First published in the 2015 October Advocate
They are, at least theoretically, the grandchildren of the Greatest Generation.
They’ve witnessed bloodshed and shouldered responsibilities unfathomable to even the most sympathetic civilians. They were not drafted, but chose lives of sacrifice, relinquishing the relative security and unimpeded educational opportunities enjoyed by most of their peers.
Veterans are struggling. Those we interviewed can rattle off stats (backed by the Department of Veterans Affairs): A million servicemen have been diagnosed with at least one mental illness, 22 veterans per day take their own lives, 63,000 are homeless on any given night.
While so many are suffering, many also are working hard to build-up their families, communities, careers and fellow vets.
Like their World War II predecessors, this generation’s legacy will be as much about their contributions after war as their bravery in combat.
It is that post-war purpose — in addition to the love and support of family and community — that keeps these Lake Highlands veterans alive and, despite some personal battles, thriving.
Jeremy Marx’s unit endured such bad luck, they dubbed themselves The Voodoo Platoon.
If a helicopter crash in Afghanistan didn’t take them, a car wreck or suicide often did, Marx says. He is able to say this sort of thing without obvious emotion, but the keepsakes around his Lake Highlands home — the momentary panic when he can’t immediately locate one of them — expose heartache.
He’s pulling memorabilia from drawers and cabinets when he stops and furrows his brow.
“Where are Jason’s dog tags?”
He disappears from the room.
“Some things got lost in the move,” Jeremy’s wife, Jessi, offers, by way of explanation. A few minutes later, she seems relieved when Jeremy returns clutching a chain attached to an ID that displays the name Jason Santora. Jeremy places it alongside two bracelets with William Rudd and Ben Dillion’s names, birthdates and Killed In Action (KIA) dates respectively etched into them. They are mementos from a few of the many buddies Jeremy has lost since becoming an Army Ranger and medic in 2004.
The men he fought with were his brothers, but Jeremy wound up in the same platoon as his biological younger sibling, Bryce (now an investment fund analyst in New York City), a rarity.
Jeremy is four years older, but his preparation, which included advanced training for Army medics, the Ranger indoctrination program and Special Operations Combat Medical School, took substantially longer. So the brothers were assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment right around the same time.
It was interesting, recalls Jeremy. For one thing, it meant filling untold hours with a person with whom he’d already lived most of his life. “You spend every waking moment together. I got married around that time, and for the first three years, I spent more time with those guys than with my wife.”
Also, it can be difficult to be responsible for the health-care of people you love. It’s why doctors don’t operate on family members.
“It was hard enough treating the guys in my platoon, who were like brothers.”
Still, the brothers deployed together several times.
Bryce knows the situation weighed on his brother. “I was the younger brother for one. I also was the guy kicking in doors. I mean, we were in the same place, but I am sure he, as a medic, thought about it more.” It was nice to have someone there to vent to when things grew stressful, Bryce adds.
One night in Afghanistan Jeremy received word that a soldier was shot in the face. The wounded man was initially unrecognizable. Could it be Bryce? It wasn’t, though Bryce says he was nearby and will never forget listening to his brother treat the injured, who turned out to be a squad leader.
“I specifically remember the sound of Jeremy’s voice as he worked on our buddy. You could hear the anxiety in his voice.”
Their regiment regularly pursued and frequently obliterated high-value targets, and they were officially commended for their efforts. But they earned nicknames (they had multiple) like Bad Luck Detail. Their hairiest tour featured a storm of gunfire, IED explosions, the death of a team leader — and that was the first week.
“I treated 35-40 casualties in less than 100 days,” Jeremy recalls.
The wellbeing of his brother taxing him, Jeremy finally asked to be moved to a different section of the unit.
Jeremy enlisted after he graduated from Lake Highlands High School in 2002. He received a Falcon Foundation Scholarship and enrolled in the Air Force Academy. But after the 2004 death of Pat Tillman, who famously quit the NFL to join the war, Jeremy dropped everything to sign up.
I treated 35-40 casualties in less than 100 days.
There was a sense of urgency, he explains. He did not know the war would go on another decade, plus.
