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Tuesday, October 23, 2012

144th ASMC and Iraq... Part Two

Preparing for deployment is certainly the worst part of the big picture of serving overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan, at least for the National Guard.  It takes a few weeks of preparing in state, then re-locating to a pre-deployment site and spending a couple months there, mostly sitting on your ass, waiting to deploy to serve in the capacity you have trained and prepared for your entire career.  Now, that isn't to say you aren't prepared, but I know in my case, and I bitched about it in my journal and to my chain of command, that it was a gross injustice of scheduling on the training site's part.  Now, this may just be "the way it is," but you know what, when you are leaving your family for a year "boots on ground," well, it is kind of hard to take spending three months of pre-deployment training away from the family to actually only do 6 weeks of training.  Maybe I am exaggerating a little, but I certainly know we spent a good two weeks, a day here, a day there, of doing absolutely nothing.  Either way, that was then, but there are Guardsmen that have done five or six tours, and each time, they had to do pre-deployment training. 

So, the time building up to the deployment was literally stress free, not sure why, but it was almost as nothing was going to happen, like I wasn't getting ready to tear free of my family for the better part of fifteen months.  But I was, in early August of 2005 the 144th ASMC had it's official federal activation, a small ceremony in Springville, Utah, little fanfare, a short time later, we would be gone, flying out of the Salt Lake International Airport, en route to Fort Bliss, Texas for a process I soon won't forgive my Army for making me go through.  But, as we said then, "check the box," all the training needed to be done.  And we completed it, mostly with motivation and to the best of our ability.  We were taught tactics as if we were military police, like we would be going door to door and operating in close quarters combat.  It was, when we trained, fun, for the most part, but the sitting around frustrated me to no end. 

Now I am getting into the portion of my military career that is covered in pretty good detail in my book.  Pre-deployment, deployment, and the post-deployment time frame.  I will not go into too much detail about the Iraq deployment, but will post selected excerpts from my book throughout the next few blog posts.  Then I will move on to the present and where I am in the here and now with my continuing military career.

Part of the first journal entry in what turned out to be a word document nearly 250 pages long:

Saturday, August13, 2005
Tears, heartache, and sorrow are the three words that come to mind to describe today. Saying goodbye to the ones I love is, without a doubt, the hardest thing I’ve had to deal with in my life so far. Although I still feel that, in the end, this will be one of the proudest experiences of my life, I still feel that sinking feeling when reflecting on this morning. I was happy to see some friends, Al and Cindy, with their kids, Matt and Walt, and of course Rod (my co-worker from Tooele and fellow 144th soldier, because he was going, too), Nikki, and their little girl.

0420 hrs

I wake up and the full realization of today’s events begins to unfold. I couldn’t really focus and think about the upcoming goodbye without tears welling in my eyes. For most of the morning I shook them off, but I knew when the moment arrived it would be difficult. All of the kids, Dylan, Destiny, and Dakota, were up and ready to go on time. We left the house, picked up our family and my wife’s friend of many years, Doris, and drove to the Air National Guard Base without any consequence.

0600 hr

Formation, final accountability for our journey to the unknown. OK, I’m being a little dramatic, but hell, this is a big deal. There are no guarantees when entering a hostile country and situation—but we aren’t there yet. A few words from various high rollers in the Utah Guard, and the waiting began; our flight was scheduled to leave at 0900 hrs. For the next hour-plus we sat and talked, while through our minds ran the constant thoughts of missing each other for this extended period of time. There were pictures, words of comfort and of course, that sinking feeling in my heart.

0800 hrs

We exit the building we’d been waiting in and make our way to a grassy area across the road from the fight line. The waterworks start; Dakota tells me she doesn’t want me to go. Why did she wait until now? Because she’s four years old, of course. I can’t contain the emotions that have been building in me for weeks. I cry, grab my kids, hug them and struggle to say I love them with the strain of emotion coursing from my mouth. I love them more than I probably will ever be able to explain. I tend to avoid emotional issues due to my inability to control emotions at times, and I apologize to my loved ones for that. This buildup to deployment might have been easier had I been talking to my wife and kids, working up to this point, and for that, Shannon, Dylan, Destiny, and Dakota, I apologize from the deepest part of my heart. I love you all beyond any comprehension of the word and will forever.

