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MARCH 1 Pulmonary Unit
Walter Reed National Military Medical Center Bethesda, Maryland
Carson Lundgren was sitting in the hospital ward's common room watching the final moments of the NASCAR race when he heard a disturbance. Annoyed, he turned his head to see Dr. Rimer passing out a document to the eight vets assembled. What in blazes was going on?
"Ray? You're closest to the TV. Would you mind shutting it off?"
Ray nodded and put an end to one of the few distractions the men looked forward to.
"Thank you. You'll all be going home tomorrow, so I urge you gentlemen to read this and take what you can from it to heart. It's a good letter written by a former serviceman. I like a lot of things it says. While you're doing that, I'll go find our special guest and bring him in."
The guys eyed each other with resignation. Who knew how long this would take? They were all anxious to watch the end of the race. Carson looked down to scan the page.
Consider how different and difficult it is to go from a life of service, where every day has a mission, and someone depends on you to make life-and-death decisions, to a life with civilians who are making decisions about what client to call back first or what is the best outfit to wear to work.
Life would be different, all right. In Carson's case he didn't need to worry about choosing the proper clothes. He was going back to his Wyoming ranch, where a shirt and jeans had been his uniform before he'd signed up for the Marines. It would be his uniform again, now that he was out of the service.
In the beginning it feels as if you are so much more experienced than the people around you, and in a lot of ways you are. But that kind of thinking will only further alienate you from others. Practicing humility is the best possible advice I can give to help with reintegration into civilian life.
Carson did feel more "experienced." He'd seen things in the war that he could never explain to people who hadn't gone through the same thing.
Veterans need to recognize that even a short tour in a combat zone can have an effect on them.
While it takes everyone some time to recover after coming home, those who have seen, or been directly affected by a traumatic or horrific event (using your own definition or a generally accepted definition of such an event), need to be able to reconcile that it may have an impact on their lives and relationships with others after the deployment is over.
Since Carson had no family and his grandfather was dead, he didn't need to worry about that.
Seeking help is not a sign of weakness, no more than asking your buddy to cover your backside. The body may heal from scars and wounds readily, but the scars and wounds of trauma can last much longer and are more difficult to heal.
Difficult? A caustic laugh escaped from him. The cough he'd developed in Afghanistan would never go away, and no one could convince him otherwise.
I promise that, in time, you will see that your civilian counterparts are skilled and have a perspective that you may not have ever considered. And through a respect for what they do and what they have done, you will learn that you, too, are valued and respected.
Carson had always respected the ranch staff and knew he could count on their support.
Just as you are on edge in the beginning, they too may be a little unsure of how to treat you and how to act around you.
They'd treat him just the same as always.
So, take the first step. Be patient, be kind and be humble, and you will see that the transition is much easier.
"Gentlemen?" Dr. Rimer came back in the room where most of them were coughing because of the same affliction. He was followed by a five-star general decked out in full-dress uniform. Carson glanced at his buddies, Ross and Buck, wondering what was going on.
"I'm pleased and honored to introduce General Al-dous Cook. He's anxious to talk to you men recovering in the unit. He's been asked to do some investigating for the Senate committee examining the troubling findings of the Millennium Cohort Study of2009."
The eight of them got to their feet and saluted him before shaking his hand.
The General smiled. "Be seated, gentlemen. I'm honored to be in your presence and want to thank you for your invaluable service to our country." He cleared his throat. "I understand you're all going home tomorrow and have a great deal on your minds so I'll make this quick.
"As you're well aware, a significant number of returning American veterans like yourselves have reported respiratory problems that started during deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan. The study of 2009 revealed that fourteen percent of the deployed troops reported new breathing problems, compared with ten percent among those who hadn't deployed.
"Though the percentage difference seems small when extrapolated for the two million troops who've been deployed since 2001, the survey suggested that at least 80,000 additional soldiers have developed post-deployment breathing problems.
"There's a fierce debate under way over just how long-lasting and severe these problems really are. We're tracking the numbers accrued among the troops based in Southern Afghanistan since 2009, particularly the Marines.
