(This article originally appeared in Jersey Man Magazine)
It has been said there are no heroes like those from the 1940’s, ‘50’s and ‘60’s. But that isn’t true; there are many heroes, most of them unknown to the majority of Americans.
This is about some of them and dedicated to all heroes, known and unknown. One modern hero who has become a public figure is J.R. Martinez, who recently won the top award on “Dancing with the Stars.” That doesn’t make him a hero, but what he overcame to get there does. On April 5, 2003, the Humvee Martinez was driving in Iraq hit a land mine, and his life changed forever. Nearly half his body was burned; he thought he was going to die. In a medically-induced coma, he began a 34 month treatment and recovery process that included 32 surgeries and physical pain no medicines could alleviate.
He was not prepared for what he saw when he persuaded a nurse to hand him a mirror. “All my life I was told, ‘You are handsome’. I slowly looked up and saw Freddy Krueger. I said, ‘That’s not me, that’s a freak’!” He went into deep depression and anger. “I never did anything in my life to deserve this kind of punishment. I didn’t want to live.”
A turning point came when his mother, Maria Zavala, said, “Whoever is going to be in your life is going to be there because of who you are as a person, not what you look like.” Martinez said after hearing those words he decided to grieve Jose Rene Martinez, because that person died in Iraq and the new J.R. Martinez was born. This Martinez was there for other soldiers who were injured in Iraq.
He also decided not to be a recluse to hide his facial disfigurement, but, of all things, to become an actor. He landed a role on the daytime soap, “All My Children,” in 2008, where he worked until the show went off the air last year. Then it was on to prime time TV as a contestant on “Dancing with the Stars.” His talent and story won over the judges and the public, who voted J.R. and his partner number one!
His girlfriend, Gonzalez Jones, whom he met on the set of “All My Children” says, “The life he’s created gives you hope and the feeling that you can do anything.” The hope and indomitable spirit Martinez exemplifies is seen in so many others who served in these wars.
Dan Lasko, of Bethlehem, PA, was deployed to Afghanistan in 2004. One month later, his convoy crossed a trip-wire that detonated a homemade bomb; Lasko lost his foot and part of his leg. Wearing a prosthesis, he competed in many races, including one of the world’s hardest races, the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon, to raise money for the Semper Fi fund, which provides financial assistance to Marines injured in combat.
Roger Emmick, Vietnam vet and Quartermaster of VFW Post 3361 in Ventnor, NJ worries that because of budget cuts many vets will not get the support they need and deserve.
About 4,500 vets lost their lives in Iraq “and over 100,000 were wounded,” Emmick said. “Many of those wounded with traumatic head injuries would not have survived in other wars, but because of advanced medical treatment available today they did.”
A 2008 RAND Corporation study, “The Invisible Wounds of War,” studied service members deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, nearly 20 percent of whom experienced a concussion or other traumatic brain injury; such an injury occurs when the brain is physically injured, usually by a sudden force such as a blast or explosion. Some victims recover without medical intervention; others are permanently disabled.
Many soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan deal with deployment or combat-related stress (post traumatic stress). This debilitating condition follows a physical or emotional event that causes the survivor to have persistent flashbacks. Persons suffering from this disorder may experience nightmares, violent outbursts, difficulty working or socializing, depression and difficulty showing affection. Many respond to medication and counseling and support for the individual and family.
Charles Quesenberry, Public Affairs Officer for the Wilmington, Delaware VA Medical Center, says one source of treatment for veterans suffering from deployment or combat-related stress is a new clinic on New Road in Northfield, NJ. It offers primary care, behavioral health, podiatry, blood and lab work and electrocardiography. It also features telemedicine, which allows patients to receive behavioral health, diabetic retinal imaging and dermatological services from doctors in other locations.
Quesenberry is concerned that only 51 percent of veterans are availing themselves of VA medical benefits. Lewis Green, a veteran’s advocate, urges vets to get into the VA medical system even if they are not using the medical benefits now. “No health insurance is guaranteed to last forever,” he said. “If you maintain a record in the system it will be much easier for you if you need to obtain medical services from the VA.” Green, a veteran himself, has compiled a massive list of contacts and resources for veterans and has made it his mission to help veterans find information and help.
In addition to medical issues, many returning vets are having difficulty finding a job. “The jobless rate for veterans is higher than that of the general population,” Emmick said. “Many reservists who served came home to find that their jobs were not held for them, and they are now unemployed.”
The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans says 107,000 veterans are homeless. USA Today says that out of every four homeless people, one is a veteran. To combat this, the VA has been awarding grants to local groups. The Diocese of Camden received a grant to fund a “Ready Vet Go!” program that helps needy vets maintain or find housing. The program serves those in the six counties covered by the Diocese: Camden, Atlantic, Gloucester, Cumberland, Cape May and Salem.
Have the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan been worth it? Fifty percent of 1,853 veterans polled by Pew Research Center believe the war in Afghanistan was worth it, and 44 percent said Iraq was worth fighting. Nearly half of the vets reported having a more difficult time readjusting to civilian life, and 37 percent report experiencing post traumatic stress syndrome.
What can the American public do to honor and support our veterans? Ted Aurig, Director of Veterans Services for Atlantic County, stresses the importance of welcoming Vets home. “Vietnam vets came home to nothing,” he said, “It’s so important to the morale of the vet to be recognized.” Hundreds of people waved flags and held “Welcome Home” signs in Lower Township in Cape May County for the NJ National Guard 253rd transportation company returning from Afghanistan. Jackie Baldwin took off work in honor of her ailing husband, George, who served in Vietnam and received no welcome home. She didn’t want that to happen to others who had risked their lives on foreign soil.
A Stratford, NJ mom, whose son had three deployments to Iraq, organized a group to support military personnel and their families. “I was traumatized. For a week I couldn’t eat, sleep or work. I called to see if there was any support groups; there weren’t, so I started one.” Karen Jennings said. “We help each other through deployments of family members and send care packages to deployed troops.”
Jennings said people want to help returning vets but often don’t know how. “People need to step up to the plate and ask their employers to hire a vet,” she said. “Also, if you know someone who has served, check in on them once a week to see if they are alright or need anything. Invite them to dinner or leave some groceries or a gift card anonymously. It doesn’t matter whether or not you thought the US should have fought in Iraq or Afghanistan. Don’t punish the military. Nobody likes war. It’s a terrible thing; but please support those who were ordered to fight it.”
As seasoned vets return home, new young, idealistic men are signing up to take their places. One young Voorhees man, PFC David Nesbitt, enlisted in the Pennsylvania Army National Guard at age 19. He did it to serve his country and for the experience. He trained to become a combat engineer — a soldier who performs construction and demolition jobs under combat conditions.
Nesbitt said. “I just want to do my part.”
There truly is no shortage of heroes.
Hopefully, troops will continue to return home. Hopefully, no more young men and women will have to worry about losing their lives and no more blood or tears will be shed.