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Wednesday, October 17, 2012

144th ASMC and Iraq... Part One

The 144th Area Support Medical Company was stood up sometime in early 2005.  There were rumblings across the Utah Army National Guard medical community about a new ambulance unit being put together, something that was most likely a direct result of a need in this new century and what would be greater than a decade of warfare for our military community.  My first encounter with the 144th was in Nicaragua, the unit was sent down there for New Horizons 2005, a mission to build schools and provide medical care to some of the more remote areas in Nicaragua.  Engineer and medical units spent time down in the rural areas in over several months constructing schools and treating locals for various medical issues. 

The 144th rotated it's soldiers through the camp placed next to a Nicaraguan military compound in two week rotations for the most part, some of it's soldiers may have spent the entire time down there which was between 3 and 6 months.  The time frame they were there escapes me now, but irregardless, they were there providing medical support for the supporting units of the mission.  I went down with a contingent of soldiers from Utah's Medical Command to provide the treatment for the locals.  It was a great opportunity which I touch on in my book, and it was great getting to work with those soldiers whom I had grown to respect and bond with in the Medical Command.  At the end of our two weeks in which we treated over two-thousand Nicaraguans we spent two days at an all inclusive Pacific coast resort.  While there I spent some time on the beach, it was empty, not what I am used to back in the states, and then visited one active,one dormant volcano, and then did some shopping for my wife and kids at a marketplace in a local town.  It was a beautiful country, but they certainly do not live like us, or have the luxuries we do.  Unfortunately I don't think many Americans realize how lucky they are to live in this country, with the freedoms, and the comforts that are afforded us.  Even on the worst day for an American, there is someone worse off in the world. 

We returned to Utah happy with what we accomplished as a group in Nicaragua.  It was shortly after we returned home that the news about the 144th activation spread through the Utah Army National Guard.  They would be going to Iraq, and they would need our unit to back fill their empty slots.  I didn't think they would need a Staff Sergeant, the higher you climb in the ranks, especially in the National Guard, the less spots there are for you to serve in.  Eventually there is an bottleneck effect at the top and some individuals may stay in the same position for years and years before promotion opportunity arrives unless they are willing to transfer units or change specialties.  The details of how I ended up transferring to the 144th for their deployment to Iraq are well established in "Combat Support; The True Burden Of Sacrifice," so I will not repeat them here, but it is certainly worth picking up the book and reading, especially considering my wife was pregnant with our fourth child and MSG Rackham (mentioned in previous blog post) made all his Staff Sergeants exempt from the deployment due to our "essential-ness" to the Medical Command mission. Most in my situation would not have made the choices I did, but I did what I thought I needed to do at the time and would do it again if given the same circumstances.

One thing that was certain, I was headed to Iraq, as a member of the 144th Area Support Medical Company.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Idea For a Book - putting it all together

I didn't start writing my book until after I finished physician assistant school.  There certainly wasn't time during school, mainly due to the frame of mind I was in and the demands the physician assistant program in general.  So after finishing, I figured I would sit down and start writing, I knew that the journal I kept in Iraq would make up the meat of the book, knowing going in that at least one fourth of the book was written already made it a little bit easier to pursue this task. 

I knew that putting my pre-deployment life into perspective would be of great importance to the overall story.  Telling the story of a life that was much different from what I had come to know as a service member in the U.S. Army was important because they clashed so much, but also because you can not truly understand the sum of a whole if all the variables are not included in the equation.  My life before the military and deployment were crucial variables in this equation that came together in "Combat Support; The True Burden Of Sacrifice" that without them I would have just had an equation that was not solvable, that wouldn't have had an answer.

