Silence Among the Generals

Silence Among the Generals

August 27, 2010 - It’s been two weeks since my letter was hand delivered to General Amos.  I’m still waiting to hear from him and the silence is deafening.  I’ve been told the letter is too long.  Yes, it is….but not nearly as long as the wait has been for someone in Marine Corps leadership to do something about this problem.

(Originally published by the author on fellednot.com

Dear General Amos,

I know that you are a very busy man.  You have an enormous responsibility and there are probably never enough hours in your day, therefore,I will thank you right up front, for giving my letter your time and attention.  It is greatly appreciated.

I have recently become aware of your determination to take care of our Marines who have willingly stepped up to serve our nation and as a result of their service, have found themselves disabled by Post Traumatic Stress and/or Traumatic Brain Injury.  I am very optimistic, knowing that you will have the opportunity to influence the way these invisible wounds are viewed and currently treated.  If you are willing to take an honest look at PTSD and TBI, and the current problems with ongoing care and treatment for these conditions, and if you are willing to demand that those Marines who suffer from these wounds be treated with the same respect and care given to those with severe physical injuries, I believe that you will be effectively saving thousands of lives.

I know that the experience with SSgt Ownbey was life changing, not just for him, but for you as well.  I recently had the privilege of reading Greg Jaffe’s article in The Washington Post,  Military Reckons with the Mental Wounds of War. I was immediately struck by the obvious compassion you had for Ssgt Ownbey’s situation, and especially by the fact that you knew something needed to be done and it needed to be done now.

Because you had the opportunity to see the MRAP and meet the Marines who survived the explosion back in 2007, and because you happened to be at Bethesda Naval Hospital on that day two years later, SSgt Ownbey became more than just another Marine serving under your leadership.  You basically got the “before” and “after” picture because at the time of your original meeting, everything with SSgt Ownbey appeared to be fine.  When you stepped into his hospital room, you immediately saw the physical affects that resulted from the traumatic brain injury, but I believe that you were also affected deeply by the emotional toll that the invisible wounds had taken on SSgt Ownbey and his wife.

Fascinated by your compassion for SSgt Ownbey, I decided to dig a bit further into your views and efforts with regard to PTSD and TBI. I discovered a video clip of your keynote speech given at the Partnership for Military Medicine Symposium on November 6, 2009.  (I use the word fascinated because it is my belief that you are in the minority with regard to military leadership.)  I heard the words of introduction spoken by LtGen Eric Schoomaker.

It is my hope that our military leaders do, in fact, serve, first and foremost, the medic and the soldier in the field. LtGen Schoomaker described you as a one who “has never forgotten the pain, suffering, and trauma of the Marine on the ground who guts through the difficult tasks set before him.”  As you partner with Gen. Peter Chiarelli, you are seen “as a force and conscience that will likely deliver to the Marine and his family, timely, effective, evidence-based devices and practices that will protect them, save their lives, and restore them fully to function.”

I have the utmost respect for your leadership because you appear to possess humility.  You are willing to admit that things are not perfect and you are willing to learn from past mistakes.  Yes, we, as a nation were ill prepared. As you have said, no one knew that the war would last eight years and counting.  No one knew that so many would survive their injuries because of the advances made in technology and medicine.  No one knew that this fearless “Millennium Generation” would serve numerous deployments. No one ever thought that the numbers would be so staggering and as you stated, “We had not thought about how we were going to take care of families and parents and wives.”

Gen. Amos, I know it took a lot of courage for you to tell those listening to you at the symposium that SSt Ownbey “lost his life in the two years that followed” the IED explosion. Even more courageous was the truth of these words, “I’ll be honest with you, we let him down. and I’ll just leave it at that.”

Yes, at first, the system did let SSgt Ownbey down, but when he was brought to your attention, you did something about it.  Your actions exemplified the motto, Semper Fidelis. You did the right thing, and now SSgt Ownbey will get the medical care he needs. Your attention to his situation will make a difference in his life as well as in the lives of his family members.

Imagine, Gen. Amos, if you had not taken the time to go see SSgt Ownbey.  He had asked to see you, but what if you were too busy that day? Or what if you had made a brief visit and walked out the door, never looking back?  What if you had not met him two years before?  What if you could not witness the obvious changes in SSgt Ownbey that had taken place?  What then?  Where would he be today and what quality of life might he have?  What about his wife?  She said, “You guys got him home, but it was like watching a slow death happening.” Her words chill me to the bone because that is what has happened to my Marine and many others like him.

