Families struggle to cope with multiple deployments

By Sebastian Zotoff

Army Staff Sergeant Kelli Kerber first deployed to Iraq in 2007, leaving behind her three children, their goodbyes said at their grandmother’s house in Slidell, Louisiana.

Kerber’s two youngest children were too young to realize what it meant for their mother to be deployed. Gabrielle, her oldest child, in some context, did understand.

“She thought that I had chosen to leave them, she wouldn’t speak to me, she was very sullen, and just angry,” Kerber said.

Today, with the faint memory of those days, Gabrielle, now 15, says, “I just didn’t realize why she had the go.”

Army Staff Sergeant Kelli Kerber, her husband, Army Staff Sergeant Christopher Kerber and her three children (from left to right) Gabrielle, Layla and Troy celebrate their mother and stepfather's return from Iraq.

Army Staff Sergeant Kelli Kerber, her husband, Army Staff Sergeant Christopher Kerber and her three children (from left to right) Gabrielle, Layla and Troy celebrate their mother and stepfather’s return from Iraq.

Kerber, 36, is one of more than 280,000 female veterans who have since returned home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, about 12 percent of whom were single mothers while serving in the military.

For Kerber, that meant leaving her children with their grandmother so she could serve as an X-Ray technician in the MEDCOM unit in Baghdad.

“The third day I was there was the first time we had traumatic amputations” she said vividly recounting what she saw.  When the medical evacuation call came through, Kerber started to prepare herself, adding, “The mental part is what kills you.”

In one particular incident in February 2007, Kerber described an explosion in which  “a female suicide bomber had gone to a playground where kids were playing soccer and detonated herself – so our hospital was full of kids.”

The children, “with this tremendous look of confusion,” were about the same age as her own, she said.

In late 2012, Kerber was deployed a second time – to the American Embassy in Baghdad. “The second time it wasn’t nearly as bad as when I deployed the first time” Kerber said.

It’s been four months since she returned from her second tour in Iraq and for the first time, she and her children are living far from a military base in a Surprise, Ariz. suburban home. Her children Gabby, Layla and Troy are now 15, 13 and 11 years old.

Kerber originally joined the Army reserves to pay for a college education but transferred to active-duty following Hurricane Katrina. “The day it [Hurricane Katrina} hit, August 29th, 2005 was Gabrielle’s birthday,” Kerber said.

After five days of living with friends in Georgia, Kerber and her three children returned home to find a tree torn out of the ground and laying through the walls of her home.

“What wasn’t damaged by water, was damaged by mildew and mold and it just had horrible stench – so it wasn’t livable at that point. I know they were going to repair it but I had these three little kids looking at me with five days worth of clothes – and that was all that we had,” she said.

“We lost everything [in Katrina], “ she said with her southern twang. Her mother’s house was flooded and their house destroyed.

The only option the Army reserve soldier and single mother saw as a solution was to enlist in active-duty, even with a high likelihood of deployment.

Kerber already was separated from the children’s father, but both were deployed to Iraq.

“You know, you have expectations of what home is going to be like when you return, but that’s where you fail,” she says.

When Kerber first came home, she described how detached she felt from her children: “I remember going to the grocery store and thinking; I don’t even know these kids. I knew them as babies.”

According to experts and doctors, the longer the parent is apart from their child, the more problems the child is likely to experience. In a study conducted by the National Institute of Health, three-fourths of veteran families have reported problems in the home – such as children acting afraid of their parents or having difficulty expressing affection.

Kerber calls her kids strong and resilient for going through what they went through, “Things that would be a catastrophe to most kids – [Kerber’s children] think whatever.”

Kerber is now married to another veteran of the Iraq war, Staff Sgt. Chris Kerber, an Army recruiter.

She says she has worked through the stresses and images of a war hospital, where she helped save Iraqi children and fellow soldiers’ lives. Kerber now is attending Arizona State University, working toward another college degree.

But she can still rattle off the name of the first American soldier she saw die in the hospital.

“His name was James Ellis, he was 24-years-old and he was from Valdosta, Georgia,” she said.

She also saw a fellow service woman die, a nurse who worked with her in the hospital. The woman was crossing the street to go to the gym when a barrage of rockets struck the area around the hospital. Soon to be married, she died in the trauma room.

“My heart just sank,” Kerber said.

A Mesa Army veteran’s brain injury went undiagnosed for years

By David Ryan

After more than a decade of crippling headaches, alcohol and drug abuse, a psychiatric appointment unlocked a decade of mystery for Army veteran Kenny Baca.

Baca, 45, had lived for 15 years with an undiagnosed traumatic brain injury inflicted in a tractor trailer accident when he served in the U.S. Army Reserve in Arizona.

In the years after the accident in 1991, Baca spent months in jail for multiple DUIs. He couldn’t keep a job framing and painting houses because the more he worked, the worse his headaches became. He was aggressive and at times, would call his mother – lost – unable to figure out where he was.