Dona Ana, New Mexico
Just as important as the pre-deployment and deployment parts of the book is the post-deployment aspect of the story which I have often referred to as the "post-deployment chaos."  I say that for one reason only, it was chaos, but chaos that I had never understood or lived through before.  I couldn't manage it, and as close as I was physically to my wife, kids, and family I felt very far away emotionally and couldn't cope with simple conflict that entered my life during those first couple of years after returning home.  I left my deployment family too soon, I wish I had stayed in Utah and got some closure, said proper good-byes and closed some doors that would have made my transition 2000 miles back to my hometown of Danville, Pennsylvania a little easier.  However, this isn't how life transpired for me, or for my family, but it was at the time we wanted.  We arrived in Utah on November 11th, 2006, Veteran's Day, and 2 days later I was back in Danville, preparing to attend college as a 30-something Veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

I wish I could somehow summarize the insanity that had entered my life during those years, right after Iraq, I couldn't understand a damn thing that was going on in my life, I had difficulty concentrating, sleeping, and feeling attached to my wife and kids.  But I didn't question it at all during that time, I just thought this was how everything was before, I didn't see any difference from pre-deployment Terry than post-deployment Terry, but there were differences, those differences were as contrasting as night and day.  I was blind to them, as many returning veteran's are.

As much as we have brought attention to the post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) world, we still have mountains to climb to completely reel in all the veterans who come home with behavioral health issues.  Now, to the fault of veterans like myself, we don't look for help, or seek it out, at least not initially.  This is what has been bred into us to be a sign of weakness, and a possible career killer.  But, these disorders, PTSD, adjustment disorder, depression, and most anxiety disorders can be cured.  Yes cured, not buried under drugs and masked from reality, but literally wiped from the cortex of brain parenchyma that houses these feelings and emotions.  Okay, it may not be wiped clean, but it can be buried and locked away for good.  It is not easy, and there may be many failures before success, but I can tell you without doubt, that if one truly wants to conquer these diseases, the means, the vehicle for correction exists.  You just have to know where to find it and understand that you are not alone, especially in this uniformed services fraternity we live in, you have company.

You physically came home from the war, it is time to walk away from the emotional battle that continues to rage inside your mind.  All veterans, you need to come home emotionally, you are needed, you are wanted, and open arms await you......

Links to helpful websites:
PTSD Hotline
Make the Connection
National Center for PTSD - Veterans Affairs
National Institute of Mental Health
Family of a


Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Return to the Army green... Part four (Staff Sergeant)

In September of 2004 I was promoted to Staff Sergeant (SSG), a promotion that came less than 2 years after my promotion to Sergeant (SGT).  This is a rank for which I was honored to finally achieve, it was the one promotion I never saw coming, didn't have a clue it was going to happen, to date it the only promotion or advancement that was kept quiet prior to being awarded to me, I was very, very surprised.  The promotion would be my last as an enlisted soldier, and it would come in a unit for which I still have fond memories and great respect for the individuals I served with during those years in Utah.  As a SSG I joined a core group of NCOs, all SSG, that I feel was collectively, one of the strongest NCO groups I have ever been associated with.  Our mentor and acting First Sergeant, Chuck Rackham, was a man I still am in contact with to this day (thanks facebook), and a man who was instrumental in my promotion to SSG.  He has been, and always was, a huge supported in my endeavors as an NCO and my decision to become an officer.  I almost wasn't an officer, my most cherished military goal was to be a Sergeant Major, not gonna happen, but now I have different goals for my military career, and none have anything to do with my personal rank.  They have to do with maintaining medical readiness for my fellow Guard soldiers, so when the state, or nation calls, they can perform their duties.

CPT Horning (right) and SSG Thompson
(left) in Nicaragua, date stamp is wrong,
butuniform of those years was the 
Battle Dress Uniform (BDU)
I am sure early on, Master Sergeant (MSG) Rackham, had his concerns with me.  I was not completely sure after being promoted to SGT if I wanted to continue to serve in the Guard.  I had even at one point tried to contact a recruiter to see if I had an option to transfer back to the Individual Ready Reserve (IRR), that never materialized.  I am certain MSG Rackham thought closely about whether or not I should have been an NCO during those early years, but his patience paid dividends in the end.  I stayed with the Medical Command and as difficult as it was early on to feel that I belonged, eventually, I became comfortable.  The only reason for that was my fellow soldiers.

