Geez Dude…Lighten Up!
By Jim Kuiken
I had planned on a bit more light-hearted post this week with another of the often-requested “Frontline Tales” about interesting or funny things that have happened to / with me on the street or in the field during my career as a Firefighter/EMT, Law Enforcement Officer/Agent, or as a Marine – but last week got in the way. It’ll have to wait for next week.
This week’s post is all about last week, and what it means to our Country and its Citizens and Legal Residents, to the Military and Veterans, and to me and mine. It got up-close and personal.
August 7th is the anniversary of the date that General George Washington, Commander in Chief of the Continental Army, established the Badge of Military Merit (predecessor to the Purple Heart Medal) in 1782.
Each year on that date, we celebrate National Purple Heart Day (also known as Purple Heart Appreciation Day, and Purple Heart Recognition Day), an “unofficial observance”, i.e., businesses and government agencies do not officially close on this day – to commemorate the over 1.8 MILLION American men and women who have been wounded or killed while serving in defense of our freedom since the start of World War I.
I’ve never celebrated this observance publicly…usually I just keep my mouth shut, and raise a scotch, late in the evening, in a toast to my buddies and fellow Purple Heart recipients (who received it while alive – or posthumously). My toast is always the same.
"Here's tae us. Wha's like us? Damn few, and they're a'deid." (Robert Burns)
Roughly translated, that means “Here’s to us. Who’s like us? Damned few, and they’re all dead.” It is a toast given by those who survive battle, to fellow survivors…and to those who did not. Perfect toast for those wearing the Purple Heart medal on that day.
This year was different. I celebrated publicly, in the company of many other Recipients, their families, and supporters of those who paid the cost of Freedom with their health, their blood, or their lives.
Here’s how the week went…
Tuesday August 7th:
Just like every other year, some private time commemorating those who sacrificed and those who fell, with a “wee dram” (or two) of scotch, and “the toast”.
Friday August 10th:
6pm - A wreath laying at (and celebration of the 20th anniversary of the laying of) the Purple Heart Monument – and the origin (mile-marker zero) of the Virginia Purple Heart Trail, at George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate.
7pm – A private evening tour of George and Martha Washington’s home at the Mount Vernon estate, for Purple Heart recipients and their families.
Saturday August 11th – the crowning highlight of the week:
10am – A gathering, then ceremony with staff and leadership of Mount Vernon, and fellow members of the Military Order of the Purple Heart for the estate's official National Purple Heart Day Ceremony on the East Lawn overlooking the Potomac River. We were treated to some great music leading up to the ceremony, and later during the posting of the Colors, the National Anthem, by the U.S. Marine Corps Band Brass Quintet.
The highlight of the program was our keynote speaker, highly acclaimed American author Patrick K. O'Donnell, who told us a riveting recollection of his time embedded with the U.S. Marines in combat, and the incredibly heroic but devastating story of one young Marine that he served with.
In addition, PH Recipients from each war from WWII to modern day were called upon to rise (as their war(s) were called out) and be recognized for their sacrifice. It was very moving to see these surviving warriors standing proudly, recognized by their peers.
And more than one speaker (both Friday night and Saturday morning) talked about the medal itself…the shape like a heart – both the original Badge of Military Merit and the Purple Heart Medal. General George Washington understood service, and sacrifice for the greater good. As I’ve said before in my “Quotes” post,
“Courage knows no gender. Courage knows no race. Courage comes from within, from a deeply ingrained sense of duty, from service to something bigger than just yourself…from love.” (James Kuiken)
That’s why he designed the original Badge, and why the Medal that came from that, are both shaped like a heart. Service to something greater than yourself – to your country, to your fellow combatant, to anyone – comes from love.
1pm – A private reception for Recipients, their families and guests, and chance to mingle and talk with some true heroes…and do what military and veterans do when they come together…give each other a hard time and just have fun!
So while the final reception was a chance to let our hair down and just have fun, the most part of the week was spent in remembrance and celebration of those who stepped up when so many step away. And who paid the price.
The funny thing is, they all just looked like regular folks. Guys and gals, lots of older folks, and a few who looked like teen-agers. You just never know…
You Can’t Get There From Here…
By Jim Kuiken
It’s been a while since I wrote a Post (or anything, for that matter). You’d think things would get easier the farther down the road you get… Ever get that feeling that the end of the road stays just beyond the horizon, no matter how far you go?
