Monday, May 26, 2014

Friend Grief and the Military

It’s Memorial Day, the day we remember those who gave the ultimate sacrifice to preserve our freedom. It’s also the launch day for the fourth book in my series, Friend Grief and the Military: Band of Friends.

Grief is hard. Grief for our friends is often dismissed as unimportant, at least when compared to losing a family member. But friendships forged in the military are different, very different. You’re friends, but more, because your lives depend on it.

In my book, you’ll meet men and women on the front lines who watched their friends die, and carry the trauma of that moment with them for decades. You’ll meet noncombatants – doctors, nurses, chaplains, war correspondents and even a little drummer boy from the Civil War – who struggle with grief and guilt and carrying on.

You’ll learn about moral injury, and how that may be a much bigger story than PTSD. And you’ll learn why the oft-recited statistic of 22 veterans a day committing suicide is shockingly inaccurate.

And because grief also changes people for the better, you’ll be introduced to individuals and organizations who are working with veterans to resolve their guilt, work through their grief and honor their fallen friends.

I struggled with the title. Everything I came up with was too vague or too wordy. So I explain in this excerpt how I made my decision:

The popular mini-series Band of Brothers took its title from what has become known as the St. Crispan’s Day speech in Shakespeare’s Henry V:

                        This story shall the good man teach his son;

                        And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,

                        From this day to the ending of the world,

                        But we in it shall be remembered –

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

For he to-day that sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother…

Since Shakespeare’s time we’ve often heard soldiers, sailors and Marines refer to their battle buddies as “brothers”. Even though it’s somewhat problematic, given the increasing role of women on the front lines, the designation has stuck.

In writings as far back as the ancient Greeks, the relationship between soldiers has been described as comparable to family. A family is a group of people related by blood that functions together with common goals and dependency. “Blood is thicker than water,” right?

In the military, nothing can be accomplished without the trust and dependability of those in the unit. That cohesiveness is the difference between success and failure, life and death, every hour of every day. The bond is stronger than a normal friendship because your lives depend on it. So, when asked why they refer to their friends as brothers, you are likely to get an answer along the lines of “because they mean as much to me as family.” Referring to other soldiers as family members is, from their perspective, the highest compliment.

A similar phenomenon existed in the AIDS community in the 80s and 90s. People with HIV/AIDS – gay, straight, young, old, male, female – were often abandoned by their families. Their friends became their family of choice – of necessity, really – because their lives depended on them.

Conventional wisdom still holds that the bond between family members is normally stronger than that between friends. But I wonder why, considering this quote that’s quite a bit older than Shakespeare’s:

“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends.” (John 15:13)

That’s why this book is not titled Band of Brothers or Band of Brothers and Sisters.

This book is titled Band of Friends.

Friend Grief in the Military: Band of Friends is now available for Kindle, Nook and Kobo; paperback version coming soon.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

When the Hero is an Army Nurse

Army Capt. Jennifer Moreno
Most of the people in the military are men. It’s been a tradition for thousands of years, reinforced by societal norms. I’m old enough to remember when the military academies were men-only, and most jobs in every branch of service were restricted to men. Although combat roles are slowly being filled by women, women have been on the front lines for a very long time.

Some of those in danger are noncombatants: medical personnel, chaplains, even war correspondents. The ones included in my book were well aware of their vulnerability. But it didn’t stop them from doing their jobs. Only death could do that.

Army nurse Captain Jennifer Moreno received a Bronze Star posthumously for heroic actions on October 5, 2013. It was a chaotic day: she was killed by the fifth in a series of twelve bombs (detonated by mines) in the Zhari district of Kandahar. Four soldiers were killed and 25 wounded.

Through the years, there have been variations of what is called the Soldiers Creed: “I will never leave a fallen comrade.” That means you do everything humanly possible to come to the aid of a wounded soldier. And you never, ever leave the dead behind.

