This morning, even before I was fully awake my wife told me about the massacre in Las Vegas. I could not fathom how someone could be so evil. To find a vantage point from a hotel room sounded like a rerun of the Texas Book Repository gone mad. The images on the television and soundtrack of automatic weapons fire hit me in the gut as deeply as on 9/11. How could this happen? Why, in the name of God?

I got on with things as best I could. I had a deadline and meetings to prepare for. And then my wife called again. Tom Petty had suffered full cardiac arrest and was on life support. I had just seen the band play a week earlier at the Hollywood Bowl. He seemed a bit tired after months on the road but the show had that energy and connection with the heart of America that they have had since the beginning. I was lucky enough to be there for that.

In January of 1977 I bagged on New York. After 3 1/2 years of some of the most intense and amazing life experiences I just had to get out. I was living on a couch in a tenement in Bensonhurst in the worst winter in New York memory. There was a 2 inch gap under the front door and the wind came howling in off the Atlantic close to zero, or so it felt. It sucked but I knew it was temporary because I was done. It was like winter camping in Siberia.

That and the snowstorms and a blowup with a favorite professor, and I was over New  York. My folks lived in a California dream home. Looking out the front door was like looking at the cover of the Hotel California album. Palm trees, beauty, water, warmth.

Until that point New York was an amazing journey. Going to school at Lincoln Center; an incredibly diverse and talented rabble of friends. Downtown in the Village one night, up on Broadway & 72nd or so the next. Needle Park and Hell’s Kitchen and the high rises and townhouses on the Upper East Side.

The city was exploding with hip hop, salsa, new wave and punk and I was right in the middle of it. I had seen a band a couple of times down at CBGB’s called Blondie that I thought were going to go big. Talking Heads, Television, the Ramones and others were playing the Bowery while Springsteen conquered the Village and the rest of the country. It was exhilarating beyond any high.

But I couldn’t stand the city anymore, so I left, hitching rides from the GW Bridge to Denver in one go and then across the Rockies to Vegas. Then with a pimp and his two girls on their way home to LA and then on home. I think it took me around 54-55 hours all told.

I was a wreck by that point. I crashed for three days and then I jumped in the water and showered and sat in the sun for a couple of days, just getting my happy back. I saw in the paper that Blondie was playing the Whiskey in a week or so and told my brother we had to go.

And so we drove up to LA and paid our money and grabbed a beer. The place was pretty empty. No one knew who this band was. Some strange chick from New York and her band.We had gotten there early because there was no traffic, and pretty soon the openers came on.

They just blew it up. They were incredible; tight, great songs and huge energy. Out of nowhere.It was funny because almost 40 years on I ran into Cheri Curry and we talked about those days and she mentioned that she helped the Heartbreakers get their first real gig.

The other night Tom Petty talked about their first few months. They were from Gainesville but they actually got the band together in Santa Monica. That show at the Whiskey was one of their first. It was a while later that the first album came out, but we knew these guys had tapped into the American soul.

During his recent show he dedicated “I Won’t Back Down” to the people of Houston and Florida and Mexico. I’m sure he would have done the same for Puerto Rico and Las Vegas as well. We don’t back down. We stand up in adversity and help each other.  There were 1,000 first responders last night. EMT’s and law enforcement and firefighters and just plain people. It is who we are.

Tom Petty got that a long time ago. He played the soundtrack to thousands of lives. It is a sad, tragic day in America, but remembering our innate spirit; our cussedness; our sense of honor and our compassion makes us who we are. And the Heartbreakers have helped us to get there and get through it.

I guess it is full circle. From the first to the last, but what a ride and what a comfort to hear the words and music that revive hope.

We won’t back down. We’ll stand our ground.







Medical Malpractice at the UC Irvine Psychiatric Unit

June 17, 2016


June 10 was the second anniversary of Maxwell Chorak’s death by suicide less than 2 1/2 hours after having been released from the psychiatric unit at the UCI Medical Center in Orange, California.

We knew that there were problems with his treatment. It took the State Department of Public Health 14 months to respond to our complaint. The reply was a copy of a corrective action report by the hospital itself. So much for oversight. A patient died because of lapses in policy and procedures and the indifference of staff, and there has been no accountability. It is now clear that the hospital was complicit in Max’s death.

