Writing someone’s story in a newspaper article is a strange thing. You get this one glimpse into a person's life at one specific moment about one specific thing. It goes into print, and then we all move on. They go back to their lives and I go on to the next story.
But after I wrote about Staff Sgt. Lupe Maldonado last May, I couldn’t help but continue to follow his story. And many readers felt the same way. For months after writing about Lupe’s fight with cancer, and the tragic circumstances around it, people sent me emails and Facebook messages asking about his progress.
Cancer impacted far more than just Lupe’s health, and I think most people who’ve had a serious illness come into their home know the challenges created.
When I heard about Lupe’s death over the weekend, I was both sad and relieved. Sad because it was an unnecessary death, but relieved because he’s no longer in pain.
By the time I met Lupe in May, I could tell his quality of life had begun to deteriorate. Reading his list of Army awards, it’s hard to imagine the man I saw in a recliner was the man who served three tours in Iraq and passed the air assault course.
My final thought this week is this: I hope that people learn from Lupe’s death. I hope doctors learn that soldiers who suddenly frequent the ER are not just looking for a way out of deployment, but a solution to their ailments. I want patients to realize if they truly feel something greater is going on with them, they can fight for proper care.
You would think this is something that our service members, or anyone for that matter, should not have to endure. Clearly though, that is our reality.
So far this year I haven’t really gotten too much into the Christmas spirit. Maybe it’s because my husband’s deployed or because my family already celebrated together and exchanged gifts. But even Mariah Carey can’t get me singing along to Christmas music on the radio.
But then I spent one late night rounding up holiday greetings from deployed soldiers for our website. Watching all those soldiers sending back greetings to their loved ones just really tugged on my heart strings. I realized they are thousands of miles away and still putting on a good face as they wish their wives, husbands, parents and children — some of whom they haven’t even met yet — a Merry Christmas.
Somewhere between loading and editing those 24 videos, I found my holiday spirit. Air Cav’s deployed battalion has a 10-minute string of holiday greetings, just one soldier after another in rapid fire. I’m not sure how many minutes I lasted before I began to tear up, or how many more before they spilled down my cheeks, but I couldn’t help myself. It was so sweet!
In that moment I came to appreciate that I may not have my husband for the holidays, but it doesn’t mean I’m forgotten. Even though all those soldiers are separated from their families, it’s clear they are thinking about home just as much as we are thinking about them.
Even if you don’t have a soldier deployed, I recommend you click on a couple of these greetings, just to remember how much it means to hear a “Merry Christmas” from the one you love. But if you’re a sap like my, be sure you grab a tissue.
Last month I wrote a story about Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's efforts to reform the way the military handles sexual assault, and I just wanted to update you on its status.
To remind you — the legislation would strip military commanders of any involvement in determining how rape and sexual assault cases are handled, turning them over to specialized military prosecutors.
An attempt to get a vote on it in the senate failed, as did a push to add the legislation as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, which is expected to finally come to a vote tomorrow.
But it seems despite these two failed attempts, Gillibrand is going to continue forward to try and get the legislation voted on in the new year, according to www.lohud.com. She is optimistic and certain it will come to a vote, the website reported.
Texas' own U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz has teamed up with Gillibrand, adding some bipartisan support to the bill. During a visit to Killeen on Dec. 3, he, too, said he will continue to push for reform on the military's handling of sexual assault cases.
Posted in Ft hood post notes on Tuesday, December 17, 2013 4:24 pm. | Tags: Kirsten Gillibrand , Sexual Assault , Politics , National Defense Authorization Act , Gillibrand , Ted Cruz , Mst , Military Sexual Trauma Comments (0)
To say the word homecoming in my hometown of Orange, Texas, people would instantly imagine over-sized mums, football and high school royalty.
Now as an Army wife and military reporter, a homecoming is a totally different event altogether. The Army uses the term "redeployment," but I prefer homecoming, because that is exactly what is happening — soldiers are coming home.
I've easily attended more than 30 of these ceremonies in the past three years, and even though I can tell you exactly what will happen at each one, I can't help but get this tingly feeling of excitement as the soldiers enter. Then I inevitably find myself fighting off tears as I watch families reunite after months of separation. Every unit puts their own spin on the event, but it never fails — I always leave with a sense of joy.
Once again, homecoming "season" is upon us. Units seem to really be trying to get any soldiers that can get home for the holidays back to their loved ones. In the past six days, we've covered four totaling up to nearly 500 soldiers.
Even though my own soldier isn't on any of these flights, I'm not sad. Every time I see a parent, child or spouse wrap their arms around their soldier, tears streaming down everyone's face, I can't help but feel joy.
This morning I came across an article on Politico exposing an internal Army communication about how to effectively depict women in combat. I've tried to move past it, but for some reason I can't stop thinking about how silly it is to debate the issue.
The email, written by a woman, says that "ugly women are perceived as competent while pretty women are perceived as having used their looks to get ahead."
