Local veteran leads the push for smoother homecomings
CARBONDALE, Glenwood Springs, Colorado CO – Adam McCabe was a young man on a mission following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C.
“I was 17, and my mom woke me up and said, ‘We’re under attack,'” McCabe recalled. “I was in the recruiting station the next day.”
McCabe had to wait until he turned 18 before heading off to Marine Corps boot camp. But he knew it was his calling, having grown up in central Illinois idolizing his World War II veteran grandfather, John McCabe.
“We were just all very green, but we knew it was what we wanted to do,” Adam McCabe said of himself and the other young, post-9/11 recruits who very much believed in their destiny.
Tears well up in McCabe’s eyes as he remembers saying goodbye to his family when the call came in early 2003 for him to leave for his first tour in Iraq.
“All of a sudden you have to think about what you want to say, in case it’s the last time you’ll see them,” McCabe said. “But that’s what we do, it’s our job, and it’s what we’re prepared to do.
“We were all ready to go give our lives to protect what we have here,” he said.
Fast-forward a few very long, trauma-filled years later.
After two tours in Iraq, including at least two escapes from the clutches of death and countless war horrors, McCabe was given a stateside assignment to help train a new crop of soldiers in the ways of urban warfare.
He turned down the option of returning to combat duty himself.
“I’d had enough, and I was convinced I wouldn’t make it through a third tour,” McCabe said.
What they didn’t tell him, let alone prepare him for, was that returning to civilian life wouldn’t be any easier.
The result for McCabe was a failed attempt at college, abusive relationships with women, severe alcoholism, aggressive behavior, a reckless lifestyle, multiple run-ins with the law, an eventual Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) diagnosis, therapy and rehabilitation.
Eventually, he found a new life in Carbondale after going through the residential substance abuse treatment program at the Jaywalker Lodge.
“I’m one of the lucky ones, because I got a chance to start over,” McCabe said.
Today, McCabe, now 29, is a man on a different mission.
A few years ago, he met John Henry Parker, a California man who had just lost his veteran son, Danny Facto, due to injuries he sustained in an excessive speed-related motorcycle accident.
Facto, like McCabe, had struggled to adapt to life back home after serving as a combat soldier.
McCabe rattles off some of the statistics from the top of his head:
• 75 percent of returning veterans suffer from substance abuse.
• 88 percent of veterans who enroll in college upon their return end up dropping out.
• One in four homeless people are veterans.
• Every 65 minutes, another veteran commits suicide.
The list goes on.
So, he and Parker started talking about what they could do to reverse those trends, and worked to come up with a solution that they believe will support veterans by giving them the tools they will need to adapt to civilian life, before they leave the military.
They formed Purple Star Veterans and Families, an organization dedicated to convincing U.S. government and military leaders to implement a policy for providing intensive “decompression” training and other support for those returning from war zones.
Their goal is to raise awareness of the issue and, ultimately, to collect enough signatures through an online petition at http://www.purplestarfamilies.org to get the attention of President Barack Obama and Congress.
An effort that began last September has resulted in 8,000 signatures so far, and counting.
Parker and McCabe have been making presentations to as many organizations and service clubs as possible to spread the word. Recently, McCabe and fellow Carbondale Rotarian Jeff Wadley, a Vietnam veteran himself, have been spreading the message to Rotary clubs across the country in an effort to raise awareness and collect signatures.
“If we can get 100,000 signatures within a 30-day span, it warrants a response from the White House,” McCabe said. “What we’d really like is to get 1 million people saying, ‘Let’s set our sons and daughters up for success when they come home.'”
Wadley, who has helped organize the Carbondale Rotary Club’s efforts to reach out to local servicemen and veterans, said it’s about “honoring the warrior.”
“That’s key, and it’s something that needs to be universal in this country at every level,” Wadley said. “Our soldiers are not receiving the honor that they deserve.”
Nothing could have prepared McCabe for the realities of war, any more than soldiers are adequately prepared to come home after war.
“I joined the Marines for the right reasons, to protect the freedoms we enjoy,” he said. “All of those intentions are pure and true, and we all felt that way.”
That idealism goes away quickly on the battlefield, McCabe said.
During his first tour when the Iraq War began, he was part of the initial Baghdad invasion.