When he was found in Laguna Niguel Regional Park in a catatonic state on May 29, 2014 he was taken to Mission Hospital in Mission Viejo. His mother was first told that Max would be sent to a long term care facility and would be placed under conservatorship. That didn’t happen.

He was instead transferred to the UC Irvine Medical Center, the county hospital. The psychiatric unit has 48 beds and it is a teaching hospital. In addition to the faculty and those psychiatrists with privileges there are residents and students as well. One would think that the care of patients would reflect that level of staffing.

When he was evaluated on June 1 at for a 5250 (up to 14 day involuntary hold) it was noted that Maxwell had a long standing history of schizophrenia. He exhibited disorganized behavior and speech and was unable to formulate a plan for self care, all of these critical criteria for an involuntary admission. Maxwell couldn’t even sign his name to the forms when he was brought in. He had also been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder and had addiction. Co-occurring disorders affect approximately 35% of our mentally ill.

As soon as his mother was notified of his admittance she immediately contacted the doctors and nurses, informing them among other things that Maxwell had a serious adverse reaction to Haldol. Haldol is a first generation antipsychotic used in acute cases of schizophrenia. She recommended the Risperdal that he had taken in the past and that he had done much better on over the years.  The attending nurse replied that “it doesn’t make any difference since they don’t stay on their meds when they leave here anyway”. They put Maxwell on the maximum 30 day injectible dose of Haldol.

The corrective action report is the official finding of the State Department of Public Health and yet no state investigation as performed. The summary is a statement of deficiencies in care and procedure as assessed by the hospital compliance department, presumably.

Beyond the jargon and acronyms, the findings are listed as specific actions taken or not taken. These include:

1 – A registered nurse shall directly provide ongoing patient assessments. Such assessments shall be documented for each shift. This was not done.

2 – A registered nurse shall directly provide the planning, supervision, implementation, and evaluation of the nursing care of the patient. This, also, was not done.

3 – The patient was never assessed for suicide risk.

4 – The nursing staff failed to conduct the Suicide Risk Assessment using the SADS Persons Scale per hospital procedure.

5 – The hospital failed to follow its own discharge procedures in that:

A – The hospital failed to coordinate a family meeting to discuss the patients care and discharge plan.

B – The physician, RN, or Case Manager failed to inform the patient’s family member of the discharge date and time.

C – The RN who noted the discharge failed to recognize the change in discharge destination from the original discharge plan and refer to the Case Worker or Case Manager for resolution.

6 – The hospital received informed consent from the patient referring two family members to be notified of his admission to the hospital, his prognosis, and progress in treatment. The only contact with family was when family members called to request information and status updates. These were communicated from the nursing station, not the persons directly responsible for his care.

7 – The medical student who handled the case did not communicate whatsoever with the family regarding the discharge and discharge plan.

In his discharge instructions the standard jargon about light physical activity and instructions that if he had suicidal or homicidal thoughts he should dial 911 were included.  His discharge diagnosis this time was antisocial personality disorder and schizoaffective disorder. It’s perverse, because Maxwell’s file was extensive and the diagnoses had long been made.  Max had experienced catatonia before and had also had a habit of pushing back when people were trying to restrain him.

He was prescribed a monthly intramuscular dose of Haldol as well as 5mg/day of the same; 1200 mg of lithium/day (used to treat mania), 5mg of benztropine, which controls the Parkinson’s like side effects of the Haldol, and Ativan, a benzodiazepine used to control anxiety. Maxwell was an addict. One does not prescribe benzo’s, as they are known, to addicts. Quite a cocktail.

Maxwell was discharged from the hospital at 1:51PM with the clothes on his back, $55.80 of his own money and a bus pass provided by the hospital. By 4:30PM he was dead. Just enough time for a bus ride to the main campus of UC Irvine and then an end to his pain.

His parents had specifically requested that they be notified prior to Maxwell’s release. It never happened.

The hospital violated its own procedures and policies time and again. After Maxwell had died, his mother called the hospital and informed them of his death. She asked why they had not called her or Max’s father. There was silence on the other end. No apologies. No condolences. Just silence.

In the end, the hospital made a number of recommendations for ”retraining and reeducation”.  Policies were reviewed and revised. New job descriptions were developed. The reporting structure was changed. The discharge planning process was adjusted. No one was held accountable.

We are not asking for much. We are asking that the hospital act with simple decency and provide every patient with the human dignity and care that they deserve. We are asking that the families be informed and involved in the care for their loved ones.

