Commentary #5
23 October 2006


Home of the Brave

The end of last week, on two separate occasions (i.e. 19 & 21 OCT 2006), I had some life-altering experiences, which I would like to share with you:

A local friend of mine, CAPT Bob Silah USN (Retired), has dedicated himself to Operation Helping Hand in the Tampa area. This involves befriending the families of seriously wounded U.S. Military personnel undergoing serious spinal, neurological, and central nervous system treatment at the James Haley VA Hospital in Temple Terrace (just north, and adjacent to Tampa). Once a month, Bob's volunteers host a pot luck dinner within the hospital. This enables Bob's group to have the families and the patients (who are ambulatory) in a relaxed environment where we can thank them for their service, and find out if they need some help with accommodations, phone cards, transportation, entertainment, etc.

Because this VA Hospital specializes in treating neurological damage, we get some disturbing trauma cases, and this evening was no exception. Because I am a retired Navy Admiral, I am often introduced with undue reverence, which becomes a departure for me to visit as many as I can, and learn enough to be of some assistance. But these events invariably become enriching patriotic experiences for me, i.e. to communicate with these brave soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen, and guardsmen, military women, and their steadfast families.

The first military patient I met this evening was Marine Sergeant Andrew Robinson, who was reclined in one of those high-tech wheel chairs you can drive with a joy stick. He was helping himself to some food, and he was assisted by his charming wife. Sergeant Robinson was moving both arms, smiling, and engaged in animated conversation with his visiting in-laws and their young children. . . but that was all he could move. He was paralyzed from the armpits down to the bottoms of his feet. His legs had been badly mangled by an IED explosion, many of which have proven deadly for our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Andrew told me he was in the backseat of an armored HUMVEE patrolling in the Sunni Triangle when a seven-round cluster of 155mm howitzer projectiles was triggered remotely as his HUMVEE passed by. The vehicle was upended, the front end was destroyed beyond recognition, the three Marines in the front seats were killed, and he and another Marine in the back seats were seriously wounded and immobilized for the duration.

There began the long road to stabilization, repair of body and mind, then reconciliation with his young family, and that tedious process has been going on day-to-day since February of 2006. A new #5 vertebra was constructed for him in a field hospital close by the attack. Since then he has been through the U.S. Army Hospital in Landstull, Germany, plus the Naval Hospital in Bethesda, MD. Andrew does not know if he will ever walk again, but he is already feeling hopeful enough to plan to return to his unit, even if it will still be in Iraq! While Andrew acknowledges he is not yet nimble enough to keep up with his comrades on the march, he thinks he can perform his special skill of field intelligence in the foreseeable future. Sgt. Robinson wants to RETURN TO HIS MARINES; they saved his life.

Before I started around the room that night, a woman in her 40s had come up to thank me for my service in the Navy. At the time I thought her facial expression was the most unusual combination of angelic contentment and pathos. This was Cheryl Biggars of Ohio, whose son, Army Sergeant Ethan Biggars of the 101st Air Assault Division, had been badly wounded by a ricocheting sniper bullet, and had part of his skull blown away. He was confined to bed upstairs, and was still unable to communicate because of pressure in his still-swollen brain.

When I got my plate from the buffet, I found a seat next to her. After the most delicate start of discussion between us, I learned she and her son were supposed to have been transferred to Bethesda Naval Hospital that same day so Ethan could get his skull repaired, and relieve the pressure in his brain. But they had been called at the last minute and told to wait until the flood of other woundeds from Iraq subsides.

In the process of making diversionary conversation over the informal dinner, my wife and I asked how she could manage the trip from Ohio, time off from her work, additional accommodations in Florida, time away from her family in Ohio, etc. In the next few moments we learned the explanation for her angelic expression we observed 15 minutes ago. . .

Cheryl and her husband were sharing the family's watch over Ethan, filling in for Ethan's wife (who has a 4 month-old baby back at Ft. Campbell, KY). Furthermore, Cheryl had come to Tampa to relieve her husband for a week or two (this was back in July); he returned home and just a few days later, was in a car crash at home,...and DIED!

So here was Cheryl, a recent widow, in a strange town 1000 miles from home, trying to inspire her hero son to stay alive long enough to get his skull repaired, and hopefully get steadied on the long road to recovery. By then she perceived my wife and I sincerely cared for her plight. Then she revealed what was holding her together, i.e. a bedrock belief in God. Here she was, a living example of the Book of Job. But, there was more. . .

Jane and I drove home that night celebrating the battlefield courage of these three American warriors, but also AWESTRUCK by the courage of their family support back home. Their struggle was far from over, but all three families seemed ready for whatever trials would come their way.

Two days later, I was summoned as a minor player in the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve (ESGR) organization, which includes approximately 2000 civilian volunteers, to assist in the process of ensuring the jobs of our Nation's Reserve members of the U.S. Armed Forces are still there whenever they serve on active duty. The occasion was to assist Retired Master Sergeant Doug Corbett of the Florida Army National Guard to officially welcome home approximately 1200 members of the Florida National Guard who served in Iraq and Afghanistan in the past year, and to thank their families for their support back home, and to remind them ESGR exists to ensure their jobs are held in trust for their return.

The venue for the celebration was Busch Gardens in Tampa, and the families started arriving at 0730. It was a remarkable gathering of National Guardsmen, Army Reservists, and women soldiers in combat boots and digital-print grey (and some green) combat fatigues, with all sorts of chattering children and family in tow.

With one of the famous Busch Garden thrill rides as the background for a stage setup (with a huge American flag as the stage backdrop), Governor Bush, State Adjutant General Burnett, and U.S. Representative C.W. Bill Young thanked the Service Members and their families for answering the Nation's call for their indispensable professional services (both while deployed for armed combat, and for hurricane relief).

But it was Retired Florida National Guard Sergeant-Major Ray Quinn who reminded all present that some had paid the ultimate sacrifice with their lives, as exemplified by the sober icon on the right wing of the stage, i.e. the traditional boots, assault rifle with fixed bayonet, helmet, and individual "dog tags", to personalize the remembrance. Then he read the names of the men who had given their lives....FREEDOM IS NOT FREE.

From the outset of my campaign, I said my principal concern was National security...that I supported the President's efforts to keep us free, even if that involved sending our troops to conflict in far away lands to avoid armed strife at home. As you can see from the above, such deployment of Americans can cause severe sacrifice by those families affected. We owe them an everlasting debt of thanks for helping preserve the freedoms of those of us at home.

May God bless the members of the U.S. Armed Forces, their families, and may God bless America.  /s/ LeRoy Collins

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