When I compare SSgt Ownbey’s story with that of my Marine, I see many similarities.  My Marine also survived numerous blasts during his first two deployments in 2005 and 2006.  He’s got a photograph of his truck, just after one of the worst explosions.  The Marines all managed to walk away that day, celebrating because they were alive to tell about the experience.  I even got a phone call from him.  The command wanted the Marines to call their families rather than hear about the explosion through the grapevine, figuring that this would prevent panic on the home front.  The fact that the Marines were knocked unconscious, had headaches, and experienced nausea seemed irrelevant at the time.  They were Marines and they wanted to get right back to work.  Back in 2005, no one was checking them carefully or asking them to rest their brains.  Nobody knew that in time their balance, memory, judgment, and reasoning would become more and more difficult to control.  No one was looking for these symptoms.  When the symptoms manifested themselves in behaviors viewed as ‘out of character’, no one thought to find out why these men no longer seemed to be themselves.

Another similarity in SSgt Ownbey’s story that struck me was that of the pothole. If you recall, it caused him to drive across a neighbor’s lawn in an effort to avoid the possibility of driving over what looked to be a hole that contained a roadside bomb.  On the day my Marine returned to Camp Lejeune from his second deployment, I was driving along Holcomb Boulevard.  He was sitting in the front passenger seat.  In mid-sentence, he becomes silent and turns ashen. His posture is immediately different. He utters a small scream and I nearly drive off the road.  He quickly realizes that what he thought was an IED was actually a Burger King bag that had been discarded on the roadside.  I didn’t even notice the bag. We all see garbage on the side of the road. The experience left my son shaken, but he did not want to talk about it.  Later it would be revealed to me that his unit had just spent 7 months looking for IED’s every single day.  They found hundreds of them during their tour.  Even more interesting to me than my son’s reaction was the fact that when we met several of his buddies for dinner later that evening, they were all talking about the Burger King bag.  One little bag had been scaring the life out of the Marines all day long.

I recall another night, in the wee hours, when my son wandered into my bedroom.  He was home on leave. He had a nightmare. He thought he was in Iraq.  My husband and I were frightened.  We weren’t sure if we should wake him.  We’ve heard that’s not such a good idea.  With gentle coaxing we were able to reach him and show him that he was safe at home, on leave, but we could see that deployment experiences were weighing heavy on his mind.

On another evening, my son was standing with several of us in his uncle’s backyard.  There was a six foot privacy fence standing between us and the neighbor’s yard.  We heard their voices but had no idea, until we heard the boom, what they were doing next door.  Naturally, we were all a bit startled, but our Marine flew into combat mode.  Before we had a chance to take it all in, he had gone over the six foot fence and tackled a woman, thinking he was protecting her from the IED that was going off in her backyard.

We knew things weren’t normal, but our Marine was training for MarSOC by then. We had heard that everyone had these issues after returning from combat.  He wouldn’t talk about it except to say he wasn’t going to tell anyone he had a few nightmares or that he was startled by fireworks and Burger King bags. It was just a part of the job.

Just as there are many similarities in the stories of SSgt Ownbey and my Marine, there are also many differences.  The most striking difference is simply the fact that you can not see any physical evidence of my Marine’s injuries.  Fortunately, his brain injury does not involve his endocrine system and we are grateful that that he does not have to fight that particular battle.  Instead, he fights one that is surely as difficult, perhaps even more so, because in most situations, if the wounds can not be seen, they simply could not exist.  If they don’t exist, then they can’t be treated.  If they can’t be treated, then they can’t be overcome, and no healing will ever take place.

Nothing in this world is perfect, General, but when a problem is brought to one’s attention, and that problem involves the quality of life and medical care for another who has stood willing to give his life for our nation, what type of leader simply turns and walks away?  You have referred to Gen. Chiarelli as your soul mate.  You both agree that “PTSD is not a figment of someone’s imagination”, but rather “a cruel physiological thing.”  You have agreed that PTSD and TBI are real injuries that demand immediate care. You have sought the expertise of military and civilian doctors and have admitted to being frustrated over the fact that no one could agree on anything at a meeting set up for the sole purpose of solving this problem.  I believe Gen. Chiarelli described the meeting as “three hours of hell”.

I recently had the privilege of participating in a discussion on suicide prevention with Colonel Christopher Philbrick, director of the Army Suicide Prevention Task Force.  He spoke highly of the determination that you and Gen. Chiarelli have for solving the mental health crisis in our military.  This gives me hope.