While traumatic brain injuries primarily have been associated over the last decade as a signature wound of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, every year more than 1.7 million Americans suffer a TBI, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

“The TBI is such a hard thing to diagnose, it’s not something physical. It’s not like a limp, it’s an invisible injury,” said Baca, who now lives in Mesa, Ariz. “I’m sure if I was walking around for 15 years not knowing, then there are plenty of people out there undiagnosed.”

In 2006, a Department of Veterans Affairs psychiatrist agreed to review the original medical records from Baca’s accident. She found a note about significant head trauma that never was diagnosed or treated as TBI by military or VA doctors. A VA neurologist later confirmed Baca suffered from TBI.

“Knowing that something is wrong, but nobody can tell you what … it finally brought some hope into my life,” he said. “That was the beginning of a lot of changes for the better.”

Baca’s accident happened on a two-week mission in Pomona, Calif. Baca was driving a soft-top tractor trailer carrying construction equipment on a freeway during rush hour when a driver cut him off. The tractor trailer slammed into stopped traffic.

Baca remembers the sound of metal hubcaps scraping against pavement and the smell of rubber burning before the trailer rolled and grated to a rest on the pavement with the passenger’s side facing the sky.

“I wasn’t in a seatbelt, and that’s probably what saved my life,” Baca said. “I probably would have gotten decapitated.”

Baca found himself partially ejected from the truck, pinned between the truck body and burning canvas top. His passenger was in a seatbelt and called Baca’s name.

“My name was the last thing that he said,” Baca said. “I was pinned under the truck and couldn’t help him, I couldn’t respond.”

Baca was pinned for 27 minutes.  He suffered a broken left femur, broken ribs and deep gashes to his face.

He spent six weeks recuperating. The damage to nerves in his legs was extensive. Doctors told Baca to get used to a wheelchair.

But with the help of a physical therapist, Baca began his recovery. It was two years before Baca took his first step, and three before he walked for the first time.

One day during a family gathering, his mother and sister looked up from the couch to see him standing. He walked from the family room, out the sliding door and jumped in the pool.

“I don’t know if he practiced at physical therapy,” said his mother Linda Madrid. “But it was just amazing to see.”

At 26, Baca moved out on his own and was working construction. But some days, he wouldn’t show up to a job and was fired.

Over the next 12 years, he said he was drinking multiple six-packs a day, and at times mixing alcohol with marijuana, cocaine or meth.

“I was self-medicating, trying to fit in, trying to work… trying to be a working person, somebody that contributes,” Baca said. “Self-medicating is a scary place to be. If you’re drinking, you have chronic pain, you can’t see things any other way. It’s hard to imagine not coming home and drinking beer.”

Eventually he mixed beer with hydrocodone, an opiate painkiller he was prescribed for chronic pain.

“I was really tired of my life,” Baca said. “I think I got really tired of it when I got my last DUI and went to jail. I wanted to change. I didn’t know how, and decided to get counseling.”

Baca’s new doctors worked out a treatment plan, but warned him if he continued to drink and use drugs, he was a prime candidate for Alzheimer’s at an early age. Baca hasn’t had a drink since.

He moved closer to his family and got married.

“If I didn’t get diagnosed with the TBI, who knows if I’d be here today?” Baca said. “Sometimes I wonder that.”

In Portland, One Vet Finds Peace with Puppets

By Forrest Burnson, News21

PORTLAND, Ore. – By day, Clint Hall, an Army veteran and supply chain analyst, works with spreadsheets to track shipments for Adidas Group. By night, he takes to his sewing machine to make hand puppets and plush animals.

Hall calls them “wiggle whales.” They’ve become more than a hobby; Hall has started selling them on Etsy.

“The puppets are silly,” the combat veteran said. “That’s why I enjoy making them so much.”

After serving Infantry tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, Hall returned in 2005 and was honorably discharged in 2007. Following his return home, Hall was diagnosed as having post-traumatic stress disorder.

In addition to therapy, Hall, now 35, found a creative outlet in making puppets. He looks at making puppets as a way to work through whatever problem he is mulling.

“It’s a problem-solving tool for me. And it happens to add value to my life,” he said. “Because then I have something positive to share with a friend, or give to somebody.”

VA provides $300 million in grants in effort to end veteran homelessness

By Catey Traylor, News21

Vaughn Little, a Gulf War Army infantryman, lost his leg during Operation Desert Storm. He is now homeless in New York City. (Photo by Catey Traylor, News21)

Vaughn Little, a Gulf War Army infantryman, lost his leg during Operation Desert Storm. He is now homeless in New York City. (Photo by Catey Traylor, News21)

Vaughn Little was alone, on the streets of New York City. With nowhere to go and no one to turn to, he found some cardboard and a marker and did what he swore he’d never do.

“Disable(d) veteran,” he carefully wrote. “Can’t walk; can’t talk. Please help. Thank you.”

