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Fighting For Rights and Breaking Down Barriers

 War is vicious, brutal and traumatizing, and never is there a true “winner.”  Everyone loses to some degree – one just needs to look at the growing number of wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan, the killed in action, the suicide rates and the broken families to see that.  Or a short walk past the Vietnam Wall Memorial, which will certainly reduce anyone to tears, is perhaps the most poignant reminder of loss from war.


Veterans from all wars have seen their share of atrocities, but at least today’s warriors have been welcomed home with open arms.  As we all (hopefully) know, that wasn’t the case forty years ago.  Those veterans had nowhere near the resources we have today, although there are still many individuals and families falling through the cracks.   There have been, however, a number of very significant medical and legislative advancements after the wars in Vietnam, as well as Iraq and Afghanistan, which have benefited individual service members and our society as a whole. 


It is no secret that disabled veterans coming home from Vietnam played a significant role in the passage of the groundbreaking U.S. Rehabilitation Act of 1973.   This critical legislation prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in programs conducted by Federal agencies, in programs receiving Federal financial assistance, in Federal employment, and in the employment practices of Federal contractors.  Certainly the disability movement did not start with the Vietnam veterans, but they were young, fresh off the battlefield and much more demanding and visible than civilians who had been born with their conditions and more prone to seeking privacy.   Then, as now, veterans and veterans groups were active and effective in lobbying for help. Ultimately, governmental and private assistance to our veterans has influenced subsequent public policy toward civilian welfare measures and toward the disabled in general.


Similarly, today’s generation of warfighters have truly helped shine a spotlight on the issue of behavioral health, an issue relevant to civilians as well as members of the military.  A 2008 RAND study of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars concluded that nearly 1 in every 5 veterans is suffering from one or more behavioral health disorders, and that many of those afflicted do not receive adequate care. The study shows that mental disorders are both prevalent and long-lasting, and that often they do not surface until well after the initial trauma has passed.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) are commonly referred to as the “signature wounds” of today’s wars.  In fact, the American public seems so aware of this phenomenon that any number of popular television shows feature story lines of veterans facing these injuries, including Law and Order, Person of Interest, Army Wives and Grey’s Anatomy.  Thus, this generation has played an integral role in raising the national dialogue on mental and behavioral health – if we can continue to reduce the stigma of these issues within the military culture, this will certainly benefit our society as a whole. This is especially critical because closely linked with these maladies are the issues of drug and alcohol addiction, depressive disorders and suicide, all of which exist (as do PTSD and TBI) throughout society.

The veterans from the Vietnam War have pledged that never again will one generation of veterans abandon another.  They have paved the way for today’s warriors with regard to many of the rights we now enjoy, and in so doing they have also benefited our society as a whole.  Our service members who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, and their families as well, have also contributed significantly to medical advancements as more and more of us survive catastrophic injuries.  Within the military community, we need to continue to be open about injuries and treatments – not only with this help those on the front lines, but many more so throughout our society.


Leading From the Front

How many of you have met someone and been truly inspired?  I don’t mean just thinking something like, “Wow – that person really has accomplished a lot and overcome a lot of obstacles along the way.   I wonder if I can do that.”  I mean something more along the lines of, “This person is amazing.  I love his attitude, his philosophy, and everything he is doing for those around him.  I am a better person just for talking with him.”


Well, I was lucky enough to meet such a person, and although he definitely doesn’t want any attention or credit for what he has done and continues to do, I would be crazy not to talk about Don Weber.  I met Don earlier this year at the annual gala for the Give An Hour Foundation (an amazing/well-needed/heartfelt organization in its own right), and he gave a speech about talking with his father after he returned from fighting in the Pacific campaign during World War II.  You could have heard a pin drop in that ballroom as we all hung on each of Don’s compelling and vivid words.


More recently, my wife and I had the honor of visiting Don and his family out in La Crosse, Wisconsin, for the annual Freedom Fest Concert, this year featuring Foreigner and the Steve Miller Band.  The first such concert was five years ago with approximately 1,200 in attendance.  This year there were over 7,000 attendees.  I have never spoken to an audience that large, and as nervous as I was, their obvious support and pride made me feel right at home instantly.



