Veterans Day: Protecting Our Own
This article originally appeared in the July 2012 issue of Cross & Crescent Magazine.
Scarcely three months ago, on the night of April 15, 2012, Josh Pitcher (Eastern Kentucky 2011) was leading his platoon for the first time in the province of Kandahar, Afghanistan. With one misstep Pitcher’s life would change forever. The 23-year-old second lieutenant would trigger an improvised explosive device, an unconventional bomb that packs an explosive punch and that would sever Pitcher’s lower left leg.
Pitcher’s subsequent recovery has been a display of the difficult processes that injured veterans endure, but the acts of love he encountered from Lambda Chi Alpha brothers have been a testament to how veterans should be treated.
At the time of Pitcher’s accident — but more than 7,000 miles away — Joe Strauss (St. Joseph’s 1993) was working in his clinic in Maryland. Strauss has considerable insight into Pitcher’s recovery process.
In his 14 years with the Navy, Strauss achieved the rank of commander. In 2010, during his last deployment to Kandahar, he served as the chief orthopedic surgeon at the Role 3 Multinational Medical Unit. Strauss has performed upwards of 4,000 surgeries on soldiers, many of which that were the result of IEDs.
Strauss recently left the Navy but still works with many veterans recovering from orthopedic injuries at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
“I see how these soldiers have progressed through the process of multiple surgeries and it’s quite an accomplishment,” Strauss said. “It’s really inspiring for me to be part of the process.”
Currently, more than 95 percent of soldiers wounded during the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have survived. This high percentage of surviving veterans can be attributed to better body armor and technology that protects soldiers from fatal wounds. However, more than half of veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq have sought disability benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs, meaning that they have sustained some sort of injury.
Of those who are currently seeking medical benefits from the VA, 1,600 have lost a limb. Additionally, 19 percent of veterans have needed orthopedic surgery consultation and four percent have needed surgery after returning.
This influx of veterans returning from the war with serious injuries shows they need support more than ever to help aid them in the difficult recovery process.
Perseverance and Determination
After stepping on the IED, Pitcher was sent to Role 3 Multinational Medical Unit where his injury was stabilized, then to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany and, finally, to Walter Reed. Despite Pitcher’s misfortune he has been able to keep up his morale as he continues to progress through the steps of recovery at Walter Reed.
Pitcher is enduring a path similar to that that P.J. Glavey (Denver 2006) has traveled. Glavey served with the 2nd Battalion, Fox Company of the Marines. In November of 2010, Glavey was conducting an operation to clear mines in Helmand province of Afghanistan. He stepped on a buried mine and lost both his legs above the knee. He went through intensive rehabilitation at Walter Reed then transferred to Naval Medical Center San Diego, also known as Balboa Hospital, for his outpatient care.
Perhaps Glavey’s most significant challenge during his recovery has been adjusting to the limitations of living with prosthetic legs. Glavey’s previous hobbies included hiking, running, and surfing. He has adjusted his activities and now enjoys both sailing and monoskiing.
“The reality is that a challenge like this makes you a better, stronger person who is better rooted in the goods and the bads of life. I have a better appreciation for the simple things of life,” Glavey said.
Glavey’s advice to Pitcher is to keep a positive attitude through it all.
“You focus on a singular goal, which for me was learning how to walk again on prosthetics. There are undoubtedly limitations for walking on prosthetics but mobility on them is a very achievable goal if you are hard-working and determined,” he said.
These strong qualities that Pitcher and Glavey have both exhibited during their rehabilitation are not uncommon among soldiers who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan.
“To just see these individuals with the enthusiasm and inspiration to stay motivated, to want to get better, to want to get back in the fight, and basically to get to a point where they are recapturing their lives, it’s really unbelievable to see that,” Strauss said.
With Open Arms
Former U.S. Sen. Max Cleland (Georgia 1964) is an expert on the treatment of veterans in our country and sees the tremendous challenges they endure after an accident such as Pitcher’s. Cleland served in the Vietnam War where he sustained an injury from a grenade that forced doctors to amputate both of his legs as well as his left forearm.
