Yesterday’s veterans on today’s wars

Photo Credit: Natalie Schreyer

Veterans Frank Lawrence, David Pauling, Keith M. Van Doren, Leroy G. Cougle, Linda Hardy and George L. Wellman gather in the living room of the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Washington. 

By Natalie Schreyer

On 9/11, Linda Hardy, 67, sat down in her office and prayed. She had just watched colleagues in her department at the Bureau of Naval Personnel in Millington, Tennessee, become “hysterical” with fear as New York’s Twin Towers crumbled to the ground.

They were stunned. The enemy that struck the World Trade Center was a faceless nemesis. For the first time since Pearl Harbor, the U.S. had been attacked on its own soil.

But they knew what they had to do.

“We were gonna have to put the rubber to the road,” she said. “We were gonna have to do what we had been trained to do all our lives.”

Not all veterans from Hardy’s era share the same certainty about today’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

They may have served at a similar time in U.S. history, but their viewpoints differ on U.S. strategies, successes and failures.

Necessary war or losing situation?

Hardy, a retired active duty reservist in the U.S. Navy since she was a 20-year-old college graduate,  said the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are “in some ways necessary.”

However, Marine Corps veteran David Pauling, 87, cited the religious differences between Sunni and Shiite Muslims as “a war you can’t win.”

Pauling, who moved to Washington to help elect Bernie Sanders to the presidency, said as long as there are dueling religious factions, “that’s a losing situation.”

After Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005, Pauling volunteered with AmeriCorps and was sent to Alabama to help rebuild. He saw levels of poverty he could not imagine; people were living in “pure filth,” he said.

In the face of the devastation, his job as a contractor was to recover what he could save and rebuild the rest. Pauling said that while the so-called Greatest Generation rebuilt what its wars had destroyed, today, money is used for abuse instead of recovery.

 Frank Lawrence, an 86-year-old Air Force veteran, said the U.S. military strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan lacks direction.

“If they had a program, it’d be fine, but they don’t have a program,” he said.

When asked what his strategy would be if he were the commander in chief, Lawrence was definitive. The first thing he would do, he said, is “look for another job.”

Lawrence said he doesn’t have enough education to make the decisions required of a commander in chief.

His 1949 deployment to England was a form of education, he said. At the time, the country was devastated from World War II bombing and strict food rationing was in place. Lawrence said he never lived with such shortages in the United States, even during the war. For a young man of 18, it was “one hell of an education, let me tell ya,” he said.

A different education

George Wellman, 71, of the U.S. Army, also referred to his military service as an education.

While he expressed regret that his first through 12th grade education was “lacking,” he said he has made up for it in his later years. As a boy in Alexander County, North Carolina, he attended the same local school for all 12 years, although the schools in neighboring Iredell County were better, he said. But at such a young age, he had no control over the choice.

“I think I got left behind,” he said.

Wellman was drafted in 1966. He went through basic training three times before becoming a military intelligence analyst. A soft-spoken yet unwavering man, he said he prefers to work quietly in the background.

He expressed hesitation when asked for his opinion on the two wars that have dogged the U.S. for more than a decade.

“An old soldier once told me, you make a decision by having a complete picture of the situation. I don’t have that,” Wellman said.

Navy veteran Leroy Cougle, who served for 20 years, said U.S. involvement in today’s wars should be all or nothing.

“My philosophy is if you’re going to get involved, get involved. If you’re not then get the hell out,”

-Navy veteran Leroy Cougle

“My philosophy is if you’re going to get involved, get involved. If you’re not then get the hell out,” he said.

Cougle, who referred to himself as a “snot-nosed 17-year-old kid” at the time he joined the Navy, said his service was the best thing that ever happened to him. It helped him mature, he said.

In the early days of his service, he mouthed off to a superior and got knocked to the ground. After that, he said he learned never to talk back.

If he were called to serve today, Cougle would willingly return.

However, he knows he would go back to a Navy that has changed forever. The tasks of his generation have now been automated. Commands are given at the push of a button.

“I don’t even understand the military now,” Cougle said.

Band of sisters: Vietnam soldiers recall sacrifice and sexism

Photo Credit: Steff Thomas

Advocates for women veterans say men still receive most of the gratitude and assistance for military service, despite women’s roles since the Revolutionary War. Groups, such as Women Veterans Rock, aim to change that.

By Steff Thomas

From nurses to combat, the position of women in America has run parallel to their roles in the military, yet their contribution often goes under-recognized as the perception of service women continues to evolve.

The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs’ records show women make up only 10 percent of recorded veterans, which makes them easy to overlook during celebrations and in difficult times, said Rev. Helen Fleming.

Women soldiers and veterans have faced rape and other injustices, which Fleming became aware of while researching a speech on Veterans Day that she was giving at Trinity University in 2010. In response, she created the Women Veterans Resource Center at her church in Washington, the Douglas Memorial United Methodist Church.

Army sargeants Shaylnn Jennings and Lisa Coulter say they came to the rally to support and give thanks to the women who served before them.

