Footprints on the Heart

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Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened. – Anatole France

The other night I was comforting my sobbing daughter as she was facing the possibility of having to put her beloved cat to sleep. My heart was breaking for her because I know the pain and guilt that comes from having to make that decision. When I worked as a veterinary technician we euthanized pets every day. It was humbling to see how everyone in the office treated each pet with such love and respect. I would sing to them as we prepared them for their eternal sleep. It was particularly hard to see the grief of the families. Without exception they all had a sense of guilt that they were “killing” their loved one. I told them that we love our pets and give them a good life and we have to love them enough to let them go when they are suffering.

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Scout, the comedian of the family. Rescued from a meth addict.

So many people have come into my life during my 60+ years and I have to admit I don’t remember most of them but I can honestly say I remember every pet I have ever had. My very first memory is of playing with our family dog, Minksy. One of her puppies, Penny Louise, was my companion from the time I was born until I turned 16. Each cat, dog, hamster, rat, etc. that I have been blessed to share my life with has left indelible footprints on my heart. To no one else in your life can you go and get such unconditional love and acceptance.

They say an apple a day keeps the doctor away but how about a pet? A number of studies have shown that having a pet in the home helps ward off allergies for young children. The Centers for Disease Control Prevention and the National Health Institute both conclude that people who have pets exhibit decreased blood pressure, cholesterol and triglyceride levels and people who have had heart attacks have better recovery rates. Pets are better than antidepressants in some ways. They not only give us unconditional love but they give us a sense of purpose and combat loneliness, particularly among the sick and elderly. They help bring out feelings of love, give us companionship and make us laugh with their antics.

Animals provide support as service dogs for people with physical limitations and emotional traumas that make it difficult to function in social situations. Veterans and others traumatized by war can use service dogs to facilitate the difficult transition from the battlefield to the “normal” world. The dogs can draw out the most isolated personality and helps to assuage the emotional numbness and hypervigilance that are common with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

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GG (Good Girl) is the watchdog and protector of the family. I brought her back from Afghanistan.

Animals have been used to assist the military throughout history. Dogs, horses, mules, camels and even elephants have been used for protection and transportation; as late as the Afghanistan war when the first Special Operations Forces rode horses through difficult terrain on dangerous secret missions. Some unconventional animals have been used as well to support troops. Sea lions have been trained by the Navy to find swimmers near piers and ships or objects that were considered suspicious or a threat. Dolphins are trained to sense mines in water and alert their handlers. Cats are present on many bases around the world to reduce disease-spreading rodents and poisonous snakes. When I was in Afghanistan the commander on our base ordered all the cats to be killed. Two weeks later a poisonous snake was found outside my tent. At ISAF, the facility that houses the international forces in Kabul, cats patrol the base and are kept healthy by military veterinarians. On the adjoining U.S. Embassy campus, cats have their own territories and provide a much needed touch of normalcy to a stressful working environment.

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Blu, the baby of the family. We rescued her from an abusive situation.

During WWI and WWII, the U.S. military enlisted more than 200,000 pigeons to help relay messages. One pigeon, Cher Ami flew 12 important missions before being struck by enemy fire, although he was shot in the breast and leg he was able to deliver his message, which was found dangling from his battered leg. Because of his efforts 194 soldiers were rescued. He was awarded the French Croix de Guerre for heroic service. Sgt. Stubby, a pit bull stray smuggled by soldiers overseas, was the most decorated war dog of WWI and the only dog to be promoted to sergeant through combat. He served in the trenches in France for 18 months and participated in four offensives and 17 battles. Rats are now being used to detect and report land mines in Afghanistan because their weight doesn’t set off the explosive device. While at the Embassy in Kabul bomb sniffing dogs protected me every day.

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Busta, the matriarch of the family at 16 years of age. She’s a grumpy kitty but we love her.

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Thomas who was rescued from a shelter is my sleeping buddy.

From war heroes to family pets, animals have had a longstanding communion with humans. We give them food, water, shelter, medical care and they give us love, companionship and acceptance. It is not surprising that we develop bonds that even death cannot break. Capitan, an Argentinian dog ran away from home after his master died and even though he had never been taken to the cemetery he was discovered laying on his master’s grave and he remained there for six years until his death, cared for by the cemetery staff. So it is no surprise that I can remember every pet I’ve ever had. They didn’t die; they just went to sleep in my heart.