Therefore, she explains, only photos of "average-looking women" should be used to depict women in combat. She then uses an example of an AUSA article with a female Cav soldier deployed to Iraq to show how pretty soldiers aren't taken seriously.
"Such photos undermine the rest of the message (and may even make people ask if breaking a nail is considered hazardous duty),” writes Col. Lynette Arnhart in the email.
Here's what I don't understand. I spend quite a bit of time out with soldiers and I have seen plenty of female soldiers doing great things. And the Army has soldiers designated to take photos and tell the Army story. Surely photos exist of females doing their job. These women are, after all, part of the Army story.
Why should we debate their attractiveness before using their photo? Does the Army also do this when selecting how to depict men in combat? I feel like the answer is no.
Several thousand feet above ground, enemy forces attacked two helicopters during a simulated battle Monday at Forward Operating Base Forge at the Joint Readiness Training Center.
Although I was inside one of the Black Hawks, I didn’t realize what was going on until the Pvt. Christopher Hood, crew chief for Charlie Company, , 3rd Battalion, 227 Aviation Regiment, 1st Air Cavalry Brigade, learned over the seats and yelled over the rotors, “we might be attacked.”
“Attacked,” I thought. “What exactly does mean for us?”
Moments later, I found out.
One helicopter was already down and it was reported that some crew inside were missing as insurgents drove their white trucks towards it to make sure everyone inside was “dead.”
Some aimed for the Hawk on the ground, others for the one in the sky.
As Hood started firing back, the soldier on the controllers was startled and the plane rocked from left to right before straightening out again.
We circled the forces on the ground about 10 times, avoiding fire and reciprocating with our own.
Eventually, the second helicopter received damage to an engine.
Once downed, a soldier used chalk to draw four bullet holes on the engine to symbolize the number of times the Black Hawk was hit.
Soldiers take the training seriously, following each intricate detail of the game to make sure the simulated environment of Afghanistan and combat scenarios are as realistic as possible.
The 1st Air Cavalry Brigade provided support to the 2nd "Black Jack" Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, during the training.
The skills Black Jack soldiers have learned at the training center will be crucial when they deploy the brigade deploys about 3,200 this summer.
Posted in Ft hood post notes on Tuesday, May 21, 2013 12:00 pm. Updated: 12:05 pm. | Tags: Fort Hood , Fort Polk , 1st Cavalry Division , 2nd Brigade , 1st Air Cavalry Brigade , Joint Readiness Training Center Comments (0)
The pop of bullets got louder and louder as Afghan insurgents pushed back against U.S. forces. The firefight escalated and by 2 a.m. Saturday, insurgents pushed their way inside a building at mock Joint Combat Outpost Turani.
If it was real, I would have been terrified. I’d be dead. They “killed” everyone. They “killed” 200 soldiers.
When we arrived at the post around 10:30 p.m., soldiers in the 4th Squadron, 9th Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, anticipated the attack. Armed with weapons, soldiers listened to intelligence from soldiers in other buildings. They worked around the clock and received intelligence of a potential attack around 2 p.m.
But – as with real war – they didn’t know when it would happen. When I heard the gunfire in the distance, I didn’t know what to think.
The popping noises got closer and louder. It seemed a bit chaotic, but not for the U.S. troops. They prepared for the attack, shouted orders across the room and kept their communication strong in an effort to execute the same mission.
"The goal is not to just make sure everyone is safe,” said Maj. John Sandler, squadron operations officer, after the attack. “It’s killing the people who are trying to kill you.”
Despite their previous training, insurgents made their way outside our pitch black building.
Soon, the shadowy figures of Afghans clutching weapons could be seen as light from their bullets lit up their faces. They ran around shooting non-stop until everyone was “dead.”
After the attack, it was obvious soldiers in the unit were upset and frustrated by their loss. If this was a real-world scenario, the 200 casualties would devastate the unit, soldiers stateside and their family and friends. It would also slow down the unit’s mission, meaning more time for soldiers to sustain combat and more time for families to be separated from their loved ones.
Despite the negative outcome of the battle, commanders and leaders emphasized that it’s not the end result of the attack that matters. Instead, soldiers should focus on how they reacted to the situation, assess what went wrong and adjust their tactics, techniques and procedures for future missions.
For soldiers deploying for the first time, the exercise was an opportunity to learn lessons for future deployments. If a gunfight breaks out when the 3,200 Black Jack brigade soldiers deploy to Afghanistan this summer, the outcome will be better because of the training they received at the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La. And, there won’t be anywhere near 200 casualties.
Posted in Ft hood post notes on Saturday, May 18, 2013 4:28 pm. Updated: 11:11 pm. | Tags: 1st Cavalry Division , 2nd Brigade Combat Team , Black Jack , Joint Readiness Training Center , Afghanistan , Fort Polk Comments (0)
One lesson I’ve learned from reporting military news is that plans constantly change. Things are no different out here at the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La.