Those suffering from mental illness can be the most difficult of patients and yet that is why we are called to act with even greater compassion and grace. Hospitals are by definition clinical, but in mental health we must heal the unseen biological, the psychological and the spiritual diseases of the individual. Maxwell Chorak was warehoused and then discharged to his death. By all that is holy please don’t let this happen again to anyone’s child.

Closing Fairview Developmental Center is the wrong decision


The Fairview Developmental Center in Costa Mesa has been in operation since 1959, first as a state mental hospital and now as a facility for the developmentally disabled. These individuals are the weakest in our society. Most of them need 24 hour care and sophisticated support systems just in order to survive. It is a tall order but it is an obligation that we as a society have willingly undertaken.

Fairview has been in the news in the past few years for code violations and for incidents since 2002 resulting in the deaths of six residents, including the drowning of a resident left unattended while bathing and the murder by one resident of another. These are terrible things, but at the same time we must remember that the role of Fairview is to take on the most difficult cases.  These residents need the highest levels of care and are the most vulnerable. Now the powers that be, namely our Governor, Jerry Brown, want to shut it down.

Many of the developmentally disabled now live in group homes in the community. Our son is one of them. He is happy and has some independence but does require care. Others in his home are more vulnerable. One thing we do know is that the rates paid by government have been decreasing to the point that many of these group homes are unprofitable. The government is trying to cut costs on the backs of our most vulnerable.

This is the same thing that was done in the 1970’s under the Lanterman Act, which colsed our state mental hospitals and resulted in the thousands of homeless on the street. The best of intentions gone awry.

Under the guise of patient’s rights Dr. Thomas Szasz, a psychiatrist in the pay of the Church of Scientology, which does not believe in mental illness, argued that patient’s rights were being violated by the states in treatment at mental health facilities. This was during the Fabulous Sixties, where anything went.  It was all about personal liberation.

Government went along with it happily. Hundreds of millions of dollars would be freed up in state budgets for other purposes. And so one by one the mental health hospitals across the country closed.

My grandmother was one of those cast out on the streets when Creedmoor State Hospital in Queens, New York was closed. The family was told that we had to pick her up on a certain date despite our lack of preparation. She had been there for 30 years after a psychotic breakdown. She had become permanently arrested at the age of 16 in her own fantasy world after too many triggers.

She was happy there. But she had to go, along with thousands of other residents. Because people like Thomas Szasz decided it was better for her to go.

She came to live with us and it worked out okay. But that didn’t happen with many of those residents. The streets were flooded with a whole new class of homeless, the mentally ill.

And now history repeats itself. It’s Déjà vu all over again as Yogi Berra would say. In the name of compassion the state in its infinite wisdom is preparing to close down some of the most desperately needed facilities which are equipped to handle the most difficult cases, and move the residents to group homes.

I can tell you that one group will benefit; the developers.  These hospitals sit on some of the most valuable land in the state. Hundreds of homes mean millions in profit. Every time there has been public land made surplus, the political donations increase and the skids get greased and the most vulnerable among us get screwed. This is the way crony capitalism works. This is why Trump and Sanders have been able to tap into the righteous anger of a part of our society that still cares about how we treat our own people.

The rich and powerful have set themselves up as the arbiters of all facets of our lives. Not from knowledge or empathy or compassion, but through wealth and political muscle. Many people love “the people” but far fewer love people as they are. We are imperfect. We are difficult to care for sometimes. But as a compassionate society we must make the right choices. Closing Fairview is not one of those.

David Bowie: Anticipating Eternity

When I was seventeen years old or so David Bowie came out (and boy did he come out) with the persona of Ziggy Stardust, and music was changed.

It didn’t matter if you were a proto conservative in Philadelphia or a glam rocker in Brixton, he changed the culture like very few before him. He channeled Heinleins Stranger in a Strange Land, the excitement of the moon program and the nihilism of mutually assured destruction into a personal and revelatory angst that allowed all of us to feel in a new way. It was okay to be different.

Social isolation is a big thing when you’re in your teens and anxiety and identity and sexuality are all mixed into a cauldron of confusion. We don’t know who we are or where we’re going. Bowie enabled us to feel those feelings without judgement or condemnation.

