By Sarah Verardo

My husband was so proud to serve. Mike and I met in high school in Rhode Island and were there during the terrorist attacks of September 11th.

For Mike, like many war fighters of his generation, it was his call to join. He made a pact with two of his buddies that after graduation they would enlist. He had a pre-existing medical condition that prevented his service initially, so he had to go through a few painful surgeries to be able to join.

Mike completed his pact and he enlisted. He went to basic training at Ft. Benning, Georgia. He attended Airborne School. And ultimately, he wanted to be part of the “best of the best” and was proud to serve with the 82nd Airborne Division.

Mike’s unit deployed in August of 2009 to conduct combat operations in southern Afghanistan. Fairly quickly after the unit arrived, they were out on a mission and met with an enemy that was largely invisible. They wore no uniforms. A farmer looked like a Taliban fighter and a Taliban fighter looked like a farmer. The signature weapon of the Taliban was equally invisible: the IED. The improvised explosive device created massive destruction and was usually buried in the road, in the carcass of a dead animal, or in the dirt. This deployment resulted in a high casualty rate for both wounded and killed soldiers.

This was a deployment that forever changed those that were there and their families.

Mike was first injured April 10th of 2010. He was riding in a military vehicle as the gunner in the open-air turret above the passenger compartment. His vehicle hit a roadside IED and he was ejected out of the turret by more than 30-feet. Mike was medically evacuated and moved back to the Forward Operating Base in Kandahar.

While he was recovering in Kandahar, he received the news that one of his buddies, 21-year old Joey Caron, had been killed. Joey’s casket was processed through Kandahar where Mike was recovering.

After he recovered, Mike was given a decision to make: he had been given the Purple Heart, and his injury was significant enough that he could return to the United States to heal and continue his recovery, or he could go back to the Arghandab River Valley and return to his unit and the fight.

Mike put his hand on Joey’s casket and vowed to go back and get the guys who had killed Joey.

To this day, Mike is haunted by the fact that he was never able to fulfill that promise. Mike went back with his unit and on his very first-foot patrol just two weeks later – in the heavily Taliban-controlled farmlands around the river valley – he was the eighth guy over an old stone wall in the fields.

Mike never got the Taliban, but the Taliban’s IED got Mike.

His left leg was blown off instantly. Much of his left arm was gone. He had burns over more than 35% of his body. He was bleeding out. He had severe facial damage. His ear-drums were blown out. His team dragged him to Casualty Collection, but they didn’t think he would make it.

There are so many reasons why the men he served with are the best men I have ever known. Of course, part of that is because they are part of America’s most elite freedom fighters. But it’s what they did for Mike in those critical moments between life and death.

Mike lost consciousness nearly immediately, but before he did, he knew and was aware of the extent of his injuries. He knew he was dying. One of the brave men that he served with – Shawn Testa – worked tirelessly to save his life, and in doing so, allowed our life to unfold in a way that will be the only way I ever use the word “miracle.”

Another hero – Erik Adams –  urgently called in a 9 Line MEDEVAC request. David Abt echoed the order. For a man who only grew up with one sister, it was no longer true for Mike. He had brothers – they were brothers forever and his brothers were with him as he lay dying in a land very far away. They talked to him while they waited on the MEDEVAC. Mike could no longer hear them, but they continued to talk to him.

Everyone rallied around him. Talked to him. Worked on him. And they all held on to the life that was trying to leave his body.

In the more than eight years since those men in Mike’s unit have stood by us every day and every night. They are always there. They are always available. They are always vigilant.

Mike’s MEDEVAC arrived. The first hurdle Mike jumped over was that he was NOT dead on arrival. He was stabilized, though he technically died several times in Kandahar. He was transported to Landstuhl, Germany in a coma and then sent on to Walter Reed Medical Center.

He woke up eight days later. His brothers that had been wounded in the days and weeks before him, were on hand to greet him, including our beloved SSG Allen Thomas.

Blown up by a suicide bomber, and clinging to life himself, Allen crawled down the hall to be there to greet Mike upon arrival to Walter Reed. This further confirmed my belief that there is no stronger bond than men who have served together in combat.

So many unknowns but one known – nothing would ever be simple from that point forward.

When Mike was medically retired from the military and returned home to Rhode Island, I realized the full extent of what was to come. I had to relieve him of duty once and for all. I had to take that ruck from him. That’s the ruck that nobody talks about. It’s the ruck that Caregivers must take. I never thought that more than eight years later I’d still be rucking that load he brought home from Afghanistan. It’s by far the heaviest and most burdensome thing I have ever done. But not doing so is simply unimaginable to me. Being a Caregiver is both such a challenge and also the greatest blessing of my life.