Along with MSG Rackham, there was my great fellow NCOs SSG Troy Thompson, SSG Eric Sivertson, SSG Sherill Peacock, and SGT Dan Andrews, just to name a few.  Most of them now hold different rank, are with different units, or are out of the Army National Guard.  However, looking back, those times during the initial years of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) we had a good group of individuals, a good group of NCOs, and an absolute great group of fellow Americans I am proud to have served along side.

View into the Salt Lake Valley from
Little Cottonwood Canyon, home to many of my
former fellow Utah Guardsmen.
It is funny when looking back, reminiscing on old times, and thinking how much life has changed.  How experiences in life have changed the course or path that we as humans travel.  How the hardships, difficulties, and challenges we endure impact us in ways we never can comprehend and are blind to at specific times in our lives.  It is something that I touch on in my book, it is a fundamental aspect of being human, accepting challenge, facing fears, making mistakes, and walking through the fire to reach the other side, where ever that may be.  Looking back, knowing the great citizen soldiers I have shared my service with, I have no doubt that the strength we shared those many years ago, helped push me through to the place I am today.  For those friendships in service I am grateful, for that time we spent together I am honored to have stood side by side with each fellow soldier during those years, and for many more to come.

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Sunday, October 7, 2012

Return to the Army green... Part three (NonCommissioned Officer)

The U.S. Army NCO Education System (NCOES) has made some changes since I have attended the Basic NonCommissioned Officer courses in 2010.  Mainly, the names of the courses have changes, the content, not as much.  While a Specialist (SPC/E-4) during those early years in the Army National Guard I was very inpatient at advancing to Sergeant (SGT/E-5).  I had been advanced to SPC while still active duty, sometime in 1999, I would remain that rank until 2003, what seemed like an eternity, but actually, would be less time than I spent at the Staff Sergeant (SSG/E-6) rank. 

So, after the Olympics, I was placed into a slot for the first of the NCOES schools, what is now known as the Warrior Leaders Course (WLC), but at the time was the Primary Leadership Development Course (PLDC).  I attended in early 2003 and accepted a SGT position at Utah's Medical Command located at Camp Williams in Riverton, Utah.  This was also the location I attended PLDC.  I had some excellent instructors in PLDC, good NCOs, that took their jobs seriously and wanted to pass on the required resources and knowledge to those of us attending to make us better junior leaders in the Army.  I understand the need for the NCOES schools, but honestly, not anyone can, or should be, an NCO.  I have had this discussion with some close military friends in the recent past.  Years ago,the Amry had SPC rank that advanced past the pay grade of E-4, it was meant to allow for soldiers to advance through the pay grades, but not have the burden or responsibility of an NCO.  It may be time to look at bringing this advancement of the SPC rank back, that way we are not pushing individuals not qualified into NCO positions.  This doesn't mean that the individuals are not worth retaining in the military, most can do their job well, but fall short in leadership ability and skills.  I went through PLDC, graduated, and was promoted to SGT in May 2005 within Utah's Medical Command (MedCom).  I was hesitant going to this unit, it is purely medical and "top" heavy.  That just means there is many officers, seems most medical units are like this.  Medical professionals have rank handed to them, even if they com in off the street.  This is another topic I touch briefly on in my book, Combat Support; The True Burden Of Sacrifice.  As unfair as it seems, it is hard to get and retain physicians and physician assistants, the demand of their civilian jobs are exceedingly keeping those in provider positions from joining the military ranks.  I am one of those individuals now, and I can honestly say, we are treated different than basic branch officers.  I can save that story for another blog post.