The focus of the concert was to pay tribute to the 172 service members from Wisconsin who have made the ultimate sacrifice in defense of their nation in Iraq and Afghanistan. It also included a well-attended motorcycle run which even the light rain couldn't damper.


This whole concert is Don’s brainchild, because Don truly understands the importance of community support for those who sacrifice on behalf of others.  Don did not have an easy childhood.  He dropped out of high school to work on the family farm, and then joined the Marine Corps and deployed to Vietnam.   He earned two Purple Hearts there and came back a different person.  A true entrepreneur, Don has over the years started a number of businesses, and his impact on the town of La Cross is obvious.  He helped redevelop a blighted portion of the downtown area, which is now the home of Logistics Health Incorporated, Don’s thriving company.  The area also includes a first-class restaurant run by his daughter and a popular coffee shop run by his son.  And in that headquarters building is the primary care facility for Don’s employees, because he provides free primary health care to each and every one of them.  That’s right – free health care.  As Don told me, “It’s all about giving back.”


Their local airport is too small for a USO, but there is a dedicated Veteran’s Corner.  Guess who designed that and makes sure it is always squared away?  The same person who periodically drives around with a few friends and family members to invite homeless veterans to their restaurant for a full dinner and personal dining experience where they are treated with the dignity they deserve.  And the same person who spearheaded the extraordinary memorial inside the University of Wisconsin La Crosse Veterans Memorial Sports Complex, called the Hall of Honor.

Each year thousands of visitors show their respect and pay tribute at this special memorial.  In fact, veterans are encouraged to enter information and leave a message in their data bank there for public viewing.


But you won’t hear Don telling you about any of this, because in his mind that would detract from the work itself, which is the important piece.  Did I mention that the Freedom Fest has raised $300,000 for veterans’ causes, including $60,000 in scholarships for returning Service members pursuing an education at a University of Wisconsin System institution?


And you know the best part of that weekend?  On Sunday morning before he gave us a ride to the airport, Don gave Dahlia and me a quick tour of his office building and the restaurant (which is beautiful, sophisticated and the type of place you want to spend a lot of time in) and then spent about 30 minutes with us in his office.  Although I had my mind made up that I had truly met a living legend, it was that short time together that really cemented it for me.  By listening to Don and seeing what he has been capable of, all the while focusing on taking care of others and making his little corner of the world a better place, I couldn’t wait to get out and do the same. 


Do I want to be successful?  Of course I do, just like everyone else.  But just as much as that, I want to help make everyone around me successful too, whatever that definition is.  Like Don, I want to be a leader in my community – as someone who keeps pushing in the right direction and lends a helping hand to those in need.   Don could teach a whole course in personal motivation, entrepreneurship, charity, community and paying it forward.  And it would only take 30 minutes, but I don’t know how often he sits still for that long.


Don Weber, as a returning Service member and just someone who wants to be a good person, thank you for your guidance and inspiration!


You Are Stronger Than You Think You Are

Author Bob Drury wrote an article in Men's Health in 2007 that focused on the challenges faced by our Wounded Warriors as they return from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan.  He followed up recently with an article in the Men's Health online magazine about Corpsman George Grant's perspective on what happened the day he saved my life.  And then last week he wrote a blog post about what I thought about George and how calm under pressure he was.


During my inspirational speaking, I often tell people that they are stronger than they think they are.  This is certainly true of George Grant.  When I was shot, his medical skills had not yet been tested to the degree they were that day.  I am sure he was very nervous when I was bleeding like crazy and he had a tiny window of time to save me.  But just like you, George is (and was that day!) stronger than he thinks he is - he dug down deep and performed perfectly.  Below is a reprint of the blog post.


I volunteered to deploy to Iraq in 2006, not because I agreed with the war effort but because the Marines were there.  I transferred to a Civil Affairs unit that was looking for officers for their deployment, and figured, how many lawyers get the chance to lead Marines in a combat environment?  Of course I was nervous, but excited to finally deploy.  I was a Civil Affairs Team Leader, and our small team trained hard that summer.  When we arrived in Iraq we were attached to Third Battalion, Second Marines, a Marine infantry battalion from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.