At the time I was listening to Zappa and Captain Beefheart and Neil Young and jazz and was as far from the world of glam as can be imagined. Philadelphia was very real and it was a tough place to grow up, even in the suburbs. Frank Rizzo was the Chief of police and his grey leather clad police were known for their violence.

And Bowie came storming into the Tower Theater in Upper Darby near where the old mafiosi lived and lit it on fire. “You gotta hang onto yourself”, Rebel, rebel”, the first chords of Suffragette City, the heartbreak of Life on Mars, Space Oddity…. Rock & Roll Suicide left a lingering question in the air. Would he go over the edge at some point?

Mortality is a difficult concept when you’re in your 20’s. “All the Young Dudes” put suicide and drag right out there. The alien space prince, the doomed astronaut, the androgynous oddity. Some of it was the act. But it came from an intelligent, sensitive writer with tremendous inventiveness. He never left you bored and his riffs were insane.

This was before pomp rock and it engendered a new subculture. Andro was in….Bowie influenced a whole new generation; the Dictators, The New York Dolls and then punk and New Wave. Bowie’s music was calculated and precise but it let rip the garage band fantasies of tens of thousands of teenagers. From Television to Talking Heads to Flock of Seagulls to Heaven 17 to the Cure to Echo & the Bunnymen. Who could imagine them without Bowie first?

Bowie was the master of reinvention. He didn’t measure the pulse; he redefined it and reset it. And always that edge of mortality. We could be heroes or maybe just crash and burn.

Age can be cruel but Bowie aged like a good Armagnac. Intriguing, complex; harsh and raw at times. Always unafraid. Never the sweet saccharine approach.

And as we now know, his exit was planned like an opera. Hero fades to black, leaving us wanting more. We were lucky to have him. Go in peace star man.

St. Francis – Patron Saint of PTSD?

October 9, 2015

St Francis

At the recent Gathering on Mental Health and the Church I received an education in church history for which I was unprepared. Warren Kinghorn, a psychiatrist and professor at Duke University and the Duke Divinity School, and MAJ Jeff Matsler, a US Army Chaplain (Major) and bioethicist at the Walter Reed Military Medical Center in Washington made a case for St. Francis of Assisi as the patron saint of those suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
These matters are discussed and debated at a much higher pay grade than mine, but as a lay person their arguments make a lot of sense.
Francesco Bernardone was the son of the richest merchant in Assisi, one of the wealthiest cities in Italy at the time. Born in 1181, Francis grew up a child of privilege. When he was 16, dreaming of glory and honor, he became one of the leaders of Assisi’s army in their war against Perugia, a city only 12 miles away.
Assisi and Perugia had been at odds for over 1,200 years dating back to the time of the Etruscans (Perugia) and Umbrii (Assisi), two of the ancient peoples of the central Italian peninsula. The rivalry had been renewed with the rise of the Holy Roman Empire in the north and of the Ghibelline city states of Italy. The Ghibellines loosely support the Emperor and their own economic interests versus the Guelphs, or supporters of the temporal authority of the Popes. This was compounded by the ancient rivalry between the two cities.
Francesco, as the son of the wealthiest merchant in a city of merchants, could afford the accoutrements of mounted warfare. Horses, armor, a groom, and a page were all signs of status in a city that did not recognize hereditary nobility. Assisi was proud of its independence and freedom. Francesco was a defender of that freedom.
Warfare was conducted during the warm months after the crops had been sown. So Francesco would mount up with his friends and a cohort of millers, fullers, tradesmen, peasants and others to skirmish with the Perugians and residents of other hilltop towns of Umbria. Neither side gained an advantage, but the blood spilled was plenty and Francesco learned the art and hardships of war.
In November of 1202, all of this changed. The merchants of Assisi had risen up and evicted many of the Perugian nobility living there and Perugia, with the support of Pope Innocent III was ready to strike back with a force three times the size of that of Assisi. The Pope had excommunicated the residents of Assisi and thus the rules of war did not apply.
At the battle of Collestrada (Ponte San Giovanni) the Perugians slaughtered the soldiers of Assisi. No quarter was given the excommunicates.
In medieval warfare killing was done up close using axes, swords, pikes, and arrows. The carnage would have been horrendous. Francesco, one of the few wearing knight’s armor, was captured for ransom and taken back to one of the worst dungeons in Perugia. He was held there and tortured for a year and released once a ransom was paid by his father.
He came home a living reminder of the loss of the war and deaths of 3,000 or more of his fellow citizens. Today, some of what he experienced would be called moral injury. His sense of shame and survivor’s guilt would have been strong.
Having seem the horror of battle and then the pit of despair and abandonment, Francesco‘s symptoms seem to closely resemble those of today’s veterans coming home from war. He stopped eating and sleeping. He drank to excess and lived on the edge of town in ruins and basements. He was mocked in the streets and considered mad. He did the unthinkable, kissing lepers on their wounds.
He went off to war again to fight under the Count of Brienne but made it only a few leagues before he gave his armor to an indigent soldier and returned home.
He wandered the villages and fields of Umbria in turmoil until one evening he entered a small, abandoned church. There the crucifix came alive and he was called to a life of faith.
As his reputation for holiness grew, other former soldiers were drawn to him. The called themselves the Knights Penitent. They sought to expiate their sins through labor and good works. They swore a vow of poverty. hands