I transitioned into MedCom without issues. Found a home as part of the Screening and Immunizations team.  During the time I transitioned to MedCom, the state of Utah was deploying soldiers to both Afghanistan and Iraq at a rapid pace.  Seems like all we did during my early days there was have Soldier Readiness Processing (SRP) events multiple times a month.  It was a pace that would slow, but never completely stop while I was a member of the Utah Army National Guard.  Eventually it would be my turn to attend an SRP, but before that, I had a job to do in MedCom, and another promotion awaiting me before I ever saw an SRP.  The job would take me to Fort Bragg for the first time to help the demobilization process for one of the Army National Guard's Special Forces Groups.  Then it would lead me to a very rewarding 2 week humanitarian mission deep into the countryside of Nicaragua to witness 3rd country living at a level greater than what I saw in the countryside of Korea.  It was a good time, with some great people, it was the beginning of my career as an NCO, as a SGT, a rank I had finally achieved and was grateful to have.  And I was ready to lead from the front.


Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Return to the Army green... Part two

After only a few short weeks with my new Army National Guard unit word came that the 211th Aviation Group had a moderate number of group members being activated for around 45 days to work security at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic Games.  I actually wanted to be assigned to this detail, but unfortunately there wasn't a shortage of volunteers and I was told I would not be needed. Or maybe I wasn't told that I "was" needed to fulfill any role in the security operations at the games.  I was a little disappointed, but would survive.  How often does the opportunity arise to work the Olympic Games, especially as part of the military?  Almost never, the games only happen every four years, or every two if you toss in the summer games, so it would have been an experience that would be etched as one of the defining moments in my military career.  I thought it wasn't meant to be.....

I recall a early Sunday afternoon at our home in Magna, Utah.  My wife was working, I was home with the kids, Dylan and Destiny were still young, Dylan approximately 10, Destiny 8, and Dakota, well she wasn't even one year old yet, boy, seems like forever ago.  Anyways, I was all wrapped up in the last game of the New York Giants season, I think it was the game against the Green Bay Packers when Michael Strahan sacked Brett Farve to become the all-time sacks leader in the NFL.  I actually recall getting very frustrated with the lackluster end to a disappointing season after going to the Super Bowl the year before.  I received a phone call, land line of course, not sure I even had a cell phone at that point in time.  Funny how the cell phone is now just another accessory, back then it was almost a privilege to own one.  Back to the Giants (then the phone call), I have had several episodes of anxiety and panic attacks over the years watching the Giants (true in the present day also), but luckily, at the end of the 2001 season I knew there wasn't hope for the playoffs, but a win against Green Bay would have allowed the Giants to finish at 8-8 on the season.  I looked at the caller ID and it was the last name of my company commander, oddly, I had no idea why he would be calling me directly.  I picked up the phone and he seemed confused as to why I did not report the our armory for the first day of activation for the winter games.  He wasn't upset, but we were both confused, I had never been told to report or been given orders, but he told me to just show up on Monday and begin the process of being trained up to perform security.  This began a fun experience, although, I was still new to the unit and didn't really know anyone.

We all spent a few weeks being trained on how to check vehicles for hidden devices and explosives.  Following 9-11 there was a big push to make sure that the games would go off without a catastrophe.  The Secret Service was in charge of security and they were a nice, slightly arrogant, bunch of guys and gals, but respectful none-the-less.  Even though I was a medic and not assigned to the Utah Army National Guard's Medical Detachment, I wasn't involved in medical activities at all.  The Medical Detachment had set up various locations to provide aid in case of medical emergencies in coordination and collaboration with local and state emergency medical services.  So, I was assigned to searching vehicles for two weeks, then I transitioned to a detail at one of the entrances to the large venue in downtown Salt Lake City where pedestrians would enter to attend events.  Our days were actually quite relaxing, we arrived early, but the venue would not accept pedestrian entrees until approximately 11 AM, so we had time to kill.

Most mornings I would head to the Gateway Mall with a small group of fellow soldiers to get breakfast and browse the various shops.  We spent quite a bit of time at Barnes and Noble and discussing our future military careers.  At this point, being in an aviation unit, a few of the guys were looking at becoming Apache or Blackhawk pilots.  I was still focused on expanding my medical career, but I was almost talked into pursuing a career as a pilot.  Obviously I decided against that, I had spent the last five years working in the medical field, so I would continue down that path, initially I thought I would go to nursing school, but during those years, PA or medical school were also interesting to me. 