Moreno was trying to help soldiers wounded in the first four explosions, when the fifth one killed her. It wasn’t until the 11th that Spc. Samuel Crockett (who received a Silver Star for his actions that day) was able to retrieve Moreno’s body the only way he could: with a drag line.

In a eulogy, Captain Amanda King, commander of Moreno’s female Special Operation support team in Afghanistan, wrote: “None of us would have done what you did, running into hell to save your wounded brothers, knowing full well you probably wouldn’t make it back.”

I’m not sure about that. You can look at what Moreno did (you can read a detailed account here) and rationally say “I couldn’t do that.” But in the heat of battle, with the lives of those you care about hanging in the balance, would you just watch them die? Would you forget about your own safety to do your job?

War makes people do things they never would have done before. Some of them are horrific, others are selfless. I think most of us believe that in a similar situation we’d do the right thing, without regard for ourselves.

Jennifer Moreno didn’t have to think long and hard about it. She lived the Soldiers Creed as deeply as any man with a rifle in his hands.

There are other heroes like Moreno: doctors, corpsmen, chaplains. All of them non-combatants, all of them vulnerable, all of them willing to support and protect those who are doing the killing.

So this Memorial Day weekend, let’s remember that not all heroes are armed with weapons.

Some are armed with love.

You can read a more detailed account of Captain Moreno’s heroic actions here.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Memorial Day and Stop Soldier Suicide

For the past couple years, we’ve been hearing about the epidemic of suicide among veterans (mostly in the US, though it’s not limited to our country). The statistic most often heard is that 22 veterans commit suicide each and every day: hundreds every month, thousands every year. One active duty soldier also commits suicide every day: more than are killed in action.

In the course of writing Friend Grief and the Military: Band of Friends I was shocked to discover that that number is inaccurate. It came from a Department of Defense study that included data from only 22 states (and before you ask ‘why?’, I haven’t found the answer yet). That means you can reasonably assume that the number is actually closer to 50 a day.

I think everyone agrees that that either number is unacceptable. Why is suicide on the rise for our veterans? That requires a long discussion about family dysfunction, substance abuse, genetics, unrealistic expectations of military life, easy access to guns, PTSD, etc. It’s an important discussion, but for now, I’d like to introduce you to an organization that is doing what they can to prevent more suicides, Stop Soldier Suicide:

While on active duty, our now-CEO Brian Kinsella encountered military suicide firsthand. Within a few months of his first assignment, one of his own Soldiers attempted to take her own life. The suicide attempt was unsuccessful, but it made a lasting impact. Later, a fellow Soldier took his life only days before a deployment and Brian knew something had to be done.

Concerned about the mental health implications of military service and the increasing military Service member suicide rate, Brian, along with two Veteran friends, Nick Black and Craig Gridelli, founded Stop Soldier Suicide in 2010.

Brian Kinsella
Kinsella is a quiet but impressive man, who, along with his friends, is taking a thorough and very thoughtful approach to stopping the epidemic. Theirs is an organization made up of veterans – all volunteer except for the first employee they hired in 2013, COO Brian Buscher, a former Marine.

Theirs is a triage approach, as described on their website:

1. Initial Contact: Active and Veteran Service members contact us through a local chapter, our Facebook page, a 24-hour hotline or chat feature (via our Contact Center coming soon) or other partner organizations.

2. Assess & Triage: We talk with the person or family member contacting us to determine the urgency of the care needed and the right course to take. It’s important for us to understand the situation so we can get the best help available, the RIGHT help, for the Soldier or Veteran.

3. Transition & Follow up: We connect the person in need to one of many resources, whether that be mental health professionals, local chapter support, partner organizations or other resources that can provide care and assistance.

The benefit to this approach is obvious: Stop Soldier Suicide is not the VA or a mental health organization. They partner with government agencies and nonprofits to provide support to those who contact them without long wait times. It’s an independent organization made of people just like those who have reached the point where they believe suicide is their best and only option: It’s made up of veterans who have been there, done that. They speak the same language. That’s critical, because it’s beyond the experience of civilians to truly understand what our veterans have endured.