Army sergeants Shaylnn Jennings and Lisa Coulter say they came to the rally to support and give thanks to the women who served before them. Photo Credit: Steff Thomas

“Sometimes the women feel they don’t have anybody in their corner and my job is to say that we are here,” Fleming said. “Sometimes that just means giving them a shoulder to cry on and my door is open.”

Her center became the Washington satellite site for the Pennsylvania-based Women Veterans Rock initiative, which is focused on removing barriers women face as they transition from military service back into civilian life.

President Barack Obama’s 2010 ‘Ending Homeless Veterans’ campaign inspired the Women Veterans Rock initiative, according to Director Deborah Harmon-Pugh. The White House partnered with the VA and made a goal to end veteran homelessness by 2015, but the effort remains ongoing.

“Studies have shown that when women leave the military, they often leave with a high degree of depression, hypertension and PTSD,” said Harmon-Pugh, president of the Healthy Caregiver Foundation.

Aiding the wounded, banding together

Donna Barbisch, a veteran who is involved with the Women Veterans Rock campaign, said people in the military are “doers.” She enlisted in the service in 1967 at only 20-years-old against her family’s wishes, because she knew the Army needed her, she said.

Barbisch was a nursing student in Pittsburgh when the U.S. Army began to recruit.

“I was already wondering where I was going to go from there, so I thought if soldiers were dying on the battlefield, they obviously needed medical care,” Barbisch said. “So that is why I went to Vietnam.”

She worked in an emergency hospital in Vietnam for a year, treating U.S. military, Vietnamese civilians and even POWs who didn’t speak English. Barbisch said the Vietnamese patients often believed the nurses were trying to hurt them.

In one situation, a man thought the nurses were torturing him because they would not allow him to have food or drinks after surgery. When no one was looking, she said he “chewed through his IV so that he could drink the fluid.”

When the area had incoming mortar fire, nurses had to remove the people from their metal cots and put them under the beds.

“I remember putting a patient on the floor and then remembering that the chest tube bottle that helped to maintain his pressure had to be lower than the patient, so I had to clamp the tube,” Barbisch said.

Nurses in her unit worked 12-hour days, mostly six or seven days per week, and despite “total exhaustion,” they got up the next day to do it again.

She said she appreciated the other nurses around her and became very close to them during her service. Of the over 7,000 women in Vietnam, most were nurses or administrative personnel, said Barbisch.

“It was like a little family and you couldn’t get through anything without being dependent on others to hold you up when you thought you were on your last leg,” Barbisch said.

Military advances, memories of bigotry linger

The military is a lot more “politically correct” today than it was back then, according to Barbisch.

“Despite the need for women in the military, the men still displayed a certain amount of bigotry,” she said.

The men would purposely walk across the street to avoid saluting a woman, according to Barbisch. The men did not care that the women were also in uniform, Barbisch said.

“I remember we would be marching to songs like ‘Thank Heaven for Little Girls,’ and the guys would be cat-calling from the balcony,” Barbisch said. “It could be annoying, but it wasn’t perceived as offensive back then.”

Today, military women struggle with some of the same challenges that existed in the Vietnam War, such as leaving a family behind.

Tiffany Johnson-Pittman was a single parent during her two deployments in Iraq. Unlike in the past, the military now has a family care plan that tracks who is taking care of their children while they are away, she said.

“But just because I was a world away, doesn’t mean I stopped being a mother,” said Johnson-Pittman, a staff sergeant in the U.S. Air Force.

Johnson-Pittman called home and once had the chance to read her daughter a story on camera. The tape was sent to her daughter, and Johnson-Pittman said “it was really special,” as reading to her daughter before bed had been one of their rituals before she was deployed.

There are still gaps in services for both women and men veterans. With a coalition of advocacy organizations working together, Women Veterans Rock makes an effort to help these women veterans, and also military women on active duty and their families.

“Women veterans are an elusive group and unlike male veterans, they do not wear their service like a badge of honor,” Harmon-Pugh said. She said it is more difficult for these women to find aid because they are not easily distinguishable and do not often know where to ask for help.

Military chaplains ‘serve two masters’

Serving at home and abroad, the faithful wrestle with religion, diversity and two worlds.

By D. Ashley Campbell

A prisoner in the hospital at Fort Leavenworth disciplinary barracks in Kansas, refused to talk to anyone, but he would sketch. Then-Army chaplain, Col. John Hoffmann, asked the prisoner to draw how he was feeling. What the prisoner drew still brings Hoffmann to tears.

Photo credit: D. Ashley Campbell John W. Hoffmann poses with a signed photograph from President George W. Bush in which Hoffmann is the flag bearer. Hoffmann served for 36 years in the military. Many of his friends from Vietnam got cancer from agent orange and passed away. He considers himself lucky even though he is disabled from his service, because he got Parkinson’s disease rather than cancer.

