Homecoming is the easy part. It’s the journey to come that’s the challenge

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Coming Home
Homecoming is the easy part. It’s the journey to come that’s the challenge.
 
MSNBC TV premiere’s “Coming Home” on Sunday at 9 p.m. ET

Beyond the homecoming parades and yellow ribbons, a quiet struggle rages on the homefront as the roughly one million men and women who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan begin to rotate out of combat.  But how much do we all understand about what these service members have experienced and the kind of support they now need?

Lester Host hosts Coming Home, a one-hour documentary which premieres Sunday, June 26 at 9 p.m. ET. Coming Home begins and ends with homecomings.  But we learn that the war does not end when our veterans arrive in the U.S. — for these men and women, it is just the beginning of a long road home. 

Read on to find out about one marine’s road home and how 3 wounded soldiers took on Washington – and won…..

     

Mark O’Brien’s journey home
It’s homecoming day.  The people and the towns are unique, but the scenes are the same – a final arrival for troops who’ve spent months in harm’s way.  Not since Vietnam have so many troops returned home from war.

The arrival home is the easy part but what follows is a complicated transition to life back in the states. In order to really understand what it takes to come home you have to return to the war zone that these men have just left.

Iraq is a particularly brutal conflict.  It is a guerrilla war of hidden explosives, suicide bombers and ambush attacks.  It is a place where there are no frontlines; no safety zones.  

Mark O’Brien is a 21 year-old marine corporal in Golf Company.   Mark’s platoon battled the insurgency in Iraq’s Sunni triangle.  Under constant threat, his fellow marines became family.

Mark’s safety zone was the size of a gun truck. They called it the beast.  The man in charge was Gunnery Sergeant Miller – or Gunny.  Also in the truck was 27-year-old Nathan Mcdonell, known as Doc.  He served as a company combat medic.

At six foot one, Mark towered over the other marines in his gun truck.  He is known to be fearless.

Mark, Doc, and Nathan were in the cradle of the insurgency.  As Doc McDonell commented, There were times where a battle would be raging and you feel that terror in the pit of your stomach.

And the unit was about to be tested. It was November 8, 2004. The enemy was in front of them, maybe about 150 yards.  The insurgents were trying to coax them into the kill zone.  Four rocket-propelled grenades were fired on them.  Three missed, hitting various explosions in and around their area.  But then one rocket propelled grenade slammed into Mark’s gun truck.  It was an armor piercing round and it punched through the door and it exploded, basically, on him.   Mark recalled, At first I just kinda had the wind knocked out of me and I kinda shook it off. And I looked down and something was burning on my chest so I went to go hit it off with my right arm. Well, my right arm was like a rope.  Then I looked down at my leg and saw my femur was snapped in half you could have stabbed somebody with it, it was so sharp.

The rocket blew apart his right arm and his right leg.

That November day, the men of Golf Company saved Mark’s life.  There would be no body bag, no homecoming parade either.  Twenty one year old corporal Mark O’Brien would return home without two of his limbs. 

Corporal Mark O’Brien’s trip home from Iraq took him through a series of operating rooms and hospitals and has brought him to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington D.C.  Mark is just one of more than 12,000 troops injured in the war.   He joins hundreds of other service members whose limbs have been destroyed in the war.  Now Mark has to learn how to live life as a double amputee.

Losing the leg really isn’t that bad. Cause if I wear pants, and I walk no one can know, or no one can tell that I have a fake leg cause I walk pretty much perfect,” says Mark. “The arm is   RELATED LINKS
 
the hardest thing. It’s your hand and I can’t do a lot of things now.  I wrote right-handed and I did all these things right handed.  So I have to teach myself how to write left-handed. When I get married and have a kid, how am I going to teach him to throw a baseball? Or go outside to play catch with him? I can’t. I can’t put a glove on.”

Beyond the physical challenges, Mark is fighting a psychological battle.  Sleep is almost non-existent. I sit there all the time and I think about how I could have changed things,” he says. “There are a million different scenarios you can run through your mind.

In Iraq, Mark was a vital member of a combat platoon and faced death on a daily basis.  There, he had his fellow marines but now he must fight without them.

Across the country Mark O’Brien’s platoon is about to come from war. They’ve been away for seven months.  Their families eagerly await their arrival at Camp Pendleton in California.    Mark, after months of rehabilitation, was able to fly there to see his brothers-in-arms come safely home.  The last time he saw them he was on the verge of bleeding to death. 

While his platoon’s voyage home from Iraq may have been longer, Mark’s trip from the Amputee Center at Walter Reed to this moment — signals the end of a personal war. 

I just want to be one of the guys,” he says. “I don’t want anybody to think of me any different.  I’ve been waiting to see my friends since the day I got hit. The last time I saw them, they were patching me up. 

Five long months of separation ended as Golf Company marched in.  Mark spotted one by one the dear friends he was separated from so violently.                             

They’re just great friends of mine,” Mark says. “I just trusted them with my life for so long. If I had to go back and do it again I wouldn’t change a thing.  It’s hard to explain.  I’d definitely go back with them again and I’d give my other arm and leg for them. I’d give my life.   