Memorial Day is not about living veterans. It’s about those who have made the ultimate sacrifice to ensure our freedoms. We honor them on that day, and always should.

But how about if we do everything we can to ensure that our veterans do not take their own lives? How about if we help those who are working tirelessly to reduce that 22-a-day number?

On this Memorial Day weekend, don’t just share pictures of flags and cemeteries on Facebook. Consider donating to Stop Soldier Suicide.

And maybe, just maybe, you’ll help lower that number to zero.

Monday, May 19, 2014

A Bracelet of Honor for His Friends
On Tuesday, President Obama bestowed the nation’s highest award for military valor – the Medal of Honor – on former Army Sgt. Kyle White. When you read this description from Stars and Stripes, keep in mind his age:

White received the nation’s highest award for military valor in recognition of his actions during a patrol in the steep, rugged mountains near Aranas in eastern Afghanistan. He was serving as a radiotelephone operator with C Company, 2nd Battalion (Airborne), 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade when his team of U.S. and Afghan National Army troops were ambushed on Nov. 9, 2007 by a larger and more heavily armed Taliban force after a meeting with Afghan villagers.

Describing White as “a soldier who embodies the courage of his generation,” Obama recounted how, after being knocked unconscious by an enemy grenade, the young soldier, barely 20 at the time, regained consciousness as bullet fragments spattered his face. Despite his wounds, White repeatedly braved enemy fire to try to save his comrades, including former Spc. Kain Schilling, who was one of White’s guests at the ceremony. Twice during the battle, White used tourniquets, one of them his own belt, to prevent a severely wounded Schilling from bleeding to death.

“I’m here today because of Kyle’s actions. He not only saved my life, but the lives of many others,” Schilling told reporters on Monday.

White also used a radio to help direct air and mortar strikes against the Taliban to keep the enemy at bay.

“Base commanders were glued to their radios, listening as American forces fought back an ambush in the rugged mountains. One battalion commander remembered that ‘all of Afghanistan’ was listening as [White] described what was happening,” Obama said.

After medevac arrived, White made sure that all the other wounded servicemembers were onboard the helicopters before he left, according to Obama.

White, who has been upfront about his battle with PTSD, now has a successful career in investment banking. The war is long over for him.

But as important as the Medal of Honor is to him, there is another piece of metal that he wears every day. Kain Schilling made him a bracelet (and also one for himself) inscribed with the names of their six battle buddies who died that day: 1st Lt. Matthew Ferrara, Sgt. Jeffery Mersman, Spc. Sean Langevin, Spc. Lesgter Roque, Pfc, Joseph Lancour and Marine Sgt. Phillip Bocks.

It should come as no surprise to those of us who have watched these ceremonies that White talked about those men. The hardest thing about coming back, he admits, was finding a new mission. But he also said that whatever he accomplishes in his life, he hopes to make them proud.

To read the Stars and Stripes interview with Sgt. White, including a detailed accounting of what happened on Nov. 9, 2007, click here.

Friday, May 16, 2014

News from Friend Grief

I’m heading into a very busy few weeks – all good! 

If you’re in New York or Chicago, here’s what’s on the calendar:

May 29-31 - Book Expo America, Jacob Javits Center, NYC

I’ll be in the new Author Hub, showcasing a small group of self-published authors. If you’re attending BEA, including Saturday’s Book Con for the general public, please stop by and say hi!

My new book, Friend Grief and the Military: Band of Friends is featured in the New Title Showcase.

May 31 - uPublishU, Jacob Javits Center, NYC

The final day of Book Expo America includes a self-publishing conference, uPublishU. I’m excited to be the only author on the panel “Build Your Author Platform and Publish Successfully”.