"After ruling out other factors, it's apparent that the powerful dust storms, plus the fine dust from metals, toxins and burn pits used to incinerate garbage at military bases, are the potential culprits. Steps need to be taken to reduce the hazards, and I'm concerned that this exposure isn't getting the serious review it needs.
"Dr. Rimer has indicated you've all improved since you've been here, but we'll continue to track your progress. He assures me that with time, most of you will overcome your coughing and shortness of breath."
Tell us another fairy tale, General.
"My concern is that every one of you receives the post-deployment care you need for as long as you need it. I'm fighting for you in the congressional hearings."
Along with the others, Carson stood up and applauded. At least the General had bothered to come to the hospital in person and make an attempt to get at the root of the problem. Carson admired him for that. The General chatted with each of them for a few minutes, then left. With the end of the NASCAR race now missed, everyone left the lounge except Carson and his two roommates, Ross and Buck.
They hadn't known each other until six weeks ago, when the three of them had been flown here from their various divisions and diagnosed with acute dyspnea. But even if they were hacking, coughing and wheezing, at least they'd arrived at the hospital on their own two feet. It tore them up that some of their buddiesespecially those who'd been married with familieshadn't made it through the war.
The behavioral psychologist who'd been working with them suggested that, once they were discharged, they should find a positive way to work through their survivor's guilt.
In addition to the guilt Carson already struggled with for personal reasons, he was barely functioning. During the long hours of the night when they couldn't sleep, they'd talked about the wives and children who'd lost husbands and fathers from their own squads. If the three of them could think of a way to help those families, maybe they could forgive themselves for coming home alive.
At one point in their nocturnal discussions, Carson threw out an idea that began to percolate and gain ground. "What if we invited the fatherless kids to my ranch for a summer vacation? The ranch has lots of outdoor activities for kids who may not have spent much time out-of-doors. We could take them fishing and camping, not to mention horseback riding and hiking."
Ross sat up in his bed. "All of those are good confidence builders. Heaven knows those children will have lost some confidence. How many kids are you talking about?"
"I don't know."
"Do you have enough room for guests?"
"No. We'd have to live in the ranch house, so that wouldn't work. We'd have to put up some cabins."
"I could build them with your help," Buck offered. "Construction is what I was raised to do."
"I'm afraid I don't have much money."
Buck said, "I have a little I've put away."
"I have some, too," Ross chimed in. "Looking down the road, we'd have to hire and pay a cook and provide maid service."
Encouraged, Carson said, "No matter what, we'll have to start out small."
"Their moms will have to bring them."
"You're right, Buck. How long should they come for?"
"This is a bit of an experiment, so how about we try a week with one family and see how it goes?"
"For working mothers, I think a week sounds about right," Ross theorized. "One thing we can do is help the kids if they need to talk about death, since we've been through a lot of grief counseling ourselves."
"Good point. That's one thing we know how to do. What ages are we talking about?"
"I'm thinking about my nieces and nephews," Buck murmured. "How about little guys who are really missing their dads? Like six on up to maybe ten."
Carson nodded. "That sounds about right. They'd be school age. Younger than six might be too young."
"Agreed," they all concurred.
Before long, enthusiasm for the project they envisioned wouldn't let them alone. They soon found themselves plotting to turn Carson's ranch into a dude ranch where tourists could come along with the families of fatherless children. They would establish a fund to take care of the costs. If their pilot program went well through the summer, they'd talk about keeping it open year-round.
Their plan was a good one and sounded feasible, except for one thing. None of them had gone home yet. Anything could happen when Buck and Ross were reunited with their families. Their parents had dreams for them when their beloved sons returned to their former lives. For that reason, Carson wasn't holding his breathwhat little he had at the moment. He had to admit the inhalers were helping. When he'd first been brought in, he'd been gasping for every breath and thought each was his last.
Of the three men, Carson was the only one who didn't have living family. The grandfather who'd raised him had passed away five months ago of a surprise heart attack, leaving the ranch and its problems to him. Not even his grandfather's doctor had seen it coming. Carson had flown home on emergency family leave to bury him.