And so the faith of Francis and his companions grew stronger and their faith helped them to heal themselves and others for the greater glory of God.
This may be the greatest gift of all for those suffering from PTSD. Knowing that over 800 years ago a young man badly damaged by war found meaning and peace from his terrible struggles and redemption through faith and good works. This too shall pass.

In the Presence of Heroes

Originally posted on November 10, 2009
Years ago I began the process of getting touch with my Uncle Harry, who was a paratrooper killed at Anzio in February of 1944. Not in any spooky sense, but to try and remember the life of a man who joined the Army in early 1941 and who was looked up to by his friends and family as a natural leader and who died in the fog of war too young. After doing some research, I attended a reunion of his unit to try and find someone who may have known him to try to get to know him better. Not much of a thread to connect over 65 years, but something to try and connect with why he did what he did and who he was as a man. I have been through my own experiences and wanted to find a connection. What I found was something more.
The 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion was a very unusual unit. They were an independent battalion, only 400 men in an Army where the normal combat unit is a regiment of 3-4 Battalions. The 509th did not fit into most battle plans easily, but they gave the commanding general a unit of very tough, capable soldiers who could go anywhere fast to hold an airfield or bridge or town. They were the first unit into combat in North Africa, making our country’s first parachute assault against the Vichy French, and yes, a number of men were killed. They fought again throughout North Africa, including Kasserine Pass, where they held, and a bunch of places now long forgotten. Along the way they gained a reputation as something of a bunch of buccaneers and a little bit raffish. Maybe it had something to do with their first CO, LTC Edson Raff. Through the years, the 509th has been staffed and commanded by some of the finest men in the Army. in Mid 1943 LTC, later General Yarborough, the father of the Special Forces, commanded the unit. More recently, Generals Casey and Petraeus started their careers there. The 509th has always attracted the best.
After North Africa they were rested in Casablanca, which was much less romantic than it sounds. They were held in reserve in Sicily, which for the airborne was a debacle. Hundreds of American and British paratroopers were lost there before they even landed, many shot down by our own antiaircraft fire. At Salerno, they were parachuted behind enemy lines at Avellino to try to relieve the beachhead. Half of them didn’t make it back from that one, captured or killed. Later on, in a town called Venafro, 11 miles east of Cassino, they became mountain troops in a bitter cold, wet November and spent a month in the line with the Rangers. That was all one could ask of any man. Pneumonia, shrapnel, small arms, and hand to hand combat decimated the unit at each of these stops. My uncle, we knew, had been wounded once in North Africa and again at Venafro. He was said to have escaped from the hospital in Naples to get back to his unit for the Anzio landings, where they were the spearhead, the first men on the beach. He was killed by shrapnel a few weeks into the battle. Once again, the 509th was at the tip of the sword.