“We were stationed in Kuwait, 17 miles south of the Iraqi border,” McCabe shared. “Every day we would drive to the border and back, never knowing if that would be the day. One day, we didn’t turn around.”
As sketchy as that first battle was, it wasn’t until later, after Baghdad had been taken and the Iraqi government removed from power that, in McCabe’s words, “things got really intense for all of us.”
He recalled being ambushed by the same group of Iraqi insurgents over and over during their daily patrols, after those same soldiers had been captured, interrogated and then released.
“When you have a bunch of 18- to 22-year-olds with guns, what happens is you start to get really aggressive and take things into your own hands,” McCabe said. “Things get really ugly, and all that idealism gets pushed aside for ‘kill, or be killed.'”
McCabe said his second tour, after a six-month return to the U.S., was far worse.
“By then, the enemy we were fighting had honed their skills,” he said. “It was their country, and they got to decide when to fight.”
Two days in, they got the call that a U.S. helicopter had been shot down over An Najaf and that extra troops were needed.
“We get there and, boom, it’s real. We got ambushed hard,” said McCabe, who was leading a group of soldiers into the city.
They had made their way to the top of a building, but it wasn’t the tallest building, so they were vulnerable. They came under mortar attack.
“We were hearing incoming, and I remember saying, ‘Oh sh**!’ I just thought to myself, ‘Stupid, you don’t want that to be your last words.'”
A mortar landed not six feet away, almost certain death, but didn’t detonate.
“When it’s your time, it’s your time, and when it’s not, it’s not,” McCabe said.
During that same battle, it was time for one of McCabe’s good buddies, and he saw it all in graphic detail. In battle, though, there’s no time for grieving.
“Those are all the things you just keep stuffing in a bag, every day, multiple times,” he said. “And then they expect you to come home and be well, and be ready to get on with life. That’s not how the human body works.”
A second near-death experience for McCabe came on Christmas Day 2004, when he and his fellow soldiers were driving back to Karbala after a rare day off.
They were attacked by a suicide bomber in another vehicle who rammed them, blowing their Humvee to bits.
“I just remember being engulfed in red,” McCabe said of the bloodshed. “I vaguely remember coming to in a field, and not having my gun. I just started choking Iraqis.”
Again, he’d escaped death, the “Christmas miracle” he now calls it.
That attack on the road to Karbala was McCabe’s ticket home.
His new orders to teach urban warfare, or, “how to kick in doors and shoot bad guys,” as McCabe refers to it, was a rewarding way to complete his military service, he said.
“At the same time, I knew I was just setting them up to experience the same things I had experienced,” he said.
It also didn’t allow him to settle down any.
“I went from that to college,” McCabe said of his decision to enroll at Illinois State University back home. “I had a real chip on my shoulder. I was with all these kids who had been going to keggers for four years while I was off fighting a war. I couldn’t relate.”
Little has changed in the 40 years since soldiers were returning from Vietnam with the same lack of support, adds Wadley.
That’s what Purple Star Veterans and Families strives to change.
“We have the tools to help veterans, but we don’t give it to them until they ask,” Wadley said. But most of them don’t. In fact, adds McCabe, “We’re trained not to ask for help.”
McCabe had a Vietnam veteran uncle who lived with his pain for four decades before committing suicide. Through what he called “peer-to-peer” support, even older veterans could find the help they need through the proposed Purple Star programs, he said.
The name “Purple Star” is derived from special honors given to military families in other ways, such as the “Blue Star Mothers of America,” a Congressional honor given to mothers and families whenever a military person is deployed to war. There is also “American Gold Star Mothers,” bestowed whenever a son or daughter is killed while in military service.
“However, when a homecoming veteran dies from suicide, a motorcycle or auto accident, drugs or alcohol, the families who experience great loss are not recognized or honored by our country in a similar fashion,” reads a statement on the Purple Star Families website.
In addition to its national petition effort, the organization also has a “Flags to Families” program, an online bereavement network, and a free Homecoming Preparedness Guide.
Those who sign the petition can also offer comments that are published on the website. Writes A. Bowman from Socorro, N.M., “Our veterans were willing to give all for this country. It is beyond wrong to let them suffer.”
The statistics are one thing, McCabe said. Doing something about it is the challenge, he said.
“Truth without solutions is just another level of abuse,” he said. “We’re offering the solution.”
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