By Mike Lauterborn
(front page Bridgeport News 7/7)
Bridgeport, CT – The gatherings were opportunities to bond, network and connect about combat experiences that only they could truly comprehend. For the rest of us, it was a chance to say thanks to Connecticut servicemen and women who put their lives on the line in foreign theaters of war.
Conceived and organized by the Connecticut Elks of Westbrook, CT, the Wounded Warrior Project honored and supported wounded veterans from all services, the National Guard and Reserves, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, with a week of statewide events June 20-25. Activities were held in New London, Stratford, Milford, Bridgeport, Groton, Branford, Middletown, Essex and Westbrook and included monument visits, tours of Sikorsky Aircraft and the U.S. Sub Base, a salt water fishing derby, sports matches, numerous luncheons and dinners, and presentations with state and local officials.
In Bridgeport, a handful of veterans visited the WWII Memorial at the corner of State and Broad Streets, a stop that was attended by Mayor Bill Finch, then they joined family members in a pair of skyboxes at The Ballpark at Harbor Yard for a Bluefish baseball game and dinner.
This reporter joined the group for their Bridgeport visits and spoke with veterans, organizers and officials to gain their insights.
We can do more
John Soehnlein, the Veterans Committee Chairman of the Westbrook Elks, explained how the remembrance week, which delivers on the organization’s mission to support those who have sacrificed for our country, first came about.
“Last November, we hosted a special wounded veterans Bingo event with all three veterans facilities in Connecticut,” he said. “It was attended by Senator Blumenthal and the Coast Guard, and was a real emotional outpouring. It inspired the thought to do more for the troops and send the message that Connecticut supports them. In planning this week, we had amazing response from all participating venues.”
Al Baranyai, past president of the Connecticut Elks Association, said that, in addition to the generosity of the facilities, the week had been made possible by donations and the support of 33 Elks lodges throughout the state. With regard to event participants, Baranyai said, “We offered these at no charge to any wounded warrior, with a capacity to host 30 veterans any given day. This is our way of showing our appreciation and an idea that’s starting to catch on throughout the nation.”
A great day
Standing with fellow veterans at Bridgeport’s WWII Memorial late afternoon Tuesday, June 21, U.S. Army Staff Sergeant (RET) Jose Rivera, 26, beamed. “This has been great and we’ve been talking all day,” he said. “We’re all wounded vets, with similar experiences, so can relate to each other. It’s a good thing that the Elks did… all the little pieces that they put together including police escorts, meals, etc. It felt great to know that we’re not forgotten and people do think about us.”
Rivera received three Purple Hearts for wounds incurred while on three different tours of duty in Iraq. “In my ’04-’05 tour, I was hit by shrapnel from an I.E.D. in Sadr City,” he said, referring to an improvised explosive device, also known as a roadside bomb. “On my second tour, in ’06-’07, I was hit again by I.E.D. shrapnel. On my final tour, in early ’07, I was inside a tank being shuttled to a drop-off point when a 200 lb. bomb went off nearby and knocked me unconscious. I woke up with a traumatic brain injury.”
Despite his wounds, Rivera is successfully pursuing courses in Criminal Justice and Arabic at Sacred Heart University, and playing rugby there, too. “The rugby helps with my rehabilitation,” he said. “The team’s very tight, like a military unit. The same camaraderie.”
Leading the ceremony there, which began with a prayer and national anthem, was Baranyai, who thanked the Bluefish, Holiday Inn and City of Bridgeport for their support. He then turned the mic over to Jarvis Johnson, a retired Navy veteran and representative from Congressman Jim Himes’ office, who vowed to go out of his way to help any veteran from any district in any way he could.
Crossing Broad Street to the Memorial from his office at City Hall Annex, featured speaker Mayor Finch read a proclamation declaring June 21 “Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan Recognition Day” and, addressing the veterans, said, “We are honored to welcome you home.”