I met his Company Sgt., George Fontanesi, at one of the reunions. He remembered my uncle as a kid from Brooklyn, but not much more about him. George is 90 now (he has since passed on). He also told me that in the 509th, the turnover was so high from wounds and deaths that men came and went at far too fast a pace. You lost track, and only after the war sometimes found out. He gave me an example. There was a hill in village called Carano at Anzio, where my uncle had died a few days prior to this battle. The 509th were at the very point of the Allied line in front of the entire army, and the Germans were throwing what seemed like their entire army at B/509 trying to drive the Americans into the sea. On that hill was a reduced Company. Whatever was left of what was supposed be 100 men after almost 4 weeks of close combat. Maybe there were 25-30 men left at that point. The other Companies were nearby, but the Germans decided that they wanted that hill and sent a reinforced regiment with tanks and artillery. It is in the history books. B Company took everything the Germans could hit them with and held. In the middle of the night, George told me, they received 18 replacements. In a foxhole with a piece of paper and a flashlight, it was his responsibility to parcel them out to the fighting positions. The next morning, every one of those men was dead. Such was the history of the 509th. George explained it as it was, no varnish. An awful lot of 509′ers never made it home alive. The wounded sometimes came back, but often didn’t. Harry made it back twice before he died. It was that kind of bond they shared.
The 509th then fought as the pathfinders for the invasion of Southern France, again the first to fight. They helped liberate Cannes and Nice and the French Riviera and lost more men, and then rested at the end of the year outside of Paris. Like the 506th Regiment (the Band of Brothers), they were called out to fill the lines at The Bulge and took another bad hit at a place called Sadzot in Belgium for Christmas, when a full division bore down on them. A month later, they fought one last time at St. Vith. The orders to disband the 509th and parcel the troopers out had been on the way since before the Bulge, but only reached them on January 27. On the 28th, they pulled out of close contact with the enemy at the bottom of a hill with only 55 men still standing. Officially, the unit was disbanded on March 1, 1945. From the first to fight in the European Theater in Africa to March 1, 1945 over 7,500 men passed through the 509th, the majority wounded at least once or dead.
The 509th appeared and disappeared through the 60′s, almost like a ghost until the 1970′s when it once again was reactivated as a front line unit. The 509th Airborne Combat team was the only airborne unit in Europe, once again the tip of the spear. A separate Pathfinder Company were activated only to again be deactivated along with 1/509. In the 1980′s the 1/509th was again activated, this time it seems for a good while. They are the OPFOR (Opposing Force) who train other Army units in urban and guerilla warfare. These days, most of them are Iraq and Afghanistan vets, some with 3 tours, who do their best to drive much larger forces crazy in order to prepare them for the real thing.
Wearing beards and keffiyahs and kidnapping Colonels, capturing command posts, delaying and ambushing larger units than themselves, and then reviewing the results and both teaching and learning from each encounter are all in a day’s work. It is very demanding work, but it has its charms. One trooper delighted in telling me how they had captured a senior officer and then used his cell phone to call other CO’s, threatening them in pidgin Arabic laced with English curse words. He took special pleasure when he found his own former CO’s number. Some of these soldiers jumped in during the first Iraq invasion. Others came from other line units. Every one of them is smart and creative and committed.
One has to love the sublime logic of the Army. The 3rd battalion/509th PIR was stood up at Ft. Richardson, AK in 2006 as part of the 25th (Tropic Lightning) Division, based in Hawaii. As part of Spartan Brigade, they went to Iraq, where they distinguished themselves as a part of the Anbar Awakening where generals argued over who would retain their services. One Company, along with a company of Marines, fought a pitched battle with over 2,000 insurgents. I met one of those Marines by chance at a supermarket the day before Thanksgiving last year, and he told me his part of the story. He didn’t have the words to express his admiration, and I’m sure the feeling was mutual. It was rough Eventually, with the cooperation of the local sheikhs, Anbar was pacified and proved General Petraeus’ strategy for the Surge to have been a success. Other Geronimo companies served in Baghdad, Babil, and elsewhere. Anywhere it was hot.
There is a toll for this. Honor in combat does not come necessarily from bravery, but from survival. 21 509′ers gave their lives in Iraq. One squad in Able Company (Able Nation) lost every member but one. He ended up in Afghanistan when 3/509 deployed. He wasn’t going to leave his buddies. I understood why my uncle did what he did back in early 1944, but this brought it all full circle. It’s the same as it’s been since Julius Caesar; squad, company, maniple, century. One for all and all for one.
We had a reunion a few months ago. There were only 6 of the originals able to attend; the rest gone or infirm. We had a lot of guys from the 70′s and 80′s, and 60 active duty 509′ers from Ft. Polk dropped in (literally). A few from 3/509 were there who had been transferred to new postings. The Army is like that, 2 years and you’re in school or halfway across the world in a new post in most cases. But the connection to the 509th remains. West Point has the Long Gray Line, but this is about shared experience and hardship; in training and under fire. I never thought I would get so much out of it. Lessons learned 60 years ago; lessons learned a lot more recently. And a lot of good friends across the age band.
The kids coming back from Central Asia have seen as much as anyone else of war and its pain. Urban combat in Iraq and fighting in the high mountains and valleys for sometimes 3 or 4 1 year tours of duty has its own burden. And it has its price. Not a lot of people volunteer for this, and that in itself has deep meaning. The young ones are going to need the older ones. 4 months ago, a kid named Justin Casillas was carrying another kid named Aaron Fairbairn who had been wounded, over his shoulder to the aid station at a Godforsaken place called FOB Zerok when they were both killed. 6 days ago, another young man named Julian Berisford was killed on patrol. This isn’t going away anytime soon.
The bond between the old soldiers and the younger, whatever the unit, is more critical than ever. I see this as a part of the ongoing mission. There’s been talk of the VFW or Legion having issues at some posts with the old guys vs the Vietnam or younger guys, but not in the 509th. The Vietnam era guys especially can relate to the stress and make a contribution. Some of them are doing it already.
Back in 1941-45 or in Afghanistan or Stateside now, it takes a very special man to jump out of a perfectly good airplane. It takes even more to face a determined enemy with a rifle in your hands. Every one of these men, and every veteran deserves the respect of us all. They have earned it the hard way. There is little of the trivial about these men. But there is compassion and brotherhood and all of those noble characteristics we don’t have enough of these days. Heroism is a combination of many things. To me, the greatest of all is keeping on even when the fear in your heart tells you your number is up. Every one of these men, old and young, meet any definition of the word you’d care to use.
So when you’re at the store or work or any of the places you go tomorrow and you look around, remember not just these men, but all of the men and women who have served. When you take the oath, you commit your life to your country. It is one of the great callings, especially in America. Also remember that overseas, the French and British and Canadians and Australians and many other countries remember their veterans tomorrow as well. And give a thought to every one of them around the world.

