Taking Action

Author: Alice Daniel

Austin10:45 p.m.  The house is quiet, all are sleeping but me.  He’s been dead over 3 years now.  Some things are better.  I’m cooking again.  We’ve recently moved from our family home of 26 years.  Don’t believe I could have done it early on, but it seems like a good move now.  It was painful to watch the little boys in our subdivision chase snakes and frogs in the “coulee”.  My boys used to do that, coming in for snacks with billy goat sweat on their noses and that special “little boy been playing outside” smell.  I began playing golf again a couple of weeks ago.  My heart’s not really in it, but I’ve found the diversion helps keep me from those relentless, haunting thoughts of what might have been, why can’t I change it, is he really never coming home again.  I’m actually going to play bridge in the morning.  Won’t be able to remember what cards have been played – you know, the old lack of focus and memory lapse thing.  But it will be good to see people tomorrow.  I’ve complained that my friends have abandoned me, but perhaps it is I who have abandoned my friends.  Can’t be much of a friend to someone who hides in the house 24/7.  How can they friend me when I don’t answer their phone calls.  Why shouldn’t their worlds go on like before? 

Slowly but surely I’m rejoining the land of the living.  Celebrate the life, celebrate the life – that’s what TAPS is all about and I do believe it is finally setting in to my exhausted, confused mind.   I’ve come to believe the sleepless nights have become a part of my everyday life.  I’ve come to understand that my heart will forever be heavy, my gut will hurt on and off forever.  But, thankfully, I realize a change has come about.  I’m becoming my old self, despite myself.

My way of dealing with adversity has always been to take action - find the problem, fix it.  When Austin was stationed in Germany and they were poised to invade Kosovo, I didn’t let fear paralyze me.  I stepped into action, painted every wall and ceiling in my house.  When my younger son was deployed to Iraq, I didn’t let pain paralyze me.  I stepped into action and became Key Volunteer Coordinator for his Company.  When Austin was diagnosed with cancer I didn’t assume the fetal position and hide.  I got on the phone with MD Anderson Cancer Hospital and helped set up the best treatment available for my son.

And now, despite myself, I realize I have returned to my old coping mechanism.  Jump into action, make lemonade, try and fix it – just do something constructive!  I’ve become heavily involved with our Folds of Honor Patriot Shootout.   Our golf tournament is one of 4200 events across the country each year to raise scholarship money for spouses and children of deceased or injured military.  My son has a widow and daughter.  Education for survivors – constructive action.  Yeah!!!  At this year’s pretournament gala, we will award the first annual “Baton Rouge Patriot Shootout – Folds of Honor – SSG William Austin Daniel Memorial Award” to a veteran or active duty military hero for distinguished military and public service.   The honoree will receive an original oil painting of a bald eagle by Louisiana artist Tony Bernard, commissioned by Austin’s family especially for this award.   Action and celebrating the life all at one time - a little of the old me has emerged.

I’ve also become passionate about another cause.  After participating in TAPS events and talking with other survivors I learned a horrifying fact.  Austin’s cancer was probably not “just another genetic defect.”  I learned that many of our veterans have returned home to be diagnosed with cancer and other terrible illnesses, some diagnosed even in theater.  I learned that cancer is a leading cause of death amongst Iraq and Afghan veterans, second only to death by suicide.  I was shocked to learn that KIA is the 3rd leading cause of death.  My daughter-in-law was in a seminar with other widows and was appalled to learn that the cause of death of half their loved ones was cancer; and of those, 50% had Hodgkins Lymphoma.

I believe I was more angry to learn about the burn pits causing our loved ones to become ill and die needlessly than I have been about Austin’s death.  The old Alice jumped in to action, began researching.  It’s true!  There were burn pits and hundreds of our heroes have become ill breathing these emissions while deployed in the Middles East.  I learned that Congressman Todd Akin of Missouri has introduced legislation to form a Burnpit Registry so that our military will keep track of our loved ones and their health issues after deployments.  Won’t it be great if our Iraq and Afghan vets weren’t forced to wait 30 years like our Vietnam vets did with agent orange.  The old Alice is back.  She phoned the Congressman’s office, offered any help possible including testifying in front of the House or Senate Committees regarding Austin’s death.  It looks like the legislation just might pass.  This week I sent the following letter to both my Senators urging their support of the legislation:

Dear Senator __________,

H.R. 3337, the Open Burnpit Registry Act, passed the House on Tuesday night by a voice vote (no opposition) as part of H.R. 4057, the Improving Transparency of Education Opportunities for Veterans Act of 2012, so now it lies in the hands of the Senate. I encourage you to support the Open Burn Pit Registry Act in the Senate.

  There are thousands of Louisiana residents who have served our country in Iraq and Afghanistan. We are seeing hundreds of deaths due to burn pit related illness. My son, SSG William Austin Daniel died on 9/7/9 from Hodgkins Disease. He served in Iraq in 2003-2004 at Camp Victory, Baghdad with the 2-156 Infantry Brigade from Louisiana. There were open burnpits at Camp Victory. This is a very serious situation that demands further action immediately.  Thank you so much,

I apologize for my lengthy rambling, but I so want to share the good news.  Yes, a part of me is gone forever.  A part of me died with my precious son.  However, there are parts of me beginning to creep back into every day life despite my resistance.  I’m becoming active in the world again, taking up causes, participating in worthy endeavors, even playing games and having fun. I no longer blame my friends for absent friendships.  I realize I’ve pushed them away as much or more than they’ve stayed away from me. I am now inviting them back in to my life.  Most of all, I’m “celebrating the life” despite the pain.  Oddly enough, that seems to be easing the pain.  Hugs to you all.