I didn't encounter too many celebrities or athletes in my Olympic experience, but I did meet Ahmad Rashad when his vehicle came through our security check point, he had to exit the vehicle so a few people struck up conversation with him.  I have never been star struck, but it was interesting to see these TV personalities in the flesh.  I also passed by Apolo Ohno while walking through a venue and also saw Evander Holyfield and Merlin Olsen while working the pedestrian entrance.  Otherwise it was just enjoyable being around the individuals I grew to know during those days and spend time with.  Funny how that after the games we all went back to our perspective sections and rarely saw one another during the time I was assigned to the 211th Aviation.  I would soon attend the Primary Leadership Course (PLDC) and move to another unit for a long awaited promotion to Sergeant.  A rank for which I desired since I was a private in the regular Army.

The games ended, no major emergencies or catastrophes to note.  But a great beginning to my Army National Guard career, and a great introduction to the type of soldiers I would serve alongside for years to come.

Next... PLDC and my promotion to Sergeant.

Monday, October 1, 2012


I have done much thinking today on where I am in my military career, and to where I may be headed.  I have never been concerned about future deployments, or whatever my Country may ask of me to perform as a member of it's Armed Forces.  But reflecting today, and after spending a long day with my little girls yesterday (something that I rarely seem to have time for anymore) I seem to be at a crossroads.  I have less than a year left on my current contract to the military.  I have nearly 16 full years of service spread between the Army and Army National Guard, and now I wonder how much more of my time should be spent giving all I can give to my country when my children are growing up rapidly before my eyes.

When I was in the regular Army and our two oldest children were young, we spent many hours together, wrestling, watching movies, playing games and video games.  The only commitment I had during those years was the Army and my family, it was easy, it was manageable.  I remember those days fondly, everything seemed easy, there was little stress, there was just work, play, and relaxation.  Now, after many years of bearing with the military through this great transition into a high level of readiness for combat activity I find that nothing is easy anymore, and life has grown so much more complicated.  Our two youngest children have not had the luxury of me being home for wrestling and horseplay like the two oldest, it seemed most my time is absorbed in recovering from the weeks work schedule, which now includes a full time job as a neurosurgical physician assistant along with what many in our country believe is a part time, one weekend a month and two weeks out of the summer, job with the National Guard.  I am here to tell you, with the level of readiness we need to maintain, there is no such thing as a part time job in the Army National Guard.  It would not be possible to maintain the level required just acting on the limited time that we are allotted by our part time military careers.  The weekends seem to filter into the week, many tasks needing completed on our own time, after we arrive home form our civilian jobs, and at times, into the following weekend. 

This is not something for which I am bitter, I do it out of loyalty to my nation, loyalty to the men and women I serve with and the need to maintain the level of medical readiness that has been battered by multiple deployments for many, and the lingering effects of those deployments on many individuals psyche.  I think what I am getting at is that I have to weigh these facts carefully as I get closer to contemplating retention in the Army National Guard.  I want all my children to have fond memories of me, not memories where all they recall is the absence of their father.  I can only hope that when all is said and done they all will understand why I chose to wear the uniform and serve my country.  I hope that if they hold any animosity towards me for not being at every dance class, or sporting event, or school function that they can look back at this time in our Nation's history and at least have some understanding to why I was gone and how hard it was for me to know that with each day I spent away, a small part of our history as a family was left with a small void, a void I can never go back and fill.

Sometimes, I have great sorrow when thinking about this.  That sorrow is usually something that can be washed away with the knowledge that if I was not doing this, if there were not thousands of us doing this, the history of our individual families might be completely different and foreign to what we currently know.  Regardless of how many days I spend away, I know that when the mission ends, my family will be right where they were, waiting for me.  I know that I am not alone in these feelings, we as the United States Armed Forces are barreling down this path together, and the hardest it will ever be, is in the very moment that we are away.  But while we are away, we have the knowledge that together, as a unit, as a team, we can make it through anything, any time, any condition, any situation the enemy of our Country tries to toss our way. 

But individually, for the long term, choices must be made.......