I’m pleased to see that research has revealed more insight into the reality of PTSD and TBI. I’m pleased to know that our military is serious about facing the problem head on, and that adjustments are being made during training, prior to deployment, as well as in theater.  I’m impressed with the fact that leaders such as yourself and Gen. Chiarelli are determined to educate and foster awareness so that those new to military service will not have to experience the deplorable care that has existed, in many cases, up to this point in time.

General, I must now ask you to answer this question.  What will you do for those who are still suffering, whom have not been brought to your attention?  What will you do to eradicate the stigma?  Sir, do you realize that the stigma is far more damaging to the lives of your Marines than the actual brain injury or the battle with Post Traumatic Stress?

How would you handle a situation if you knew that one of your officers, a man chosen to lead by example, was chastising Marines because of the way they were dealing with depression?  Would you allow it to continue?  Would you look the other way because this man was regarded with importance?  Would you confront this leader?  Would you believe what he had to say with blind faith when he gave his version of the story or would you take the time to find out something about the young enlisted Marine who was struggling and what was causing the behavior in question?

What if you found out that this leader and his staff NCO’s were running their unit for Wounded Warriors like a victory unit?  Would you be more concerned for the order and discipline of the unit or would you be more concerned for the health and welfare of the patients?  Would your concern for what people might think of the Marine Corps care of wounded warriors be more important than the lives of a few enlisted men who could easily be explained away as behavior problems?

Would you be concerned if you found out that prescribed medications were destroying your Marines?  Would the hair on the back of your neck stand up at the thought that some of these men have come close to death because they were taking their medications as directed by their doctors?  Would you send one of your Marines, or better yet, one of your own children, to an inpatient PTSD program, halfway across the country from Camp Lejeune, just because it was listed as approved by Tricare?  If he were your child, and if you knew the government had paid the quarter-million dollar price tag to have him trained for Special Forces, would you just pick a program off of a list or would you investigate the program prior to sending your child into lockdown?  It is my belief that you would protect your child and your investment.

How long would it take you to wonder why someone good enough to become a part of MarSOC was now being brought to your attention as just another problem child who needed to be discarded?  Would you make all of your decisions based on the small amount of information in front of you, or would you go back in this Marine’s service record and take a look at who he was before his injury?  Would you simply look online at his service record, or would you take a few minutes to call his former commander and get to know something about this kid who served three deployments?  Would you consider calling his next of kin to find out some history on this Marine? Would you dig long enough to find out that he had wanted to be a Marine since he was old enough to know Marines existed?   Would you learn that he entered the Corps through the Delayed Entry Program?  Would you know that he worked at the recruiting center for a full year before he graduated from high school?  While others were paid to work in the high school co-op program, he received nothing but the benefit of being around Marines.  Would you learn that he turned 18 at boot camp, 19 in Falllujah, 20, again in Fallujah, 21 training for MarSOC after reenlisting, 22 deployed again, 23 in a hospital setting that turned his life upside down, and recently turned 24 with the realization that Semper Fidelis is just a bumper sticker on the back of a few cars aboard Camp Lejeune, North Carolina?

Would you take the time to find out that this Marine was given great responsibility, that he had been through many challenges, that he, like many others, had dealt with the loss of buddies, been blown up a dozen times, lost a roommate and teammate to suicide, and lost a fiancee who just couldn’t take it when PTSD and TBI became the dominant force in his life?  Would you take the time to discover that his once close relationship to his family had drastically deteriorated?

Would you take the time to talk to his doctors and ask some questions?  Would your interest lead you to discover that he begged for help for months?  Would you come to know that he complained about his medications and said they weren’t working?  Would you believe it when the doctor told you that this young man was doing his own research trying to find help?  Would it surprise you to know that many of these Marines turn to substance abuse just to get through the day, the night, or even the hour?  I know you are aware of the magnitude of the problem, Sir.  We are all aware of it.

Corps leadership has promised that the stigma is gone and leaders practice an open door policy.  I’ve read all the leadership guides for Marines in distress. I’ve read the materials on suicide prevention.  I’ve watched the videos that are shown to the Marines.  You have a great plan!  Sadly, there has been no plan to develop accountability.  You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.  Just because all hands must sit through training sessions on how to handle delicate situations doesn’t mean that those who walk out the door will actually adopt these new practices.  The Marine Corps is a war machine.  There just isn’t any place for someone who appears weak.  Not only is this true in infantry battalions, but it is true in the Wounded Warrior Battalion as well.

Those with physical wounds are viewed as heroes.  Most have battled long and hard to get to a point where they have left specialty hospitals and are assigned back to Camp Lejeune.  They should be viewed as heroes.  But why is it that if the wound can’t be seen, it simply must not exist?  Why is it that the invisible wounds are shamed and written off as malingering, bad behavior, or personality disorders?