Finally Mark gets to see Doc McDonell – the man who saved his life.   Their simple words say it all.                                                                                            

I’m nervous. Last time I saw him I was bleeding all over the place. I didn’t think I was going to make it. But, here I am,” Mark says.

“I was nervous to see him it was weird,” Doc says. “I was nervous.  I was carrying my gear and I saw him down there and it just flashed back to me the last time I saw him.  When I hugged Mark I felt my eyes water up with tears and it was a joy. It was a happiness.  His struggles are always going to be something that I don’t know anything about but he’ll beat it and, we know that he’s still with us.”

The fight for legislation:
Jeremy Feldbusch, now blind, was once an elite army ranger.  On April 3, 2003, in a fight to control the second largest dam in Iraq, Jeremy manned a mortar for 36 hours under enemy fire, destroying a missile defense system and 45 of Saddam Hussein’s soldiers.  Then, a small piece of shrapnel from an artillery shell pierced his right temple, destroyed his sight and damaged his brain.  

Former staff sergeant Heath Calhoun was wounded on November 7, 2003 when a rocket propelled grenade exploded into his truck.   

Former staff sergeant Ryan Kelly’s convoy was ambushed by Iraqi insurgents in July, 2003.  His lower right leg was destroyed in the attack.

In past wars many of these men and women in combat would have bled to death or died from catastrophic wounds but because of today’s medical technology, rapid access to care, and high tech body armor wounded troops are surviving at a rate never seen before.

Severe injuries change lives of troops and their families in an instant.  The physical damage is horrific — and as if that wasn’t hard enough to bear, for some there’s an unforeseen and grim FREE VIDEO

financial struggle that starts when soldiers are injured and families rush to be with them in hospitals far from home.

The long rehabilitation and recovery period is a financially tough time for severely wounded troops.  They lose extra pay associated with combat and being away from home. And they can’t get their veterans benefits until they leave the military – a complicated process that can take months.

Kelly, Feldbusch, and Calhoun knew first-hand the battlefield they had to conquer on the home front.

Ryan Kelly needed a full 13 months at Walter Reed to master life with a prosthetic limb.   While his family kept him in the dark about their financial stress, he saw the pressure his friends were under.

So from his hospital bedside, Ryan decided he had to solve the problem.  He came up with an idea — create a new insurance program for troops.   Under his plan, a severely injured service member would immediately get $50,000 to cover all the emergency expenses.

Now, no longer bedridden, Ryan Kelly decided to make his idea a reality. He went to Washington and he took Jeremy Feldbush and Heath Calhoun with him. 

So on a bright April morning, these three recently wounded veterans – two who have lost limbs and one who is blind – mounted an assault on Washington to fight for a bill to protect their comrades from the financial hardship that they faced during their own rehabilitation.

They proposed a bill that would put in place an insurance program that would immediately pay out $50,000 to each severely wounded soldier to cover emergency expenses.  But these three, now spokesmen for the Wounded Warrior Project, need to drum up support on The Hill.  After weeks of planning they came to knock on as many doors as possible.

The wounded warriors managed to book one high level meeting – with democratic Senator Barak Obama of Illinois, a rising star in Washington.  

Senator Obama took them very seriously. But what the group really needs is the backing of a powerful Republican senator with enough clout to push their bill through congress. And so, the unlikely group of lobbyists soldiered on. They traveled through Washington trying to schedule more meetings. 

Their final meeting was with Senator Larry Craig, the powerful Republican Chairman of the Senate Committee on Veteran’s Affairs.  For the wounded warriors, this was the most important meeting of the trip. The stakes are high but they only get 15 minutes to make their pitch.

The Senator listened intently as Heath Calhoun explained how wounded soldiers are forced to hold out their hands to meet emergency expenses. 

Eleven days after Ryan Kelly and his friends lobbied Capitol Hill to protect wounded soldiers from the financial hardship of coming home comes a breakthrough. The three young veterans joined Senator Larry Craig as he announced that he will take their bill to the senate floor.

Now called the Craig Amendment, the bill gives payments of up to $100,000 to cover emergency expenses of the severely wounded and it will be funded by service members — at under $1 a month. 

A week and a half before the announcement, the wounded warriors were struggling to get meetings. Just 11 days later, Jim Nicholson, Secretary of Veterans Affairs, stepped forward with the following announcement:

“On behalf of The President I am pleased to join with Senator Craig to support this vital legislative initiative. This legislation may not be able to fully rebuild broken bodies but it can help rebuild broken dreams and broken families,”  Nicholson said.

On May 11, 2005, The President signed The Wounded Warriors’ bill into law. Though it will be many years before a monument to the veterans of the war in Iraq will be built, these young veterans have already left their mark on Washington.  It’s called Senate Amendment 564 and it offers traumatic injury insurance to all active duty members of the armed forces.

 

Wounded Warrior Bill: http://thomas.loc.gov
Wounded Warrior Project: http://www.woundedwarriorproject.org
Fisher House: http://www.fisherhouse.org
Semper Fi Fund: http://www.semperfifund.org
Soldier Ride: http://soldierride.com

 

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