And The Rockets Red Glare

Kathy

The truth is no one ever believes for a minute–no matter what danger you’re in–that you yourself are going to be killed. The bomb is always going to hit the other person. – Agatha Christie

Every Wednesday I am going to include an excerpt from my memoir “Small Gifts From the Heart”. Hope you enjoy.

The first time I am in a rocket attack, it was about 8:00 PM. I am in my bunk at Forward Operating Base Morales Frazier absorbed in a murder mystery. The women soldiers in the tent are chatting, reading and getting ready for bed. The sound of outgoing mortar rounds has a deep, bass boom. After a while, I don’t even notice them any more. It is like an ambient sound machine that lulls me to sleep at night. This night I hear a high, whistling sound racing through the night sky above our tent. Although I have never heard it, I know instantly it is incoming. We all freeze, some with their mouths open, silenced in mid-sentence by the screaming of the rocket, waiting to see where it will land.

BOOM! It doesn’t hit our tent. Then, as one, chatter breaks out. A soldier asks me, “What’ll we do? What’ll we do?”

“Well, you’re the military. What do we do?” I reply.

The Captain gets on her phone and talks to the Tactical Operations Center (TOC). They tell us to get in our body armor and go to the French bunker. Now the bunker is over on the other side of the base. I have already put on my old flannel pajamas and gone to bed. In our pre-deployment training they told us the biggest danger in a rocket attack, other than a direct hit, is getting hit by flying shrapnel. I elect to stay in my bunk. My only concession is to put aside the murder mystery and read the Bible. I think about putting on my armor, but I have already washed my feet, the last thing I do before getting in my bunk because the floor is dusty, and my armor is across the room. I decide to take my chances. The others head out to the bunker.

After a few minutes another rocket comes squealing over. BOOM!! This one lands outside the fence.I read the 23rd Psalm with renewed vigor. That little frisson of fear that comes with being in the line of fire is skipping across my nerves. I am alone in the tent and I feel very far from home. What I wouldn’t give to be in my cozy Maine home with my family right now.

The one good thing about the Taliban rockets is that they are mostly surplus that the Russians left behind when they withdrew from Afghanistan. They are old and often duds. Forty-five minutes after the initial rocket screamed over our tent the French return outgoing mortars and it is very likely the insurgents are already gone. They send off volley after volley of rockets which seem to say, “Our rockets are bigger than your rockets.” It is an emotional balm to help sooth our jangled nerves. Many of the soldiers are outside watching the rockets streak their yellow light towards the mountain towering over the base, cheering as each round blasts a hole in the bare, gray shale mountainside. It is like a Fourth of July celebration and makes everyone feel better.

As the deep bass “Whoof!” of the last outgoing rocket reverberates off into the distance, my tentmates troop excitedly back inside. We are all so glad that those two rockets didn’t have anyone’s name stamped on them. One Air Force nurse shares that when the first rocket came over; she was on the phone with her Dad, a Vietnam veteran. He could hear the whine of the rockets over the phone and had told her it was incoming. She now calls him back to let him know she is okay. Pent-up nervousness and adrenaline causes many of the women to laugh nervously. The Captain asks me if I am okay and I tell her I am fine. I have switched back to my murder mystery in an effort to release my fear. Murder mysteries always relax me.

“She’s not in the military and she is calmer than any of us!” she says to the others.

I just smile serenely, reinforcing this perception. What they don’t know is that I was probably more scared than any of them, but I am determined not to be seen as someone who panics at the first little rocket attack. I do have my pride.

When I transferred to the Embassy, I was in several rocket attacks. One time another civilian and I are having coffee outside the dining hall with two newly arrived civilians waiting to go to the field. We hear some booms in the distance. “Outgoing,” we knowingly say and go back to chatting, unconcerned. The newbies look nervously at each other. They’ll learn all too soon that you can get used to anything in Afghanistan. If awakened in the night by a rocket explosion, I turn my head to the side so I can hear better. If I don’t hear people screaming or a duck and cover siren, I go peacefully back to sleep. After all this is what I signed up for. I can’t afford to give in to fear and still be able to do my job.

It is only after I return to the peace and safety of home that the sound of fireworks and loud noises reduces me to a quivering mass of fear. The coping mechanisms I developed in Afghanistan don’t seem to work at home. Loud noises shouldn’t scare me anymore but the fear they bring is so much worse than anything I felt in Afghanistan. The horror of post traumatic stress is that normalcy has become the monster that lies in wait for me and it is a monster no amount of body armor can protect me from.