It would be my assumption that leaders are carefully chosen for each battalion.  The man who commands each unit must be experienced in his field and he should have proved himself as one who is capable of doing his job.  I would also make the assumption that he would be constantly re-evaluated.  Should he take his unit to the front lines, he is ultimately responsible for every life in the battalion.  If he is not performing well, he will likely be removed and replaced.  Men of all ranks have been relieved of their duties.

What about the man who runs a unit for the wounded?  What are his qualifications?  Is it simply being wounded?  Is it simply an infantry commander who needs to fulfill his B-Billet for promotion? Does he have any experience in medicine or counseling?

Would you hire your gardener to perform your open heart surgery?  Would you allow your best infantry commander to do your root canal?  If the answer to both of those questions is no, Gen. Amos, I believe that you wouldn’t allow an angry, disgruntled, wounded Marine to lead your wounded warriors.  He’s got too many of his own issues and he’s not the right man for the job.  As well, your B-Billet leader is secretly marking the days off his calendar the minute he gets home each night.  He’s just looking ahead to the next assignment.  This assignment is simply a stepping stone in life’s path.

General Amos, I realize that this is far too lengthy, but Sir, I just do not know where to go from here or how I can scream loud enough for my voice to be heard.  I have spent the past 20 months desperately trying to help my son.  At this point in my letter, you should know him almost as well as you knew SSgt Ownbey the day you saw him at the hospital.  Once a proud Marine, willing to give his life for his country and for his brothers-in-arms, my son is but a shadow of the young man who signed his commitment on the dotted line seven years ago.  Worse than suffering TBI, worse than suffering with PTSD, worse than being removed from his position and being forced to walk away from his career, worse than losing his fiancee, worse than being misdiagnosed, and misunderstood, worse than any of it is the reality that this Marine Sergeant was destroyed by none other than his own, the US Marine Corps.

This Sergeant was drugged by his own doctors, a victim of overlapping drug side effects, who, even when reported to doctors and leaders, was ignored.  This Sergeant was virtually ignored when he arrived at Wounded Warrior Battalion-East. This Sergeant was subject to screaming sessions dished out by disgruntled NCO’s.  This Sergeant was treated with disrespect and forced to watch his friends endure the same.  This Sergeant was humiliated publicly.  This Sergeant was made to endure Alpha inspections and watch his comrades be ridiculed for being overweight, no longer able to fit into their uniforms because of medications or the forced lack of exercise dictated by their injuries. This Sergeant was told that he was a “poor excuse for a Marine” by his Captain in a room where NCO’s stood by and witnessed the event.  Two days later when he attempted to take his life, as any “worthless Marine” would, no one came to his aide though I, his mother, called repeatedly begging for help.  This Sergeant asked for help and was demoted for being honest.  This Sergeant was a victim of sloppy drug testing or, perhaps, set up to take the fall.

Why, you ask, is this just now coming to your attention?  It’s certainly not because we haven’t tried to speak out.  It’s because no matter what we do, we are shoved aside.  We are ignored.  We are discredited.  We are blamed.  We are, more than likely, framed.

For over a year, I have been trying to help my son get the help he desperately needs. If the first person had responded properly, our lives would be very different.  Instead, problems within the command were ignored.  The louder we shouted, the more stubborn leaders became.  As we rose through the ranks, the responses became more and more absurd.  We asked lawmakers to inquire on our behalf.  They did.  Things got worse.  With the support of Congressman Walter Jones, we have pursued every single avenue in an attempt to have our voices heard.  We have made contact with the Commandant, the Secretary of the Navy, and countless others in powerful positions.

We have offered our documentation for review.  Not one person has ever asked to see a piece of it.  We have written documents stating specific problems and have been met with responses that are vague, untrue, and often unrelated to the subject at hand.  I’ve been met with the same condescension afforded my son by officers in WWBN-E.  I’ve spent hours talking with wounded warriors right under the noses of the leadership. I’ve spent countless hours researching care, programs, and protocol.  I honestly believe that I know more about some of the aspects of the program than those sitting in the building all day.

After initiating an inquiry in November, I received an Information Paper in February, via several congressmen, to which I wrote a lengthy rebuttal. I specifically asked Gen. Conway and BGen Simcock to dignify my letter and rebuttal with a response.  I’m still awaiting their reply.

