The photograph above shows a young airman I know well and greatly admire. Weeks before it was taken, Douglas, who I have known his entire life, had suffered a career ending injury.
Doug was changed by the 9/11 attacks. I remember a look of resolve on the eleven-year-old’s face. He didn’t talk much about military service until he was eighteen when he announced to his family he was dropping out of college and enlisting: In a battle intensive job no less. He wanted his face to be in the sand, a phrase that meant to him he was combat bound. His parents saw value in talking about his choice and exploring which branch of the armed forces presented an opportunity for which he was well suited. They also turned to family members who were glad to participate.
After speaking with both his grandpas, an uncle and a senior Boy Scout leader, all combat veterans, Doug executed a mid-course correction and decided to enter the Air Force. It probably didn’t hurt that two of these three men were Air Force Lieutenant Colonels. Months later Doug reported for basic training but did so without having a specific job included in his contract. He would be placed wherever the Air Force deemed it best for him to train, serve and fight. But one thing for certain, he was joining a new family.
He did well in basic training and learned the Air Force had assigned him to Security Forces. He was going to be a cop. Members of the Air Force Security Forces were skilled warriors with high combat deployability. In his jingoistic way of thinking, that was okay for Doug.
After basic training he attended the Security Forces technical school learning police work, combat arms, close quarter battle tactics and much more. Doug was selected as the Distinguished Graduate. He had earned the prestigious blue beret and received orders to his base, a CONUS installation where he would be for a few months before going to Iraq or Afghanistan with others who would also have their faces in the sand. Just as that eleven- year-old on September 11, 2001, he wanted to be an active participant in the war effort.
He reported to his base, an installation whose main objective was maintaining, flying and protecting the 7th Bomb Wing and its B1 bombers. Just weeks later, Doug returned to earth after a high leap during a training event. It destroyed his left ankle. He called me when he was in the emergency room. Looking back, neither of us knew what was in store for him.
Two months after the injury, his first surgery was undertaken to repair the ruptured ligaments, address the pain and return him to the highest level of functionality possible. All the while, Doug remained highly focused on doing all he could to accomplish his mission as a military policeman on a bomber base. Restricted to light duty since the accident, he worked at the desk in the office at the main gate. He did it very well, identifying numerous wanted persons and preventing them from gaining access to the base and ensuring there were arrested as necessary. He worked hard at his new role, always pushing himself to meet his mission. Unfortunately doing so was to his detriment because additional damage was introduced to his left ankle slowing his recovery and was leading to another period in the hospital, this time with no guarantee of Doug coming out alive.
Two months later his first operation, his ankle became infected after a steroid shot and emergency surgery was scheduled. His doctors said there was a significant danger he could lose his foot if it depending on the type and severity of the infection. After the surgery Doug learned it was a type of infection with a lower risk and it had not spread and had been successfully addressed. The bad news was that it was evident additional damage had occurred. Four days after surgery while making the final closure to the incision, they gave Doug powerful pain medicine. His condition rapidly worsened, and so severely he “coded”. A team of nurses and physicians responded to revive this airman in distress. His mom and brother were in the room as silent witnesses to the stunning reality that he was dying because of a catastrophic reaction to the medicine given to him moments before.
With great relief to all who knew him, he pulled through. Several weeks later he underwent a third surgery, but the damage was too severe to restore the lost range of motion or lessen the pain. Doctors and therapists reported he had gained the most from physical therapy and the ultimate outcome was a rating of a 60% disability. All of a sudden twenty year old Doug was retired from the United States Air Force.
He was struggling: He never made it to the sand. This was the basis of his perception that because he was not a combat veteran his injury, pain and hard recovery wasn’t on parity with other service members and veterans. He had constant pain and limitations on what he could do. He felt odd and disconcerted being retired.
Seven months after going home he sent me a series of text messages one day. It was a sad exchange. One message contained what continued to gnaw at him: His regret for not having served in combat. I replied with an honest but encouraging message even as my realization my part in his fight for peace had to be taken to a new level. I headed straight to a place I knew I would find what I was looking for.
I entered Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4380 and spoke to the four people inside on that quiet Thursday afternoon. I was not a member, but intuitively knew kindred spirits would be found. As I strode up to them, I said “Hello. I need your help”. I shared with them Doug’s story, his debilitating injury, the embarrassment he was feeling because it did not happen in theater, and my hope these people would view Doug’s thinking problems much as I did. They certainly did! Now, I have to tell you, this is not an accurate retelling of the colorful language they used, but the collective response from these people was “Pish posh!” or something along those lines. They promised to do their part. I said Doug and I would be there the next evening.
I told Doug we were going somewhere special. He hadn’t a clue of our destination until we reached the door of the Post. Once inside and among people with a deep appreciation of what military service is, and is not, I still hadn’t shared with Doug was really going down.
Starting with my conversation with four people the day before, the word had been passed and countless staff and members were ready. Operation Sandy Face was underway.