On an aside, the Mayor, referring to the monument, said, “This is why we built this. We want to have all our remembrances and thanksgiving ceremonies here. This has paid us back so many ways. It’s notable that it’s dedicated to Colonel Henry Mucci and his service in WWII, which is a heroic story. The City of Bridgeport was the arsenal of democracy. Over 560 Bridgeport men died during WWII. We were certainly one of the more significant cities sacrificing. As a whole, its manufacturing units, like General Electric, Remington Arms and Sikorsky, have also been huge contributors in war time.”
I had a mission to complete
Relaxing for a moment after the Memorial ceremony with his newfound comrades at nearby Tiago’s Restaurant, U.S. Army Staff Sergeant (RET) Timothy Kingston, 30, served two tours in Iraq, ’05-’06 and ’07-’08, and was repeatedly wounded.
“I was blown up multiple times by I.E.D.’s,” he said. “Any time you go beyond the wire, that’s the risk. I would go out with mechanized infantry – Bradleys and Humvees – and look for anything buried in the sand, behind telephone poles, inside the carcasses of dead animals, on kids and women. On this type of mission, you’re just waiting to get blown up.”
And every time a device went off, Kingston said, “I would get checked out at an aid station by the medics, and go straight back out again. I had a mission to complete. I wasn’t going to let the guys go out without me.”
The fiercely dedicated, gregarious serviceman mused, “Everyone called me Hollywood, as I was a television major and worked on reality TV programming like ‘American Idol’. I walked away from that for combat documentation. Now my photos are displayed at the Pentagon in the Joint Chiefs of Staff hallway.”
U.S. Army Specialist (RET) Robert Shaw, 32, served his first tour in Iraq, Feb. ’04 to Feb. ’05, and second in Afghanistan, April ’06 to Feb. ’07. The slim family man said his first tour involved convoy operations and medic support for military police and inmates at a prison in Balad, Iraq. He was in an area soldiers called Mortaritaville, given the fact that it was hit by over 1,200 mortar shells over a 200-day period.
“I was wounded multiple times,” Shaw said. “I was first hit by an airburst mortar. It felt like someone took a handful of rocks and threw them at me. I got mostly cuts and scrapes. As I went out, as a medic to treat casualties, another mortar round went off and I got hit by concussion waves. Three months later, the base got hit by a missile and I got knocked into a lead door, injuring my right shoulder. A final time on my first tour, I was walking and a Humvee got hit close to me and again I was hit by concussion waves.”
When the toughened serviceman reported for his second tour, he received his most serious wound. “I was in a provisional reconstruction team as an infantryman/medic, in June ’06, and we were attacked by mortars around 1 a.m. I got up to get my weapon and was later found unresponsive next to a Humvee. Apparently, a mortar round hit nearby and knocked me into the vehicle, splitting open my chin. My guys carried me into the aid station for treatment. Still, I was returned to duty that night.”
Frighteningly, Shaw doesn’t recall the events of the next six months, other than a leave for his son’s birth. “I was functioning day to day but don’t have recollection of it,” he said. “I was later diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury. I still get migraines, problems with vision, hearing and balance, and personality changes. Despite all that, I would do it again in service of my country. We did what we had to do.”
The challenge of reassimilation into civilian life
“One of the toughest things for us combat veterans is assimilation back into civilian life,” said U.S. Army Specialist (RET) Robert Shaw, from a skybox seat at The Ballpark of Harbor Yard, where he was enjoying an Elks Club-hosted baseball game as part of a statewide Wounded Warriors Remembrance Week.
“It’s a tough transition from a very intense lifestyle and environment, and suicide rates are high,” he said. “Often, suicide prevention hotlines have negative consequences. When vets in crisis call, police are often dispatched, which can escalate a situation.”
Shaw has been discussing and planning a program whereby combat vets would counsel other combat vets in need. “We relate to each other much better and understand each other’s challenges,” Shaw said.
“Events like this Elks-hosted week are helpful, as they provide networking and socializing opportunities to help us veterans reenter a civilian environment.”