Lt. Dan and the Memorial Day 21st Birthday


We are about a month away from Memorial Day, that patriotic holiday that ushers in the beginning of the big summer movies, the big summer cookouts, and the vacations.

Then there are people for whom Memorial Day is a kind of religious holiday, meaning that it is sacred. It is the holiday when we remember our dead from the wars, and move with new resolve to preserve the quality of life of our wounded, both in body and spirit.

I bring these topics up today because I am visiting with my son, a Marine veteran of the post-9/11 wars who lost his friends at the age that many or most young Americans are thinking about playing on sports teams with their friends, or just hanging out. We have a kind of unstated pact that we will gather before, or on, Memorial Day, because he has his dead to remember, and we have our friends, the wounded in body and spirit to think about. It is an observation of the sacred.

Several events of the past week in the Antelope Valley have been remarkable, bordering on the edge of historic.

At Lancaster High School, a film and TV star showed up. No, that is the wrong identification marker. Journalists are always addicted to shorthand identification marker.

It was Gary Sinise, who earned an Academy Award nomination for his role as Lt. Dan Taylor, the Vietnam veteran double-amputee who was the PTSD-recovering scold of Tom Hanks character in "Forrest Gump," which earned Best Picture 20 years ago.

Sinise's alternate personae is "Lt. Dan," and he has used that alter-ego to pick up where Bob Hope left off, entertaining troops overseas with the rocking-and-rolling Lt. Dan Band.

Why was he at Lancaster High School? First, he was there because as head of the non-profit Gary Sinise Foundation, he drove from his home in the Hollywood mental dateline to bequeath a $60,000 check to the young high school history students of "Operation All The Way Home." The check was donated to help these teenagers in their mission to build a "smart home," a handicapped-access home for one of the Antelope Valley's most severely wounded veterans of the Iraq-Afghan wars, former Army Spc. Jerral Hancock.

Hancock's story, by now, may be well known to some, but like the story of most young Americans (and some not so young) who were wounded in these wars, it is a story, that for the most part has existed in the shadows.

The story of Hancock, who is a 27-year-old single father who was "blown up" in an M-1A Abrams tank on his 21st birthday, is what motivated the history students in Mrs. Jamie Goodreau's class to embark on a one-year mission to help Hancock's little family move out of a barely adequate mobile home, and into a house that will give Hancock better quality of life. He needs it. The explosion in Baghdad seven years ago took his left arm above the shoulder, and took his ability to walk, or stand up, or feed himself, or to take a drink of anything, unaided. Post Traumatic Stress goes without saying.

It was Mrs. Goodreau's students who took Hancock's story from the shadows, and made it their own, the stuff of history.

And the guy now known to millions of Americans as either the forensics chief on "CSI: New York" - or, as Lt. Dan - heard about the students.

He arrived as a good angel, to help with their mission, because they worked, they focused, they sold bric-a-brac and raised funds at pizza dinners, gathering a little army in service of this mission of theirs. Some of them prayed. But they needed to put it all into action, and their actions gathered $182,000 by the time Mr. Sinise - Lt. Dan - arrived in the Lancaster High auditorium on Wednesday.

Sinise told them why he was there. He was there for Jerral Hancock, and to honor all the work that the OATH kids had done, and to help them finish the job. His foundation has helped put a couple of dozen polytrauma wounded into smart homes.

"If we can do for them what you have done here in Lancaster ... problem solved," Sinise told the OATH students, young people who are teaching their elders that they know what reverence for sacrifice and respect for service means.

So, on May 10, the Lt. Dan Band, that globetrotting professional rock 'n' roll ensemble, will rock the fences out at the Hangar with a benefit concert with all proceeds going to the OATH drive to put the family of soldier Hancock into some greater degree of comfort than any of them have experienced since that awful day in Baghdad when an American family almost, but not quite, lost their son. On his 21st birthday. On Memorial Day, as it happens. You cannot make this stuff up.

The Lt. Dan Band concert will coincide with the 11th annual "Pride of the Nation" tribute to all who served, also happening, same place, same time. All veterans will be recognized for their service.

During the course of this rollercoaster year when a few dozen teenagers were growing up by way of throwing their good shoulders into a full-court press to help one single soldier, they were sometimes asked, "Why one soldier?"

Here are a couple of answers to that from Forbes Magazine and International Business Times.

Rebecca Ruiz has written for Forbes Magazine and International Business Times. This is from her report of Nov. 4, 2013.

"All that can be said with any certainty is that as of last December more than 900,000 service men and women had been treated at Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals and clinics since returning from war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that the monthly rate of new patients to these facilities as of the end of 2012 was around 10,000. Beyond that, the picture gets murky.

"In March, VA abruptly stopped releasing statistics on non-fatal war casualties to the public. However, experts say that there is no reason to suspect the monthly rate of new patients has changed"

And this report is from David Wood, who was military correspondent for Time magazine before joining Huffington Post. Wood, a Quaker, has covered war in dozens of climes and places. This was his report at the end of 2012, and is relatively current on the state of the Wounded in Action from Iraq-Afghan and the post 9/11 wars:

"According to new data (Nov. 4, 2012), more than 1,500 Americans have lost a leg or arm in combat in Iraq or Afghanistan, and hundreds have suffered the amputation of multiple limbs.

"Because so many of the wounded are in their early 20s, they and their families face a lifetime during which the medical care required may be costly, intense and constant. Amputees, for example, must be fitted for new prosthetics every few years.

The roster of wounded, including those with physical and psychological wounds, explains why the Department of Veterans Affairs is rushing to expand its medical and mental health services for the new generation of veterans.

"... new casualty data, released by the U.S. Army Surgeon General's Office ... shows a dismaying range of injuries. Overall, 253,330 servicemen and women have suffered traumatic brain injury on the battlefield or elsewhere, including 3,949 with penetrating head wounds and 44,610 with severe or moderate brain injury.

"In the Army alone, 73,674 soldiers have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of their combat experience. The Army also has diagnosed 30,480 soldiers who returned from combat with traumatic brain injury, often caused by one or more severe blows to the head or exposure to a concussive blast.

"Among the combat wounded from all the military services are 1,572 patients with major limb amputations, including 486 wounded troops with multiple amputations. These numbers do not include those who suffered the loss of fingers or toes.

"Most of the amputees, 83 percent, have lost one or both legs, mostly from the blast of improvised explosive devices."

The financial cost of caring for the wounded is dwarfed by the emotional cost, of course. But in 2008, Harvard economist Linda Bilmes has estimated the lifetime cost of caring for the wounded to be between $600 billion and $900 billion."

The answer for "Why one soldier, why this soldier?" is because this was the soldier that the teenagers in Mrs. Goodreau's class met and came to know. It is called connection. So, when the poet John Donne wrote, "No man is an island, we are all a part of the whole continent ..." these young people understood what the poet meant. Then they acted on it.


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