The first to make contact was a Blackhawk pilot who survived a terrible crash. He was just a few years senior to Doug. Doug’s eyes took on a “something is happening” look. Then a retired Green Beret came over and stayed on target. And then others, and then more. Post employees rang in as well. The common message was: You served. You took the oath, you performed to the best of your ability (and then some), were injured (okay, it was not in combat – get over that. Now!), and so forth. The wonderful thing is that all of them were genuine, full of spirit, and shared their passionate message with a person who needed to hear it. It was what I hoped for, exactly what I expected would take place, and thoroughly moved me at the same time. I also knew this tactic was aggressive and overwhelming, but the need to get through to him was critical. I turned to Doug and said “So do you now know what this is all about?” He smiled and nodded his head. “Are you upset with me?” I asked. He looked me in the eye and said “No” and a glimmer of that old smile worked free.
That evening complete strangers came alongside Doug with their wide-ranging military experiences, and to a person, ardently contended why Doug’s current thinking was flawed. They were all brothers and sisters with Doug and me, the bond being we raised our hands, swore an oath and we had served. We knew it takes all hands to meet the mission objectives, and Doug, badly injured as he had been, gave his very best for the two years he served, most of it in unspeakable physical pain due to a service related injury. They knew he was the real deal. I knew he was the real deal, and now he knew it. The care and concern they showed was credible. The pride and respect and appreciation they had for Doug and his story was genuine and it was forceful and it was loving.
VFW Post 4380 was named in honor of hometown son Army Sergeant Casey Joyce. When Doug and I left the Post that evening, we passed photos of Casey, an Army Ranger killed in the “Blackhawk Down” action in Somalia. It was humbling. I reflected on how honorable his service was, and wished he had met Doug that night. As for Doug, he walked tall that evening with a new understanding of his privileged part in the testimony of the selfless service of the men and women who have served, are serving and will serve in the future.
The Post 4380 family had opened their arms and embraced another veteran. Core values matter.
November 2013 Update – Saving Warriors and Reclaiming Honor
When I wrote Faces in the Sand, I did so after consulting with Doug. That is indeed his name. His middle name. His full name is Sean Douglas Cummings and he is my oldest son.
I wanted to get his story out, and he asked it be accomplished in a manner that wouldn’t fully disclose who he was. I agreed to that and to his non-negotiable requirement to not cast an uncomplimentary light on his branch of service. He knows it now – if you look between the lines (the very last one reading “Core values matter”), I obliquely made reference to some (actually, many) service members involved with his story who did not live out the Air Force’s core values: Integrity, Service, Excellence.
After his injury and subsequent surgeries, his squadron functioned as if he wasn’t there. According to written orders, someone was supposed to pick him up and take to and from work, doctor appointments and physical therapy sessions. Daily. Sean only wanted to get his mission done, and didn’t remind anyone of their official obligations to assist their injured squadron mate. He was tight lipped and did the only thing he thought he should: “airman up”. But he did so with consequence, walking a mile to and from work, hanging tough, getting it done, taking taxi cabs to appointments or just missing them because he couldn’t get there. I failed to convince him to reach out to his unit leadership and have it made right. After being retired, I knew he would find integrity, service and excellence elsewhere, and we made that first visit to Post 4380. The “pish posh” dog pile he received there got him past not having had his face in the sand. I have a special place in my heart for those members who had their battle plan ready and executed when A1C Cummings, USAF (Ret) walked through the post doors two years ago. That visit was beneficial, but there were still other struggles to overcome.
In 2013 I became acquainted with Jake Clark. He began an organization to help veterans, realizing a key source of difficulty for returning service members was finding where they belonged: Where did they fit in? He was committed to doing what he could to end a growing level of post-deployment self-lethality: The rate of service members and veterans killing themselves is currently one every sixty-five minutes. With “Getting you back in the fight…For life” as its mission statement, Save A Warrior Foundation (www.saveawarrior.org/) stood up to fill the needs of those who answered the call.
I sent him a link to “Faces in the Sand” to Jake and after he and Sean spoke on the telephone several times, Sean and was a participant in cohort #007, a group of professionals and volunteers embracing veterans in need from all parts of our nation. At the end of it, Sean strode forth with a resolute look and purposeful walk.
What I am about to tell you will get me in a bit of jam with Sean, because he didn’t tell to draw attention to himself but mentioned it to point to the depth of new relationships formed in his cohort. After getting to know Sean and his story at the weeklong gathering, a former Army Ranger told him “You are the bravest man I have ever known”. SAW alumni know what was lost may well be recaptured or reconstituted. They realize a special part of their honor – who they are and where they belong – has been wrested away, a casualty of the fight. Those of us who took the oath to do what the nation needs us to do understand honor is elemental to who we are and it is not surrendered. It has to be taken by force. From my brothers and sisters in arms, I hear: “Come and take it”. What stole it before will not again triumph against those who remain in, or as I describe above, rejoin, the fight.
I have told Sean I hope he now sees that his face was indeed in the sand, and, with the support of brothers and sisters at Post 4380 and the volunteers, providers and staff members of Save a Warrior, how he holds his head up again.
It matters not if one earned a beret, or wore a special tab or device, or was in combat or remained in the United States, because as one of his VFW brothers told Sean regarding the location of where one served, “…you raised your arm, you took an oath, and you served. Period.”
Now that, dear readers, is the mettle of honor.