Upon returning from the war, Cleland had a lengthy career in politics as a Georgia state senator, as the secretary of state of Georgia, and as a United States senator. He was also the administrator of the United States Veterans Affairs (now known as the VA) from 1977-1981. He is currently the secretary of the American Battle Monuments Commission.
Cleland is a strong proponent of the G.I. Bill. By supporting this initiative, Cleland said, Americans can continue to support the future of returning veterans.
“That’s the best social program known to the mind of man because it conveys the opportunity that they missed while they were in service; that society says go ahead and make the most of your life,” he said.
According to the VA, more than 720,000 veterans have used the G.I. Bill to take college courses over the last three years. The G.I. Bill also includes the Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment VetSuccess Program (VR&E) that provides job-training, post-secondary training, independent living services, medical referrals, and counseling.
Glavey has taken advantage of this program and is currently earning his master’s degree in accounting at Stetson University through the VR&E Program.
Cleland also urges Americans to welcome veterans home with open arms and to help them get back to their regular schedules.
“The best thing we can do for our veterans when they come back, when they are wounded, is to love them,” he said. “I know they have had to live the life of their nightmares but now they can live the life of their dreams.”
A Lifetime of True Brotherhood
Pitcher is still healing from his wounds. At Walter Reed he is in the presence of his family and his fiancée, Michelle, whom he met at Eastern Kentucky. His recovery hit a speed bump a few weeks ago after doctors found an infection in his left leg and had to perform surgery to remove it. He is looking forward to being fitted for a prosthetic leg this week.
In following Cleland’s sentiment of caring for injured veterans, Pitcher’s brothers from the Phi-Beta chapter at Eastern Kentucky, many of whom had never met Pitcher, came forward and showed him support.
Twenty-eight chapter brothers donated money for a basket that included miscellaneous items that would benefit Pitcher during his recovery. These included headphones, a Netflix subscription, a GoPro camera, a backpack, a Visa card, and an iPad with a Lambda Chi Alpha case.
Michael Robinette (Eastern Kentucky 2001), who was the closest alum to live in proximity to Walter Reed, delivered the package to Pitcher last month. He describes the experience as surreal. After seeing Pitcher, Robinette gave him a handshake and a hug and thanked him for his service. Despite being under heavy medication and in pain, Pitcher wanted to know about Robinette’s family and how he was doing.
“That just shows his character,” Robinette said.
Scott Jackson, chapter advisor of the Eastern Kentucky chapter, helped rally support for Pitcher’s care package.
“It was something that we felt like we just needed to do. Here is a guy that went over to Afghanistan and did this for all of us, so we just wanted to show him our support,” Jackson said.
Pitcher is very grateful for the items he received from his Eastern Kentucky brothers.
“The support was amazing. They put a lot of money and effort into that and I could not thank them enough for what they did. It was just fantastic,” Pitcher said.
The actions of the Eastern Kentucky alumni who supported Pitcher show that the Lambda Chi Alpha experience is a lifetime of true brotherhood. When a brother is in need of support, the bond of brotherhood is often the strongest.
“[Pitcher] graduated 10 years after me, but it doesn’t matter,” Robinette said. “When one of our brothers needs our help it should always be this way. It really hits home when it’s a soldier defending our freedom and putting his life on the line.”
Lessons of Love
As Americans continue to see veterans returning home with serious injuries sustained from combat, it is important to be conscious of the struggles they endure during their recovery. Whether it’s coming together as a collective group, as did the men from the Phi-Beta chapter, or by smaller acts of kindness, veterans continue to show appreciation for the love that is passed along to them.
For Glavey, he believes the best practice people can display is patience as he adjusts to a new life.
“I believe people need to have patient understanding that there is a transition phase of going through a learning process and to provide the support as we go through it,” he said.
Pitcher said that Americans can support veterans by donating to the Wounded Warriors Project, an organization that has aided Pitcher through his recovery thus far. Pitcher also wants people to not forget the selfless service and sacrifice that many people go through.
“Just live your life to the fullest and be thankful for your freedom,” he said.