In that regard, he wouldn't have to run their brainchild past the older man he'd abandoned when he'd entered the military. At the time he hadn't seen it as abandonment. They'd corresponded and phoned whenever possible, but in the end Carson wasn't there for his grandfather when the chips were down. Now it was too late to make it up to the man he'd loved.
"Tomorrow's the big day, guys." Once they were all discharged from the hospital in the morning, he knew anything could happen to change his friends' focus.
Buck nodded. "I'll join you before the week is out."
Maybe. But knowing Buck was the oldest son in a large, close-knit family who wanted and needed him back in the construction business, maybe not. "Give me a call and I'll pick you up at the airport. What about you, Ross?"
"Three days at the most."
He eyed him narrowly. "I know."
Put like that, Carson could believe him, but his family who'd made their mark in oil for generations would have its way of pressuring the favorite son who'd made it home from the war. His politician father had long laid hopes for him set in stone. Time would tell if their master plan would get off the ground.
"I can hear the carts arriving with our dinner. Let's get back to the room and eat before our final session with the shrink."
It couldn't come soon enough for any of them. The war had been their world for a long time. Tomorrow they'd leave it forever. But fear clutched him in the gut that it would never leave them.
At three o'clock, Tracy Baretta left her office to pick up Johnny from elementary school. When she joined the line of cars waiting for the kids to come out, she hoped she'd see Clara Brewster. Her son, Nate, was a cute boy who'd invited Johnny to his birthday party last month. Johnny hadn't wanted to go, but Tracy had made him.
Maybe Nate would like to come home with her and Johnny to play, but she didn't see him or his mom. Her disappointment changed to a dull pain when she had to wait until all the kids had been picked up before her skinny, dark-haired first grader exited the school doors alone.
He purposely hung back from the others. His behavior had her worried sick. She'd been setting up some playdates with a few of the other boys in his first-grade class, but they hadn't worked out well.
Johnny preferred to be alone and stay home with her after school. He'd become a very quiet child since Tony's death and was way too attached to her. The psychologist told her to keep finding ways to get him to interact with other kids and not take no for an answer, but she wasn't gaining ground.
He got in the rear seat with his backpack and strapped himself in. She looked over her shoulder at him. "How was school today, honey?"
"We had a substitute."
"Was she fun?"
"It was a man. I didn't like him."
She eyed him in the rearview mirror. "Why do you say that?"
"He made me sit with Danny."
"Isn't he a nice boy?"
"He calls me squirt."
His tear-filled voice brought out every savage maternal instinct to protect him. Praying for inspiration she said, "Do you want to know something?"
"Your father was one of the shortest kids in his class when he was your age. By high school he was five feet ten." The perfect size for Tracy. "That'll happen to you, too. Do you think your father was a squirt?"
"No," he muttered.
"Then forget what Danny said. When we go to Grandma's house, she'll show you lots of pictures to make you feel better."
Of course Johnny couldn't forget. Silence filled the car for the rest of the drive home to their small rental house. She parked in front of the garage. While he scrambled out of the back, she retrieved the mail and they entered through the front door.
Once inside, he raced for the kitchen. "Wash your hands before you eat anything!" He was always hungry for sweets after school.
While her six-year-old grumbled and ran into the bathroom, Tracy went to the kitchen and poured him a glass of milk before she sorted through the mail, mostly ads and bills. Among the assortment she saw a handwritten envelope addressed to Mrs. Anthony Baretta. It had a Jackson, Wyoming, postmark.
She didn't know anyone in Wyoming. Her glance took in the return address. Lundgren's Teton Valley Dude Ranch was printed inside the logo of a mountain peak.
A dude ranch? She'd heard of them all her life, but she'd never been to one. Truth be told, she'd never traveled west of the Mississippi. Every trip had been to Florida, the East Coast, New York City, the Jersey Shore or Toronto. Tony had promised Johnny that when he got out of the service next year, they'd take a big driving trip west, all the way to Disneyland. Another pain shot through her.