In between deployments, Jeremy married Jessi, and their son, Caden (and later daughter Mikalyn) was born. Having a baby made deployment harder, Jessi says. “I grew up in a military family, so I knew what to expect, but when you have a child saying, ‘Where’s Daddy?” it makes it a little harder.”
Later in his Army Ranger medic career, Jeremy began experiencing back pain. Doctors diagnosed popliteal artery entrapment and chronic lower leg compartment syndrome. During his last couple of deployments, he worked in an administrative role.
Today, after scoring in the 91st percentile on his MCAT, he is preparing to enter medical school, where he plans to focus on traumatic medicine.
“I still have ideas, once I am board certified, of going back overseas,” he says.
He recounts the night one of his fellow Rangers, a team leader, was killed — after treating a profusely bloody torso wound, Jeremy got the man to the hospital.
“I remember handing him off to the surgeon. I think I could be that guy who saves the injured soldier,” he says. “I could see myself working in a war zone hospital.”
Jeremy says his faith keeps him sane in the wake of so much suffering. So do the strong relationships he formed in the service.
“The Rangers I’ve become close to will be friends for life,” he says.
Jeremy and Bryce were fortunate to have the support of family and community, they say. It allowed them to come home and live productive, meaningful lives and help others.
Jeremy’s greatest fear is that those who died will be forgotten.
“There are more names than I can list right now — we lost a lot. Guys died in combat. Others came home — some committed suicide, one died in a car wreck,” he says, adding that the same qualities that drive a person to service might also steer them toward destructive situations. “I wonder if they will be remembered.” he says. He gestures to his collection of keepsakes. “I keep these things so I will remember what happened. I want people to remember.”
War is hell. Waiting can be worse. That’s how Army veteran Clay Hendon sees it.
West of Kandahar, Afghanistan, during his second deployment in 2010, Capt. Hendon’s company saw regular combat. It was ugly.
“In my battalion, 18 men left 27 limbs in the valley. There were IED fights, gun battles, several times a week.”
But it was the waiting, all the while thinking, “I might die today,” that really tormented the soldiers psychologically.
“You’re thinking, ‘Shit, I wish it would just happen.’ There is this constant buildup of anxiety. When you fight, at least that is a release.”
Hendon was drawn to the military experience as a youngster.
“Texas boys like to play shoot ‘em up,” he says. “But for me, it didn’t go away when I got older.”
WWII veterans were his heroes.
“My grandfather, he died before I got to know him, but he fought in WWII and Korea. My grandmother worked a civilian administrative job for the Special Forces schoolhouse. They were part of the Greatest Generation.”
Hendon insists his trials don’t match up to those of his predecessors.
“I’ve seen two [air quotes] combat deployments. But could I ride a boat up to Omaha Beach and get off? I don’t know if I have the cojones to do what 40,000 of them did,” Hendon says. “When one of those WWII vets says he’s proud of you, that’s like Stephen Hawking calling you smart.”
Early on, the military attracted his competitive spirit.
“I always saw it like sports — I like a challenge, doing what others won’t do because it’s too hard.”
Terrorists hit New York City’s Twin Towers during his junior year at Lake Highlands High School. His mom was a flight attendant, he says, and the incident frightened and angered him and made him want to “go start shooting terrorists.”
As a student at the United States Military Academy, he says, he began to see a more holistic view of what it meant to serve.
Being cut from the football team at the academy nearly derailed everything, Hendon recalls. He considered transferring to Texas Christian University, where he might continue his collegiate sports career.
“That was when I really had to think about what I wanted to do. Ask myself, why did you come here? To play football or to serve? You either want to serve or you don’t,” he says, “and I did.”
With the free time previously dedicated to football, he joined the Combat Weapons Team and became a competitive shooter.
He graduated in 2007 and deployed to an area near Sadr City, Baghdad in 2008. It looked nothing like the war movies of his youth.
He led a platoon charged with policing a neighborhood, trying to maintain relationships and prevent crimes. “And you drove around all day hoping you didn’t hit an EFP.” Explosively formed projectiles, warheads (supplied by Iran) designed to penetrate armored vehicles, peppered the area. “A guy in our platoon was killed by one right before I got there,” Hendon says.