The Charleston Massacre and Mental Health – Still not getting it

I almost broke down when I heard about the Charleston massacre. How could one person sit with others in prayer and then gun them down cold bloodedly? Why in God’s name?

And the argument immediately shifted to a flag. The immediate call was “racism”. Yes, the shooter was racist. But more importantly he was deeply and seriously mentally ill.

Just like the Danbury shooter. Just like the Tucson shooter. Just like the Aurora shooter. Just like the Virginia Tech shooter. Just like the Columbine shooters. Just like the co-pilot of the Germanwings plane that slammed into a French mountain.

They all fit the same demographic. Male, between the ages of 17 and 32, and severely mentally ill. It is usually schizophrenia and often related to the rages seen in  bipolar disorder. And instead we argue about a flag. What kind of fools are we?

Severe mental illness affects approximately 6% of our population. We see it in the streets with our homeless. We see it in our jails where 70% plus of the inmates have some form of mental illness. And we see it acted out in our homes and the streets on a daily basis.

And most of us turn our backs or are in denial. We would rather argue about a flag than the improving outcomes for those with mental illness and repairing a dysfunctional mental health care system.

Some of the symptoms of the most severe mental illnesses include delusions, hearing voices, sudden rages, conspiracy theories, fear, and even catatonia.You’ve seen these enough times in the movies or in books.

Medications such as Haldol, Risperdol, Abilify and others are used to treat these symptoms. Many of them have serious side effects. They have to be adjusted regularly with many patients, and the side effects often cause patients to stop taking them.

Psychopharmacology still includes some alchemy. Science does not have all of the answers. It may never. But the earlier the diagnosis the better the outcome in most cases.

How do we deal with these young men, for they are almost inevitably male? How do we educate their families? How do we de-stigmatize mental illness so that people can get proper treatment?

Eric Hofer’s True Believer explored the attraction of mass movements to the disenfranchised and those who seek to submerge their identity in a cause; to disengage from responsibility. He looked at how Marat in the French Revolution channeled liberal aspirations into the reign of Terror and Stalin and Hitler and even Christianity.

The Merriam dictionary’s definitions of a “true believer” is a person who professes absolute belief in something or a zealot. That the killer surely is.

But this wasn’t a movement in Charleston. It was a lone, mentally ill individual who had somehow latched onto race hatred. The photos show him wearing the Apartheid South African flag and a Rhodesian flag. This goes well beyond reason.

So do we address the core issues or do we argue over flags and monuments?