The alternative is unfathomable.

But the greatest thing that fuels my days is the support I receive every day from the men that Mike served with. They are always still here. They are on hand for every holiday, every birthday, every day of life in between. They call to make sure I make my flight, they make sure I have flowers for Valentine’s Day, cake on my birthday, and that Mike still feels part of the team. While Mike’s injuries were very visible and primarily physical in nature – he also suffered from emotional wounds. He is not alone in this battle.

Tragically, every year, more than 6,000 Veterans end their lives in suicide. They feel there is no other option than the silence that is offered with death. Today, another 20 souls will add their names to that roll call.

Since 2005, more than 84,000 Veterans – men and women – have died by suicide.

Imagine…cities like Boca Raton, Florida…Greenville, North Carolina…or Fort Smith, Arkansas…

GONE.

Wiped out.

And sadly, some of our own, my beloved men of Bravo Company have joined those ranks. So, in their memory, we have launched something new…something incredibly bold and different…in the war against Veteran suicide. OPERATION RESILIENCY is unique compared to anything else that has ever been tried. We are bringing together the most at-risk, complete combat units…combat units that saw some of the heaviest fighting…we are bringing them back together again for extended REUNION retreats.

We know this to be true: no one has the power to achieve better peer-to-peer mentoring, counseling, and accountability than the men and women who were on the combat team. During training and deployment, the weak were developed, trained, and nurtured by the strong who led from the front. The Warrior Ethos meant that NO ONE was expendable…NO ONE was not worthy…and NO ONE would ever be left behind.

With the guidance of professional counselors and therapists, we are reconstituting seriously at-risk combat units…units that have already seen high numbers of post-war suicides…and we are bringing them back together to heal. To counsel. To re-establish the bond of the unit. To mentor each other. To feel connected again. And to start the long process of healing and supporting one another.

Our mission is OPERATION RESILIENCY.

Mike’s journey remains a very long one. He’s had more than 100 surgeries. We never go more than a few months without more surgery. Just last August, he had his 119th surgery post-Afghanistan. You’re NEVER out of the fight. And as Caregivers, we live in this “fight or flight” mode where the stress and the secondary Post Traumatic Stress is so high and constant that you’re never able to settle; never able to let your guard down.

We had had several complications post-surgery this last time, and I was finally down in the cafeteria at Walter Reed practicing my own theory of “putting your own oxygen mask on first” before you try to take care of others around you. I heard rapid response teams being called throughout the hospital. I felt terrible for whomever it was being called for because the wounded warrior community is such a small one.

I didn’t realize it was for Mike’s room.

It was almost as though the breath I had been holding for all these years had finally left my body. I thought of the worst scenarios – of course, I thought of our children, but also of the men, Mike served with.

I hated what this set back was going to do to them. Because they have fought right alongside him. They were holding him – and us – up every step of the way for the past eight years. Mike continues to heal and recover, and it’s his brothers and team that fight by his side.

That’s really a testament to their brotherhood and the bond of men who serve together in combat and why it’s so deeply personal to me to tie it all back to OPERATION RESILIENCY. To do everything we can to be that change, voice, and impact for just one Veteran.

Still…there is a Veteran who we didn’t save, who we failed, as both a nation and as a family, who haunts me to this day.

That same Veteran who crawled down the hall to meet Mike at Walter Reed. The two-time Purple Heart recipient and two-time father, SSG Allen Thomas. One of America’s finest, who walked in to a VA hospital in 2013 to get the help he desperately needed to try to overcome what happened in the hell of Afghanistan, only to be told there were no beds available. By the time the VA called to give him a psych appointment many months later, we had long buried him. I had already watched my husband stand on a prosthetic leg saluting a flag-draped coffin that contained a man and leader he loved. I had already watched my dear friend and her young daughters bury an American hero. And sadly, I’ve watched this scenario unfold over and over again. However, under new VA leadership, we believe the VA is on the path to provide outstanding mental health support for America’s warriors and know that together we can be the change that Veterans like the men of Bravo Company 2-508th PIR desperately deserve. We encourage use of VA’s proven resources to include the suicide prevention line and S.A.V.E online training.

It’s why we are bringing the entire combat team back together in SSG Thomas’s memory for OPERATION RESILIENCY. It all ties back to the Purple Heart – the medal that no one sets out to achieve, but that everyone willingly signs up for, and the blast effects it creates for families in the aftermath.

Our organization stands in the gap to meet the unmet needs of catastrophically combat wounded Vets, their Caregivers, and their Families.

Now we have the ruck.

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