I whole heartedly admit that my life has been a series of just unreal and unbelievable experiences that continue to shape and propel me forward. The experience of serving in combat with some amazing folks to working in a support role has offered me a window that I truly wish I could share with everyone. It’s not that I think my eyes have a better filter its just hat they have seen several different angles or views of a sensitive subject.
Getting to share in special moments and memories is a gift but being able to help these things come to be increases their value exponentially. As a military leader in combat I learned the awesome weight of human life and the responsibility that goes with it but never am I reminded of that more than here in the United States while I watch our Veterans struggle to fit back into their worlds and lives after combat has forever changed them. Some of these changes are visible to general public and some are deep dark and private that only a select few get to peer into the porthole or understand the complexities of the invisible wounds.
Last week I took a journey with a couple of special guys. One of these special guys is a recovering wounded warrior that has lost both a leg and an arm and is learning to live life without the convenience of ready and able limbs from the confines of a chair. It has been since July 31 2007 when Adam Dix was injured in Iraq losing two limbs and suffering from other injuries. It has been since that day that he has struggled with the loss of friends and brothers in arms as well as his need to survive himself. His father a retired Air Force veteran of twenty plus years and continued service on the civil side of his former position has tried to get him motivated and provide the needed support to continue on with the struggle. Now, our journey will probably seem superficial and selfish to some but that’s because the greater effects are just not easily displayed on the surface.
The trip and journey that we embarked on was a simple fishing trip with a local outfitter and charter company in Biloxi Mississippi called Right Tackle led by Captain Mike Leblanc. The trip was part of a Cobia Tournament but our goal was to get some heroes out on the water and see if life could just happen and be inspiring again. Finding willing participants to go off shore fishing was not that hard but what about the other challenges. Before the trip even happened we had to accomplish some milestones. Adam Dix has not traveled since his injuries brought him back to the United States. Flying in a plane and wheelchairs don’t always go together and just getting the courage to once again venture out of the comfort zone was needed. My reassurances honestly don’t hold that much weight when we are talking about engaging in an uncomfortable and potentially embarrassing situation. What could be embarrassing about flying on a plane? How about not being able to walk and having everyone watch you struggle with the simplest of tasks that we deem so important it’s really the first milestone we look forward to in the lives of our newborns. Not being able to get to the bathroom during flight without assistance and the unknown effects of altitude on a head that has already felt some serious trauma from a bomb that caused the other injuries.
The journey came in stages, once we had successfully flown and arrived we were welcomed in style by the local community with a ride from the airport in style. One of the local transportation companies Gulf Limosuines provided free transportation to and from the airport as well as to the Cobia Tournament. Witnessing the sense of pride and accomplishment in the successful flight then being treated with respect versus the typical stares and questions being accentuated by riding like a deserving celebrity. The Tournament’s Captains meeting and team briefings was another moment in the communities shining. The hosts of the event introduced the Hero team and honored their service with a wonderful applause. Even a local beer distributor got into the celebration by presenting some specially produced Miller High Life beer celebrating Veterans and welcoming them home. The team was awarded the honorary number one placard and then prepared for the next days event. Even with all the excitement and support there were still the most basic of challenges and needs that needed to be met. Like the airplane most boats are not ADA compliant or is that even a consideration and fishing for the most part requires physical interaction with the equipment. What looked like a simple step onto the boat for the rest of us became a Grand Canyon like leap on Adams part and then the narrow venues on the boat didn’t allow for smooth traversing via wheelchair. After some experimenting and determination demonstrated by Adam we were ready to embark on this adventure. Leaving under the arc of a Red White and Blue Star Cluster the event was underway. Many of the boats engaged in the thrill of the race from the starting point and their impressive engines and Captain skills were both exciting to watch but also a reminder that we were doing our best to maintain a smooth platform and be as efficient as possible while providing a safe and fun environment for our team. The trip offshore started rough by providing the opportunity to get sea sick for those not accustomed to the rocking motion of the sea but quickly overcome. While out at sea everyone got to see the wonders of the ocean like sea turtles, large fish, sharks but even in this serene and relaxing environment the scars of war can be felt.
While cruising along on the open water and enjoying the company of Captain Mike Leblanc and his local fishing legend volunteer deck hand Scott Carroll I was quickly transported to a distant and scary land. Two large and thunderous booms rocked the boat and my soul to the core. I felt the shutter of EID’s rocking my body and the fear of losing one of my men or not seeing my children again just like I was on route Tampa back in Iraq. I looked around the boat trying to hide the fear of what I just experienced and looked over at Adam and Chris Brown another veteran that joined us on the trip who also suffers from PTS and saw we were all processing everything the same. At that moment we were not alone and when we realized that what we had experienced was sonic booms from Jet fighters training in the area we felt a little silly but comforted that we were with people that “got it”.
The fishing continued with some life accomplishments such as catching sharks and other amazing salt water fish and then even had the chance to catch a Cobia the desired fish of the tournament. Still basic life was a challenge, being out on the water with out a bathroom let alone a handicapped facility was a constant reminder of a simple human activity that will never be the same for some. There is not much more personal and intimate activity than going to the bathroom then compound that with having to perform it in a public setting requires courage even to the battle hardened.
Through some trials and errors we figured out that some onboard bean bag chairs can provide the needed comfort and support to make almost anyone comfortable. We never did overcome the challenge of individual accomplishment as we worked together as a team to ensure all played a role in the goal of the event. As the day progressed each member of the team increased responsibilities and focused on trying to accomplish more for each other.
We were welcomed back to the docks and into the weigh in area with cheers and pure support. While we had our one offering of Cobia weighed I couldn’t help but see the event promoter touched by our efforts to a point that he had to take a moment so no one would see how it truly did affect him. Once on shore and within the close proximity of proper facilities and solid ground we took a few moments to share our adventure with some great friends that helped us make it all possible. With our catch proudly on display we sat and reflected on the day. Our fish was by no means a competitive one but we were proud like we had brought ashore a true monster of the deep. It might not have been as evident to on lookers as to why we were so proud of our humble little fish but to us it was the symbol of a start. A fresh new chapter in life for some and a better understanding and respect for others. Once back at home in Texas I sat to reflect some more on my part in this journey and what it really meant. My time as an Infantry soldier for this country has colored vision but its honestly the time and position with Soldiers’ Angels (www.soldiersangels.org) that has truly opened my eyes to making sure we don’t miss the forest for the trees. It’s the simple understanding of our friends, families and communities and what it’s really going to take to help us heal from this war. Soldiers’ Angels founder Patti Patton Bader has told me on several occasions that it takes a country to heal from this war and it was this experience to see how correct she is. It’s not just the understanding friend of family member it’s the local business and leaders that have to open the door to the idea that even a simple thing can be profound.