I remember checking in with the battalion leadership when I first got there, and can still picture the photographs of the young Marines on the wall in their headquarters building – Marines from the unit who had already been killed before I got there.  This was a unit that saw a lot of action.  I immediately became part of the Battalion Commander’s “jump team,” which is where I met Corpsman George Grant.  I know he and the other Marines were measuring me up for size on the first few humps we did together – long, draining marches in searing heat with over 50 pounds of armor plating, weapons and ammunition.  I held my own though, and knew that I had passed their test when they shared some of the Gatorade from their cooler at the end of a particularly long hump.


How many guys can point to a friend of theirs and say, “That guy saved my life.  Literally.”  Probably not many, but I am one of those guys.  George Grant saved my life in Iraq and we have been fast friends since then.  Right there on the battlefield George performed an emergency tracheotomy on me after I was shot in the head, and my plastic surgeon later said that George had done such a good job on it, that he thought another surgeon had actually performed the surgery.  Oh yeah, at the same time the sniper was still shooting at George and the other Marines, he was wearing all that protective gear I already described and if he wasted even a moment I would have died.


As an inspirational speaker, I often talk about my injury in Iraq, and what I learned from it that can apply to anybody facing challenges in their own lives.  And my favorite part of the speech is when I get to brag about George.  George is completely unassuming, probably uncomfortable with any extra attention he will get from this story, and would say that he was “just doing his job.”  In saving me though, he displayed the kind of courage that we read about in war novels, and he acted with complete disregard for his own life.


I was shot in October of 2006, and had a chance to reconnect with George in the Spring of 2007 when he and the rest of the battalion rotated back from Iraq to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.  Because of other commitments, my wife and weren’t able to drive to Camp Lejeune from Virginia until the day the unit came back, and we had to get up at 4:00am the next morning to drive back, but we weren’t going to miss it for the world.  I have a great picture of me with George that I show every audience – you can tell from the picture that he is quiet, confident and just a good person.


Over the years George and I have stayed in touch over the phone, email and Facebook, and talking with him always brings a smile to my face.  But just a few weeks ago, my cousin orchestrated a long weekend for a handful of wounded warriors and their caregivers, and that included George as well.  We all had a wonderful time, and although I rarely pass up the chance to play golf, I did the second day we were there so that George and I could lounge by the pool, catch up and laugh about when I first “fell in” with the unit.


We laughed about first impressions, and also talked about the more serious aspects of war.  George is introspective, contemplative and a person who feels things strongly.  I am proud to be a friend of his, and extremely lucky that he was with us on October 18, 2006.  Otherwise I am certain I wouldn’t be here to write this.



The Power of Teamwork

I had the distinct pleasure this past weekend to spend some time with George Grant, the Navy Corpsman who saved my life 6 years ago in Iraq.  He would hate to be called a hero and insists that he was just doing his job, but I disagree.  To put it bluntly, I would not be here if it weren’t for George.  After I was shot in the head, and while the sniper was still shooting at the Marines around me, George performed an emergency tracheotomy on me and also conducted rescue breathing.  In fact, when he first turned me over I was no longer breathing and the other Marines thought I had been killed instantly.


Obviously I rotated back to the States after I was shot, but Dahlia and I went down to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina to welcome home the battalion when they returned from Iraq in 2007.  I saw George then and had a chance to say thank you to him. 

We have both come a long way since then.  I have had dozens of surgeries and moved ahead in my career; George has continued to do great things for the Navy and takes care of Marines and Sailors on a daily basis.  We got together this past weekend, along with a handful of other wounded warriors and a few caregivers, and enjoyed a great beach weekend.  For me, it was therapeutic and eye-opening to hear George describe some of the details of exactly what happened on October 18, 2006.  But most of all, I was struck by the precise teamwork and coordination that was required by so many just to save me.


Besides George providing the lion’s share of the work, the rest of the squad of Marines, and in particular the battalion commander, all played important roles.  Also, Lance Corporal Buehler risked his own life to save mine while driving us over roads littered with improvised explosive devices which would certainly have been deadly had he accidentally driven over one.  Then the warm handoff at the aid station between the Marines and the medical staff, and of course all the different medical personnel who all played a critical role in Iraq and on the flight to Landstuhl, Germany.


As George and I discussed, the power of teamwork can be an amazing thing.  Without it, I certainly could have died at any number of points from the time the sniper started shooting at us until I left the hospital at Landstuhl.  We are all stronger when we work together, and the benefits are obvious.  Of course, things are always better when you have someone like George Grant in your corner!