The patrols — through disconcerting terrain, past bombed-out businesses and raw sewage in the streets — represented “a new way of fighting” in Hendon’s mind.
He did not like it. But, he says he typically followed his orders and tried to be a good leader to the 19- and 20-year-olds in his charge.
“Combat is the kind of thing everyone wants until they get it,” he adds.Eventually, he got it. It was mid-summer when he deployed that second time to the Arghandab River Valley, an area north and west of Kandahar city known as the Taliban’s birthplace, Hendon says. “This place was a sanctuary for the Taliban.” Despite the rampant fighting, the hours in wait still tortured him.
“Even with regular firefights, you’re spending 98 percent of your time playing XBOX, being bored and trying not to think about it. It’s like 2 percent terror and adrenaline.”
Though he endured steady violence, knew men who lost multiple limbs and others who accidentally detonated devices that blew up their friends, Hendon managed to survive and not lose anyone in his platoon.
Is it possible for service men and women to return home and lead a normal life after months and years of physical and mental turmoil? The experience of war has a profound effect, Hendon says. But he believes that in many cases, war-related PTSD and mental illness is “a preventable disease.”
Preparation, he explains, is one deterrent.
“I studied trauma beforehand. I knew what I was going to see and experience, to some extent. That made it easier to deal with.” Purpose, outside military service, is also key.
“A squad leader from my company took his life last Thanksgiving,” Hendon says. “I think a huge reason veterans are killing themselves is a loss of purpose. It is easy to get lost in patriotism and put everything into the military. Then the moment you leave — no purpose.”
Today Hendon serves on the board of the nonprofit Legacies Alive, which supports families of fallen veterans and ensures that those who died are remembered. The biggest fear of those who have lost loved ones is that they will be forgotten, he says. Hendon advocates for families who are trying to build memorials or somehow commemorate the departed.
“We’ve lost 7,000 in the war on terror, and the idea is that every one of these people matter enough to be remembered forever.”
Lee Russell doesn’t seem like a fighter. As he answers questions about his war experience, he is preparing a dish of Italian sausage in a mildly spicy sauce.
He hopes to impress his wife, Andrea, who is taking nighttime psychology classes at Richland College. “She is a phenomenal cook,” Lee raves. “I want to show her what I can do.”
Andrea wants to work with psychologically injured war veterans, he adds.
Today both Lee and Andrea serve in the National Guard, and live just outside Lake Highlands.
Lee was not one of those kids who wanted to fight a war, he says. “I thought it was all dumb.”
But as a student at Stephen F. Austin, he had a change of heart. He had an ROTC friend who introduced him to the adventures — like learning rock climbing, rappelling and other skills —the armed forces might offer.
The next summer, he says, a recruiter captured his heart and mind. “He had me at ‘You get to blow things up.’”
It was the year 2000 and he had no idea it would mean going to war.
“I was coming up on the end of my contract when 9-11 happened,” he says. “I could have gotten out then. I had no orders yet, but I couldn’t live with myself if I left and my friends went to fight.”
Still, Lee was a reluctant soldier.
“I vividly remember being scared the day before getting on that plane. It was stressful. Luckily the camaraderie with fellow soldiers got me through.”
He remembers the first explosion outside his tent. “I panicked, but they said, ‘It’s no big deal. Happens everyday.’”
It was true, though it typically was from controlled detonations.
Just as his nerves began to settle, an enemy bomb nearly took him out.
“It was Feb. 15, 2005. On a convoy patrol, a humvee that was 15 feet from mine hit a landmine. Boom, there it goes. There were injuries, but no one died. I think at that point it fully sunk in. All the warnings became very real. From that point on, you become hyper-vigilant.”
After that first tour in Iraq, he returned to Afghanistan in 2009.
While he served the infantry in Iraq, he had a different job in Afghanistan. It involved communicating with the Afghani citizens.
“Basically I collected intelligence, worked with infantry forces, talked to people — trying to get the bigger picture.”
Many were just farmers, concerned with their farms and their families. I started to understand that. I gained a better understanding of their culture.
He started in Kandahar, moved up to Ghazi and traveled to Gaza, collecting whatever intel he could.