We Served Too

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Sometimes I want to ask God why he allows poverty, famine and injustice in the world when he could do something about it, but I am afraid he might just ask me the same question.

While I was in Afghanistan there were several American civilians killed in reconstruction and stabilization efforts. Some I knew, some I only knew of, but each death filled me with despair. It takes a special person to voluntarily leave everything they know and work in dangerous areas of the world. Some people go for financial reasons, some crave adventure, but the vast majority of aid workers go because they have a sincere desire to help people who are suffering. When you make the decision to go to work in danger zones you have to accept and make peace with the reality that you could die or be injured. But seeing such a person lose their life is heartbreaking.

In 2007, 29-year old USDA Forest Service employee, Tom Stefani, was killed when an armored vehicle he was riding in hit a roadside bomb. Working in Ghazni Province, he was developing and implementing an agricultural plan that included a poultry rearing facility, a cold storage facility and a grape production improvement project. While visiting an orphanage in Ghazni he learned that the children did not have enough toys and no playground equipment. He immediately launched a plan to raise money from family and friends for a playground for the orphanage. When Tom was killed his family created a fund to make sure his dream came true. In 2010, that dream became a reality as a playground dedicated to his memory was erected at the Ghazni orphanage and he would have been thrilled to hear the children laughing as they played on the equipment.

A fact that is often overlooked is that our wars are fought not only with soldiers, but with a great number of civilian workers going out alongside them. Civilian workers include military contractors who perform a myriad of tasks supporting military operations; government agency workers representing the U.S., journalists and nongovernmental (NGO) workers performing all kinds of missions — many of them humanitarian.

Most people don’t realize that in 2007 there were actually more civilian contractors in Iraq than combat troops and that in 2009 contractor deaths exceeded military deaths in Iraq. According to a 2013 report of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR): “In September 2007, the United States had more than 170,000 combat personnel in Iraq as part of the counterinsurgency operation, with more than 171,000 contractors supporting the mission.” To date, 1569 U.S. contractors have died in Iraq and 65 have died as part of the war in Afghanistan.

The cost of war is high in blood and treasure and it can be deadly for civilians who choose to do their part to serve their country, to not only ensure freedom but also to try to make life better for the innocents who suffer the wraiths of war—disease, famine, poverty, displacement and terror.

When civilians serve in high threat security zones they are often not working with the same pre-deployment training or the same support during and after their deployments that military personnel receive. Yet they too get injured and killed. And even when they return home safely — mission completed — they and their families can still suffer considerable psychological strain in the months and even years to come. But there is no Veterans Health Administration for civilian workers to turn to for support. And sadly we as a society are still slow to recognize our hundreds of thousands of civilians who serve in high threat and danger zones.

While our military serviceman returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have faced disgraceful delays from the Veterans Health Administration to get their claims covered — civilian contractors who return from the battle space with similar injuries — including limbs blown off, traumatic brain injury, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression also have difficulty in receiving the help they need to recover.

In terms of psychological well-being, a 2013 RAND study, “Out of the Shadows: The Health and Well-Being of Private Contractors Working in Conflict Zones” found evidence for PTSD in twenty-five percent of their sample, depression in eighteen percent, and alcohol misuse in over half the sample. And longer deployments and increased combat exposure was associated with higher rates of distress.

Serving in a combat zone, high threat or danger zone is just that — dangerous — and it’s time we recognized the hundreds of thousands of civilians who risk their lives for others.  A new organization, We Served Too (WS2), has been formed with the mission to raise awareness; conduct research; develop education materials; support resilience, health and well-being; and to create a web-based community, support network and information resource for those who are serving or have served in conflict and high threat security zones.

We will never win wars by how much money we spend or by how many people we kill. If we have any measure of success it will be the on-on-one interactions that we share, interactions that civilians are in a perfect position to initiate. It is in the exchanged smiles, the touch of a hand, the expression of compassion where they see we are not all infidels and we see they are not all terrorists that real success can be found. We who served too don’t need parades or medals, but we would like to know that someone remembers that we were also willing to lay down our lives for our country. We would like to be remembered for reaching out to those who are suffering around the world.

I used to pass by the flag pole at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul and see the memorial marker stone for Tom Stefani and many times I would pick a rose and lay it there because I wanted Tom’s family and friends to know that in the war torn country he loved, he was remembered.