While I originally anticipated flying about three miles away to Forward Operating Base Anvil to watch a battalion close down a camp, my flight got pushed back two hours to midnight, then eventually cancelled because of the potential for rain. Instead, I will fly/ride out there this afternoon.
So, I spent the night at Forward Operating Base Sword. After an early morning Thursday, I was excited about the opportunity of getting eight hours of sleep. But, my first night sleeping on a cot in the barracks wasn’t as successful as I'd hoped. After an hour of playing on my phone, I finally fell sleep.
Beep, beep, beep. “Incoming, incoming,” was broadcast over a loud speaker.
“What does that mean? Am I going to have to put normal clothes on and go outside?”
I hadn’t heard that before, so I didn’t know.
But, the other soldiers just chatted quietly, presumably, about how it was nothing.
"All clear," the loud speaker broadcasted.
"Man, that woke me up for nothing,” I thought, as I tried to fall back asleep. But, the night was full of little interruptions from sleep, from the rustling of other soldiers who basically are at arms-length from one another to knocks on the door requesting to speak with certain soldiers. I’m not sure if the disruptions are an every night occurrence for soldiers, but if so, it shows their ability to adapt to whatever situation they’re in and work long, hard days with minimal sleep.
And, what greeted me this morning as I woke up at 7 a.m.?
Beep. Beep. Beep. “Incoming, incoming … All clear.”
Posted in Ft hood post notes on Friday, May 17, 2013 12:08 pm. Updated: 11:11 pm. | Tags: 2nd Brigade , Fort Polk , Fort Hood , Jrtc , Joint Readiness Training Center , 1st Cavalry Division Comments (0)
I’ve only been at the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, La., for a few hours, but I’ve already learned there are many parts that go into operating any military mission – especially training for combat, which is what about 3,200 soldiers in Fort Hood’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division are doing as they prepare to deploy to Afghanistan this summer.
When I first arrived at the Fort Polk public affairs office this morning to get briefed for my trip to “the box,” I saw men and women dressed in Afghan garb, preparing for their roles, which play a crucial part in ensuring the environment and situations soldiers face at the training center simulate the situations they’ll face in Afghanistan as best as possible.
Hundreds of role players take part in the rotation, portraying anything from media or locals perusing a market to leaders in the Afghan National Security Forces.
I also received a “casualty card,” and other gear, which means I’m officially part of the “game.” When soldiers “die,” they will be out-processed and re-enter in the same amount of time it would take the Army to find a replacement soldier for them.
So far, my day as been a bit slow as I try to set up interviews and decide which battalions I’ll visit throughout my five days here. The force-on-force training kicked off around noon today and although I haven’t been able to see any combat action, I’ve watched the public affairs officers as they churn out press releases of “attacks” on troops and the injuries sustained by those.
Right now, I’m at Forward Operating Base Sword, surrounded by computers, wires, televisions and public affairs officers as I wait to interview Col. Robert Whittle, brigade commander. Around 10 p.m. tonight, I’ll travel via helicopter to Forward Operating Base Anvil, which is about 3 miles away. While there, I will embed with 4th Squadron, 9th Cavalry Regiment as they conduct their command outpost simulation, essentially closing out the base the way they will once deployed.
The difficulty with planning stories for the newspaper is that they’re constantly changing. The soldiers won’t know when they’ll be “attacked” or confronted by an obstacle, so the stories you’ll read in the Killeen Daily Herald depend on the stories I hear from these soldiers as different situations arise during their training. As I spend the next five days traveling throughout about 100,000 acres of training grounds, I look forward to telling these soldiers’ stories and keeping their fellow Fort Hood soldiers, family members and the surrounding community informed.
-- Sarah Rafique
Read more in Friday’s Killeen Daily Herald.
Posted in Ft hood post notes on Thursday, May 16, 2013 1:58 pm. Updated: 11:11 pm. | Tags: Fort Hood , Fort Polk , Afghanistan , Afghan National Security Forces , Joint Readiness Training Center , 1st Cavalry Division , 2nd Brigade Combat Team 1st Cavalry Division United States , Army , Robert Whittle , 2nd Brigade , Jrtc , Black Jack Brigade Comments (0)
Tomorrow Darnall Army Medical Center and 3rd Cavalry Regiment will welcome the unit's embedded behavioral health team. This model attaches providers to units at the brigade-level in hopes to get soldiers to seek help where they feel comfortable and familiar.
Fort Hood was the second installation to adopt this embedded model in 2010 under the 1st Cavalry Division. Fort Carson tested it beginning in 2008.
I was first introduced to embedded behavioral health teams when working on a story about more soldiers seeking behavioral healthcare in August 2012 - demand has more than doubled at Fort Hood in the past five years! This embedded model is just one way Darnall is working to fill the need.
To read up on how the program has worked for 1st Cav before reading about tomorrow's event with 3rd Cav, you can find that story, right here.