meaningful change and to inspire compassion for all. We need to serve our military members with the same loving care and dedication they show all of us.
In my humble opinion, I believe our military institutions have lost their way with respect to taking care of their own. I imagine the mission has eclipsed all other responsibilities; such as the responsibility of preserving the well-being and health of these men and women who are being asked to sacrifice more and more. You cannot sacrifice the most important resource of our fighting force, the people. The human beings who are ceding everything, including their own precious lives so I can sit here in comfort and type these words, so my kids can play with reckless abandon in our neighborhood, so we all can sleep at night knowing an enemy is not going to attack our freedom without a fight.
According to some military historians our current fighting force is slowly making history by serving in combat longer than almost any U.S. Soldiers in our nations past. And it has taken its toll on these magnificent men and women. This is evidenced by a dubious milestone recently reached, the Army reported the highest suicide rate this past July since records have been kept on this awful statistic. I do not want to just report dreadful statistics and tragic stories I want to inspire action, action to support our service members and aging veterans so we are providing the support and care they deserve. Not because we are shamed into doing so, that we are doing so because our compassion inspires us to recognize it is the right thing to do.
You would think a compassionate and grateful nation would recognize the increasing sacrifice we are asking of our military and respond with providing exceptional care and the trend has in fact shown the opposite. Our veterans are receiving substandard care from an aging system that is ill-equipped or prepared to handle our veterans. We are blessed with medical advances that have drastically increased post injury survival rates during war. However, we have not invested in the system that will care for them once they return home. We can do better and we need to do better.
Which brings me back to my brother he wanted to devote his occupational therapy skills to helping veterans returning from war. My brother has a real gift of healing and helping, and he is an occupational therapist. His decision to help our wounded warriors would be with a personal sacrifice, it would be a significant cut in pay but he did not care he is passionate about helping our wounded warriors. Unfortunately, he has been turned down every step of the way. He was told he is too old to join the military, any branch, and has not been able to get a job through the VA, he is overqualified. I think our veterans deserve to be treated by someone overqualified and whose passion is to heal our warriors.
Colton’s family has established a “SGT Colton Levi Derr Memorial Fund” at First Interstate Bank – PO Box 98, New Underwood, SD 57761. The money raised will be used to help veterans by lobbying for change in the policies related to members who suffer from PTSD. The family is the process of establishing a non-profit foundation in Colton’s name for this cause. Colton’s dad is a dear friend of our family and a fierce defender of his family and for what is right, I assure you if anyone can and will create a better system to care for our veterans he will be the catalyst for that change.
If you are not inclined to give to this cause or do not have the financial resources to give, consider the gift of your time. Help out a veteran or help a family who has a loved one deployed. Show you care, our service members old and young have given so much and need to know we care, that we honor their sacrifice, that we see them, and we acknowledge them. If you see poor care at a Veterans hospital speak up challenge them to provide the care our members deserve. If you see a service member struggling reach out it could be the lifeline they need to carry on. Go to your local VA hospital and reach out to a vet that needs to know someone gives a damn about them. Just show up and do what you can.
It is with immense humility and gratitude that I thank all our service members and their families not only on this Veteran’s Day but everyday. I acknowledge your sacrifice and honor your service. Bless you all.
Posted on November 11, 2012, in Cancer Journey, Life, Spiritual Journey and tagged Army, Colton Derr, honor, military, military service, Navy, post traumatic stress disorder, ptsd, Sgt. Derr, suicide, VA, Veteran's Day, Veterans. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.