In June, I received another Information Paper, also via lawmakers, filled with more fabricated explanations.  This document was sent to carefully chosen lawmakers, and was deliberately not sent to other carefully chosen lawmakers. Even though my son and I were the subject of the fabricated materials, we were not afforded a copy of this document from the authors.

I won’t tell you about the countless hours I’ve spent on the phone with the Lt. Colonel.  I won’t tell you how many times the truth was twisted. I’ve lost count. I’ve already heard the Lt. Colonel’s defense, but I’m not buying it and neither should you, Sir.

I believe that the main reason no one has asked to see my documentation is because there might just be some truth to all of it.  If I was to be proven correct, there would be a lot of people who would need to be held accountable.  What a mess that would be and what a frenzy for the media!  It must seem far easier to keep ignoring us…..at least for now.

It won’t be long before another suicide or drug overdose will take place.  The last one should have raised a red flag, but sadly, it just fine-tuned the art of cover up.  The warning from Dr. Kernan Manion in the spring of 2009 was not enough.  The death of Sgt. Thomas Bagosy in May of 2010 was not enough.  The 52 Marine suicides in 2009 and the rest in 2010 not mentioned here have not been enough either.

Careers are ended, families are pulled apart, and lives are destroyed.  When will there ever be enough death and despair to make some real changes?  I can tell you that my son’s life has been forever altered.  Right now I’d simply classify it as destroyed or annihilated. I’m not sure there are enough years left and enough counselors out there to  help him put the pieces of his life back together.

He’s repeatedly been told he is worthless and now he believes it to be true. He has walked the “walk of shame” for so long that he can’t find his way off the path. The self-fulfilling prophecy has proven itself effective.

He once lived by the motto, Semper Fidelis, but he was betrayed by his own.  He was brainwashed back on Parris Island to believe that his Corps would never let him down, that he could trust every Marine with his life, and that this bond was something he could find nowhere else.  What does it do to a man when he relies on something that simply doesn’t exist?  He translates the hurt and pain into all of his relationships and thus, destroys the lives of those closest to him.

My son defined himself as a Marine for most of his life.  He grew up wanting to be a Marine.  He became one who proudly wore the uniform.  He served his country well with three combat tours and six years of service.  He was willing to give all for his country and the Corps.  When he looks in the mirror he sees a Marine.  He is reminded of it when he walks out to his car.  He wears it tattooed on his skin.  It’s evidenced in his posture, and in his reflexed reaction to Taps, the National Anthem, or the sight of an officer in uniform.  So what does it do to his psyche to look in the mirror and see the representative of the very entity that has defined him and destroyed him?

It’s just like Mrs. Ownbey said, “You guys got him home, but it was like watching a slow death happening.”

Gen. Amos, I want my son back.  I gave him to the Corps for six years.  Now I just want him back.   I’ve been mourning the death of my son for over a year.  I can’t bury him and move forward because, he is still breathing. For that I am grateful, and it gives me hope.  I can’t find closure because though the man who we once knew has died, his look-alike walks in the door several days a week.  My mind and heart envision my son, but my ears hear the words of a stranger. I can no longer reach him because he isn’t the kid that grew up in my home. We, his family, his brothers and his parents, can try to restore his honor, however, I’m not sure we can do it because we are not the ones that stripped him of his dignity.

Sir, I ask you to please be open to the reality that stigma is your worst enemy.  It will destroy your Corps and it will ultimately destroy you.  At the rate these problems are growing, and the rate that we are losing Marines to the war in Afghanistan, it’s a scary thought to ponder what things will be like when you leave the office of Commandant. Be open to the fact that those whom appear to be your most loyal and dedicated leaders might only be interested in someday sitting in your seat of power.  A good leader is well respected by his lowest ranking subordinates. The leaders of WWBN-E, who have dramatically shaped my son’s life, are not well respected by those under their leadership.

It is my hope, Gen. Amos, that you will take some time to look into this situation.  It is my hope that before you go and read all of the fabricated information and listen to all the excuses, that you will listen to the rest of the story, our side of the story.

Respectfully submitted,

Proud Marine Mom

cc:   Congressman Walter Jones

Congressman Joe Sestak

Congressman Ben Chandler

Senator Jim Webb

Senator Jim Bunning

Senator Mitch McConnell

Senator Claire McCaskill

Col John L. Mayer

Gen. Peter Chiarelli

LtCol Oliver North (Ret.)

Here are three links you might be interested in watching.

Gen Amos interview with Washington Post 1

Gen Amos interview with Washington Post 2

Gen Amos Interview with Washington Post 3

(Originally published by the author on fellednot.com


 

 

 

 

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