Saturday, May 24, 2014

A Different Type of Memorial Day – The List of the Dead is Growing

My Memorial Day weekends typically have involved marching in the annual parade in my community, giving a speech on the necessity of remembering those who fell protecting our freedoms, writing speeches for other speakers, or heading up the Buddy Poppy sales for my local veterans organizations.

We usually have a cookout at the Winter household, because we also acknowledge that it is the informal beginning of the summer season and we love to indulge in our hard won freedoms by doing what we like to do. And I always, ALWAYS, remember my brother Marines, those I served with in Medium Helicopter Squadron 161 – HMM-161 – who died in Vietnam, or afterward.

This year there will be no speeches or parades for me. I can't march after being injured in an auto collision three years ago, suffering debilitating back injuries as a result. I won't be doing speeches, partly because of the same reason, but also because I am up to my eye teeth in getting ready for a reunion of the remaining members of my helicopter squadron. These are the people I served with in New River, North Carolina in '66 and '67, and who took part in our historic flight from North Carolina to California in April 1968, and on from there to Quang Tri, Vietnam.

And herein for me is the true meaning of Memorial Day this year. One of my reunion planning jobs has been contacting people who served with us so long ago, informing them of the coming reunion and getting information out to them. There were approximately 200 Marines in our squadron when we landed in Vietnam, and in past reunions roughly half of them have attended.

During our tour we lost 20 Marines out of the 200 in combat, dozens more were wounded, and over the years our numbers have been whittled down due to the deaths of many of our leaders, most of whom had also served in WWII and Korea. In those cases, I have accepted that time marches on and we are not immortal. There also are many who simply dropped out of sight in the years after the war and extraordinary efforts to locate them have been fruitless.

But this year I have found time and time again that an old friend and brother-in-arms has died, or is unable to attend due to injuries and sicknesses that have come far too early in their lives, often as a result of combat or exposure to toxins in the war zone. The impact of these sudden revelations, that we will no longer see a person who was such an integral part of our lives, has not been gentle; in fact it has been brutal.

But to a great degree that has been offset by the knowledge that we who have survived will be enjoying each others company for a long weekend, and will be providing the venue for the family of at least one of our fallen Marines to attain some aspect of closure.

It has been very difficult for the families of those we lost in combat to come to grips with the deaths of men who in many cases were barely out of their teens, and in many other cases were only at the doorstep of adulthood. To send a young man off to war and to receive only a metal coffin and flag in return does little to nothing to resolve the issues that the families have endured.

But this year we also will be joined by the sister of one of our fallen Marines and her family. And this year she finally will meet many of the people who were close to her brother and were there when he died.

She will meet people who knew an entirely different side of the young man she grew up with and I am certain that she will be pleased to discover that we also saw him as intelligent, warm and humorous, in addition to respecting him immensely as a Marine helicopter crewman.

There is little to nothing I can do this year to offset the ravages of time or reverse what has happened to so many of my brother Marines. Yet, helping one family put to rest some of the questions that have lingered since Vietnam will be a worthwhile endeavor.

And before our gathering in June, I will take some time this Memorial Day to maintain my long-standing tradition of saluting an honor roll of the deceased - an honor roll that continues to grow longer with each passing year. Semper Fidelis.

Saturday, May 03, 2014

Military Should Reinstate Zero Tolerance Drug Policy

Specialist Ivan Lopez who committed suicide on April 2 after killing three people and wounding 16 others at Ft. Hood, Texas was an Army truck driver who had been diagnosed with emotional issues and prescribed Ambien, a sedative-hypnotic.[1]
Nonetheless, Lopez was still on duty even though one side effect of Ambien is "sleep driving."[2] But far worse, Ambien in combination with other anti-depressants – or even alcohol – also can cause "decreased inhibition (e.g., aggressiveness and extroversion that seemed out of character), bizarre behavior, agitation and depersonalization."[3]

Why are US military doctors prescribing mind-altering drugs to service members who have been diagnosed with mental health issues, at times in combinations that are known to cause serious reactions? And why are the people who are being prescribed these potentially dangerous combinations still in the military? 

No civilian truck driver could legally drive in Lopez' condition, which media reports referred to as under the influence of a "cocktail" of mind-altering pharmaceuticals. If any service member in the Vietnam era had been found in the possession of, or using, drugs of the types that are now prescribed, they would have been dishonorably discharged.

There are plenty of victims in this tragedy and I truly sympathize with the families of those who were murdered or wounded.

But I also sympathize with Lopez' father, who issued a statement to the media saying "I ask for prayers for the affected families. My son could not have been in sound mind."

To ensure that similar tragedies will not erupt on our military bases in the future we must acknowledge that the military is in the business of securing our country, not providing social services. The military needs people at the peak of physical and mental preparedness, nothing less.

The mission of the military is to protect us: to close with and destroy our enemies, and maintain a status of readiness that makes any potential enemy think twice before launching an attack. How can the military be expected to complete these missions when it is suddenly tasked with providing long-term psychiatric care to potentially thousands of troops?

If a person is physically debilitated in the armed forces he or she may be medically retired, becoming eligible for disability compensation and lifetime medical care. Why not the same treatment for a person emotionally or mentally wounded while serving?

This is not a slam at those who are disabled fighting for our country, either physically or mentally, it merely acknowledges the reality of military service. Rather than debating whether we need more or better armed military police, we should first remove the trigger to these types of incidents.

Any service member diagnosed with emotional or mental issues serious enough to warrant prescription drugs such as Ambien should receive medical retirement and be moved to the care and supervision of the Veterans Administration. Rather than cutting benefits for retired and disabled veterans, as has been championed by Rep. Paul Ryan[4] and others, the VA budget should be adjusted upward accordingly.

If the United States is going to send people off to wars for decades on end, it is obligated to not only provide the best training and equipment for the fighters, but the best care for wounded veterans. We should never forget the credo of the true warrior: leave no one behind on the battlefield.

And we also should remember that two members of the Obama Administration, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry, built their public personas around their combat service in Vietnam.

Perhaps they should reflect on how they would respond during a firefight if they knew their comrades had cocktails of mind-altering drugs running through their veins rather than adrenalin. They should think about their own reactions if they knew they could not count on their fellow soldiers to apply clear minds and solid training to the most dangerous of situations.

Then they should ask for an Oval Office meeting and share what they know with their Commander-in-Chief.


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