Little sits in his wheelchair at the subway exit on the corner of 31st Street and 7th Avenue, across the street from the Hotel Pennsylvania, silently pleading for spare change.

An Army infantryman during the Gulf War, Little lost the lower portion of his right leg during Operation Desert Storm. He returned to the United States and had a hard time transitioning to civilian life.

He eventually found himself homeless.

Little is just one example of thousands of veterans who return from battle and end up sleeping on the streets they fought to defend.

The count of homeless post-9/11 veterans is unknown, but the increasing rate of homelessness among veterans has been a major concern for the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs since 2009, when VA Secretary Eric Shinseki vowed to end veteran homelessness within five years.

Since then, housing programs have received budget increases to house homeless veterans. Most recently, the VA awarded $300 million in grants to the Supportive Services for Veteran Families program, known as SSVF.

SSVF aims to help veterans before they become chronically homeless by providing money to local organizations to promote housing stability and connect veterans and their families to support services such as mental health care.

“This is the third year SSVF grants have helped veterans and their families find or remain in their homes,” according to a July 11 news release. “Last year, (the) VA provided about $100 million to assist approximately 50,000 veterans and family members.”

More information about SSVF, as well as links to other VA-sponsored homelessness programs is available at www.va.gov/homeless.

Army Sergeant uses music to combat PTSD

By Bonnie Campo, News21

[soundcloud url=”http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/100358285″ params=”” width=” 100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

The Warrior Resilience Center at Fort Bliss, Texas, continues to explore multiple treatment options for post-traumatic stress disorder, while official and traditional treatment offer two options.

Doctors and clinicians at Fort Bliss treat active duty troops who primarily served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Treatment at the center is offered from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. in a program that lasts four weeks. Each day is tailored to the patient’s needs, said Vicki Thomas, who is chief of the Warrior Resilience Center.

Sgt. John Welsh finished the program June 21 and said that every day spent at the clinic encouraged him.

“I am about 65 percent recovered,” Welsh said. “But I have more hope now than I did when I began the program.”

Welsh benefited from his treatment, but because of his mental trauma will remain at Fort Bliss. Asked if he would be deployed, he said, “That’s not an option right now. I’m unfit for duty.”

That doesn’t mean Welsh will stop trying. He believes in the progress he has made, but he also advocates helping those who struggle with the same horrors and memories of war.

“A lot of soldiers ignore their problems until it becomes to much to bear; I was one of them,” Welsh said. “I am willing to do anything to help combat related trauma.”

And he has. Welsh produced a song for a friend in 2011, just two weeks before Welsh left for Iraq. That friend was Sgt. Brett Cornelius, who sustained a traumatic brain injury. One of the only things Cornelius can remember is his wife, so Welsh  took a poem Cornelius wrote for her and put it to music.

Welsh returned from Iraq nine months later with PTSD. Cornelius’s memory is approximately 15 minuets because of his TBI. But when they hear the song, Welsh said, they get to remember life before war, before the explosions, and before they were no longer fit to serve.

Through this act of kindness they both are heading toward success, just like the name of the song “On My Way.”

The song can be purchased on iTunes and proceeds from the song go directly to Sgt. Brett Cornelius and his family, minus legal and copyright expenses.

Army Reserve officer faces yearlong unemployment

By Colton Totland, News21

With decades of military experience in areas that ranged from human resources to supply and logistics, Scott Hargrove seemed qualified for the civilian job market.

The former Chief warrant officer four left the Army Reserve in June 2012 when his veterans outreach job was eliminated. The Vietnam era volunteer found himself unemployed after 40 years of military life. His yearlong search for work has been frustrating.

“You’d like to think that wealth of experience is something that employers would jump on,” Hargrove said. “I just don’t like being out of work.”

Hargrove, 60, represents a unique demographic among unemployed post-9/11 veterans, most of whom are younger and much less experienced. The highest unemployment rate among veterans is in the 20-24 age range, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For April, it was at 17.7 percent.

Hargrove said employers are discouraged from hiring veterans because of confusion about what military experience actually means.

“We use acronyms in the military all the time. You need to take your military resume and convert it over to English; you have to put it into civilian terms,” he said.

Veterans and reservists visit the Arizona Army National Guard center in Phoenix. The facility offers career services for service members, notably resume-building advice on how to translate military jargon. (Photo by Colton Totland, News21)

Veterans and reservists visit the Arizona Army National Guard center in Phoenix. The facility offers career services for service members, notably resume-building advice on how to translate military jargon. (Photo by Colton Totland, News21)

Hargrove in early June visited a National Guard center in Phoenix for advice on his resume. Since 2011, new public and private organizations have offered career services for veterans. Hargrove has attended more than a dozen job fairs, he said. None has yielded desirable job offers.

“There’s a lot of veterans groups trying to help; in many cases, it’s almost overwhelming,” Hargrove said. “It’s just that there are so many initiatives. It would be nice if there were fewer organizations all doing the same thing.”