Anyone who knows (or knows about) me knows that I’m a writer, and have been working on a series of books. Not only do I title my books, I also title the chapters in the books. My first book (The Making of a Warrior) ends with the final chapter which is titled “You Can’t Go Home”.
Funny how something I’m writing about that takes place in 1976 is still just as true today as it was then… A young Marine, just getting off of active duty after combat has serious difficulties adjusting to life “back in the world”, relating to friends and re-assimilating with his family, and almost goes off the deep end.
Years after I retired from the Marine Corps, I found myself still struggling with the same issues (only compounded by multiple overseas and combat tours), which culminated in a hard downward spiral…and then found what I thought would be the answer to it all – my Service Dog Freedom. Even that brought additional costs and problems, but I truly thought he would solve all the issues.
Don’t get me wrong, Freedom is all and more than I thought he would be, and does everything that a Service Dog (and my best buddy) could ever do! K9s For Warriors gave me the most wonderful, life-saving gift they could ever have given me.
It’s not Freedom, it was my expectations. I was hoping for something that could not only help me cope with my various physical ailments and injuries, but something that could fix the PTSD and all its associated issues.
Service Dogs (SD’s) don’t do that. After years with Freedom, I know now that they are like an aspirin – they can help cope with the symptoms, even alleviate some (many of the folks who go through the training and receive their SD end up getting off many of the (over-prescribed) medications from the VA or other sources), but they don’t necessarily fix the root issue.
I had taken a wrong turn on that long, twisted road, and ended up on a plateau. I was stagnant, and even though I stayed busy, I wasn’t actually going anywhere.
I finally realized I was stuck (and maybe even sliding back downhill a bit) when I was up on Capitol Hill working with Military Veterans Advocacy the last couple of months. We met with numerous Representatives (and staff) while we advocated for HR 299 in the House (it passed the House on a bi-partisan 382 – 0 vote…unheard of now-a-days…), then a week on the Senate side meeting with them – and then last Wednesday, attending the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing on the Bill.
MVA has been advocating for this Bill to RESTORE the Agent Orange presumptive benefits to thousands of Vietnam Veterans, who had it stripped out by the Dept. of Veterans Affairs when they “interpreted” the original Bill and enacted the implementation policies (and guess who was the main opposition to restoring those benefits during the Hearing…yup…you guessed it. The very organization that is supposed to help veterans.)
Working so hard on the Hill on behalf of those Veterans got me to thinking about my own situation, and that is when I realized I had hit that plateau – had stopped writing, had stopped moving forward, and was actually having some of the old problems popping up. I had withdrawn from the fight.
If you find yourself (or see someone else) going down one of those many dead ends, withdrawing and isolating, just coasting, or worse, like me, drifting backwards – stop and ask for help!
Now that I know that no one thing is going to win this fight, it brings me back to my Marine training. A Marine might be overcome, but you can’t beat the Marines…we come together, and that is what makes Marines so tough to beat. A coordinated, multi-faceted force (with attitude…) to be reckoned with.
That’s the way PTS needs to be addressed. If I had VA benefits (still working on that…since 1976, with no success – which may actually be a blessing), they’d probably try to medicate me, and offer some counseling, etc. Based on what I’ve seen as we go up against them on the Hill (with the 40+ year-old Agent Orange issues…and as an example of their efficiency, just last August, with prodding and action from MVA, the few remaining survivors of Mustard Gas exposure from WWII finally got their presumptive coverage through Congress when the VA dropped their opposition to the Bill – yes, WWII survivors – 72 years later…), my confidence level is low.
Without any support from the VA, I’ve had to find my own treatments – generally from various Veteran support non-profits, and finally, after several decades, have begun to directly address the underlying issues – not just the symptoms.
SPECT Brain Scans, a stint of Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy, counseling and treatment through Give-an-Hour (for one year) and now The Headstrong Project, and other treatments…as long as they’re paid for by a non-profit (since I don’t have the funds that the VA has for treatments).
Also, making sure I have good nutrition and regular exercise, and moderate-to-low use of alcohol (I don’t do drugs…) are critical.
I haven’t gotten back to where I was, but at least I’m off the plateau and headed back down to that long, winding, rocky road. Hopefully I won’t wander off on any more dead-end trails and can continue the fight – and help others along the way.
If you see or know of anyone else who is struggling, PLEASE reach out to them. Just remember, as I say at the end of each email and on my website:
"What we do for ourselves dies with us. What we do for others and the world remains and is immortal." Albert Pine