June 1 - Bureau of General Services – Queer Division, 83A Hester St., NYC

I’ll be talking and signing the updated edition of my second book, Friend Grief and AIDS: Thirty Years of Burying Our Friends at 7:00pm at this great indie bookstore.

June 7 - Printers Row Lit Fest, Chicago, IL

From 10-2, I’ll be in the Chicago Writers Association tent signing all four of my books. When you purchase Friend Grief and AIDS, Friend Grief and 9/11 and/or Friend Grief and the Military you’ll get a free copy of Friend Grief and Anger: When Your Friend Dies and No One Gives A Damn.

June 14 - Logan Square Public Library, Chicago, IL

I’ll be with a great group of local authors for the “Chicagoland Authors Promoting Success Expo” from 2-4:30. Stop by to hear a very diverse group of writers talk about their work.

Next week here on Friend Grief, you’ll meet some of the terrific people in my new book Friend Grief and The Military: Band of Friends. They’re doing great work to help our veterans.

Stay tuned!

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Be My Guest on Friend Grief

James Montgomery Flagg
In addition to interviewing people for my books, from time to time, I invite people to share their experience grieving the death of a friend. Now is one of those times.
Oh, you’d like to, but you’re not a professional writer? Don’t let that hold you back!
Would you feel more comfortable simply answering a series of questions? We can do that!
In general, here are the requirements:
  1. The experience you describe must be related to the death of a friend. They don’t have to be a close friend, nor does the loss need to be recent. It just has to be about a friend – not a family member or pet.
  2. If you choose to write it yourself, I’d like something that’s no more than 600 words.
  3. You must be comfortable with your work being edited by me.
  4. Include a bio and photo. The photo can be of you, your friend, or the two of you together.
  5. Submission is no guarantee that I will use it. But if I don’t, I’ll explain why.
  6. Include social media links: your website or blog, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, etc. Those links will be included at the bottom of your article, but only those you wish to share.
  7. Themes can include how you and your friend dealt with their illness, promises you made to them before they died, anger about their death, challenges you faced in grieving them, and what you do now to keep their memory alive.
So, that’s it – pretty simple! There is no deadline, though I’ll be posting the first one next month. If you have any questions, just email me at
Know someone who’s lost a friend? Share this information with them.
I can’t wait to read what you have to share about the friends who were so important to you. And I know everyone who reads Friend Grief will be excited to read about them, too.

Monday, May 5, 2014

"The Living Memories Project"

I’ve interviewed and learned about a lot of people who grieve the death of a friend. The circumstances vary. The way the grief presents itself varies, too. But one thing is universal: they fear their friend will be forgotten. And they do what they can – in ways that are large and small – to keep that friend’s memory alive.

I’ve included those ways in my books, a way to end each one on an uplifting note. In fact, the final installment in the Friend Grief series will be a little like this beautiful new book.

The Living Memories Project: Legacies That Last, by Meryl Ain, Arthur M. Fischman and Stewart Ain, introduces us to people who have found ways to remember family members.

The people in their book are from all walks of life. Some are famous – Malachy McCourt, Nick Clooney, Jack Klugman, Lynda Johnson Robb. Some are not: parents of a young man killed in Iraq or of one who died on 9/11. But all share that determination that death does not end a life.

Nick Clooney, best known to many as George’s father and Rosemary’s brother, speaks also of his less-famous sister, Betty. He advises people who grieve to take the best, most positive virtues of that person and pay them forward. Establish a scholarship, even a small one that will enable a young person to accomplish the same dreams that person was able to fulfill.

In fact, establishing scholarships was something many people in this book did. There was a very conscious effort that helping someone else – a stranger – was nonnegotiable. They could not honor the person who died without helping someone who was alive. “The great love you have for people who have impacted your life should mean something,” Clooney explained.

In the end, singer Tonya Tecce said it best, when she describes the inspiration of her parents on her career:

“How would they want us to live our lives? By the examples that they set for us.”

Learn more about The Living Memories Project  and ways you can remember the people you love here.