Photo credit: D. Ashley Campbell
John W. Hoffmann poses with a signed photograph from President George W. Bush in which Hoffmann is the flag bearer. Hoffmann served for 36 years in the military. Many of his friends from Vietnam got cancer from agent orange and passed away. He considers himself lucky even though he is disabled from his service, because he got Parkinson’s disease rather than cancer.

The prisoner drew himself as a naked, bald man chained at his hands and feet, sitting in a corner. One could understand the sense of confinement, humiliation and loss of self-worth depicted in the image, recalled Hoffmann, now 71.

“He was willing to talk to someone, because I took the time to understand,” Hoffmann said.

The life of a military chaplain is not without its tensions and challenges of faith, as chaplains counsel soldiers at home and abroad. This has not changed over the years.

As of 2015, more than 9,000 chaplains are registered as serving in the U.S. Army. Chaplains represent a growing variety of traditions, including Protestantism, Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism among others, according to Marcia McManus, director of the U.S. Army Chaplain Corps Museum.

Even ‘help the atheist’

Army chaplains serve with a battalion that ranges anywhere from 300 to 1,000 soldiers, according to Capt. Jason Unsworth, 40, of the U.S. Army. Not all of these soldiers share the same religion, creating a space for a potential misunderstanding among the troops.

It’s the chaplain’s job to negotiate, facilitate and be “an agent of trust” in that diverse setting so each soldier can freely perform their religion, said Unsworth and former U.S. Navy chaplain Capt. Lyman Smith.

When Unsworth cannot be a source of religious or spiritual guidance for a person, he must provide access to other resources, he explained. He even mentioned that it’s his job to “help the atheist be a good atheist.”

Smith, 63, who is the executive director for the Military Chaplains Association, shared an example of how he negotiated space for neo-pagans on board his ship to practice while also maintaining peace where religious ignorance could arise. He had to negotiate between the neo-pagans, who use fire in their rituals, and the ship’s fire marshall because open flame is forbidden on board.

“It was up to me to make sure they were undisturbed,” Smith said, explaining that on a ship where nothing is secret. “There are some people who don’t appreciate that kind of diversity.”

Sometimes this misunderstanding comes from a lack of exposure and understanding, when some members of the military come from rural areas where they’ve never met a Hindu or Baha’i, Smith said.

“It’s not that they have hatred in their heart,” Smith said. “They just need to understand what it means to serve in a diverse environment.”

Easing suffering

Unsworth said he experienced crises of faith during his deployment to Iraq in 2007. It was hard to be in a war zone and not question the existence of God, but he focused on those he served – his fellow soldiers, he said.

“I had soldiers who were grappling with the ethical dilemmas that combat provides,” Unsworth said.

Credit: Unknown; soldier stationed with Unsworth in Iraq in 2007 Capt. Jason Unsworth during his 2007 deployment to Iraq. He is currently pursuing an M.A. in Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania and will return to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas to teach after he graduates.

Credit: Unknown; soldier stationed with Unsworth in Iraq in 2007
Capt. Jason Unsworth during his 2007 deployment to Iraq. He is currently pursuing an M.A. in Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania and will return to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas to teach after he graduates.

The suffering of soldiers compelled Unsworth to enlist as a chaplain. Unsworth attended divinity school after 9/11 and felt a calling to serve those going abroad to fight, he said.

“It was more a sense of these young men and young women are going and suffering,” Unsworth said. “They need chaplains that are compassionate and can remind them of their common humanity.”

 One night an aircraft malfunctioned during landing, endangering the pilot and crew of the aircraft carrier on which Smith was stationed in the Persian Gulf.

He completed his nightly visits to different portions of the ship when he felt compelled to return to “air ops,” the equivalent of a tower at an airport managing take-offs, landings and flight paths. When he returned he learned the crew were in an emergency situation. Smith said he provided support and encouragement “by simply being there” and praying for them.

“It meant a lot to be a part of the team and to contribute in an intangible way,” Smith said.

Bearing two symbols

Unsworth said there is a tension in balancing two types of service – the military and the Church – especially when the primary motivation is to fulfill a religious calling of ministry.

“Military chaplains kind of serve two masters,” Unsworth said. “On my uniform I wear two symbols. I wear the symbol of my rank and I wear the cross.”

Being a part of the institution from the standpoint of a faith tradition allows for a different voice. Chaplains are officers within the military institution, but they also represent their religion since they must be endorsed by a religious organization.  

“We’re insiders to the institution that offer an outsider perspective,” Unsworth said.

Hoffmann’s outsider voice allowed him to advocate for those not meant to be in combat during Desert Storm. He assisted getting a seven-month pregnant woman back to the U.S. even though her commander demanded she stay with her unit.

It also allowed him to develop relationships with Kurdish families in Iraq while he worked as a liaison between NGOs and the U.S. military after Desert Storm.

“I identified very readily with them,” Hoffmann said, speaking of one Kurdish family in particular that owned a slushy stand and invited him for meals at their home.

“I think I received more than I gave,” he said. “I think they did more to bolster my faith than I did to bolster their faith.”