A major quandary of the Middle East wars was distinguishing the good guys from the bad, and it was safest to assume everyone had nefarious intentions.
“Not everyone was bad, though. Many were just farmers, concerned with their farms and their families. I started to understand that. I gained a better understanding of their culture.”
The consistent violence and stress tore at Lee, but he suppressed it and did his job.
When he returned home, however, something arose inside him.
“I had some anger issues,” he says. “I went around like that for a couple months. At the time, post-traumatic stress wasn’t as recognized as it is now.”
Then he talked to a buddy who had the same problem. He found a therapist at the Veterans Assistance hospital. Lee did the same. “She was a nurse who worked in Vietnam, so she understood exactly,” he says. “Between her and the yoga classes I started, everything turned around.”
He says the military can always do a better job of assisting veterans, but he believes that if you reach out, there is help.
“What I would tell those hurting is that, you are not alone. When you get to the abyss, you have to look back and know there is a whole group of people in the same boat. And we are all equally important.”
Though he worked in a reportedly out-of-control region during a deadly era of enemy insurgency, Capt Jeff King was safer than many of his fellow soldiers. As a Marine judge advocate, he wasn’t carrying out the most dangerous duties, he says.
“That was the 19 and 20 year olds, a lot of the time. I saw a few explosions and sniper fights. But they were in the middle of it everyday.”
The 1994 Lake Highlands High School graduate first deployed to Iraq in 2006, after finishing South Texas College of Law. Compared to his 2008 deployment, this was the more eventful. Just outside of Fallujah, in an area dubbed the “wild west” of the Middle East by the day’s media, King was stationed in Sadam Hussein’s abandoned vacation compound.
“It was not nice when we were there, but you could see the remains of a palace all around,” he says.
The lawless region was the epicenter of Iraq’s deadly insurgency, according to reports from 2005. Here in this area — beleaguered by roadside bombs, regular firefights and insurgents who wouldn’t think twice about exploding themselves if it meant taking out their opponents too — King advised Marines about the rules of engagement and communicated with and compensated Iraqi civilians whose land and property were destroyed in battle.
“I actually attended town council meetings and listened to stories from the Iraqi citizens, and then and there, we would pay them accordingly, in cash, for damaged property. I actually had a guy with me who would carry a backpack of money,” King explains. “We were trying to win over the people, to do the right thing. Sometimes they would try to take advantage, but not typically.”
And his role meant dealing with devastation beyond the material.
When civilians were injured or killed, he had to address that as well. Such situations were tragic — for the victims and their families, of course, but to lesser extent, for the American soldiers involved. Some people think that our troops accept accidental casualties as a cost of war, King says. “But I’ll tell you, civilians were killed — I did not see a lot of these, but it happened. And when it did, these guys were torn up about it.”
Anytime a civilian casualty occurred, he says, “We had to conduct an investigation… in our battalion, all were eventually cleared.”
Insurgents’ deception made the war more difficult. Several veterans we interviewed recalled frustration over how easy it was for bad guys to impersonate good guys.
“You had people disguised as civilians who were car bombers, suicide bombers. The Marines were highly trained to evaluate hostile intent … they really wanted to do the right thing,” King says.
The violence was such during his eight-month deployment that 24 Marines in his battalion of about 800 lost their lives.
After high school, King joined the Texas A&M Corps of Cadets but opted for law school over the military. When his passion for the military reignited a couple of years later, he says he investigated all branches. They all encouraged him, he says, except it was a little different with the Marine recruiter. “He told me to meet him the next morning at 0600 hours for a fitness test. That’s what I wanted.”
He attended officer training between his second and third year of law school. Shortly after that, the United States went to war and the “landscape of the military changed entirely … it was an exciting time to be a Marine,” he says.
Today, King works on the third floor of a stylishly remodeled West End loft, the walls peppered with military memorabilia (his dad’s decorations from Vietnam, his grandfather’s flag from WWII). He practices criminal defense and military law.
“I feel like I know my military clients when I am speaking with them. There’s a saying as a Marine judge advocate that you’re a Marine first and a lawyer second. I kind of take that attitude into the courtroom with me… I think people who might be going through the darkest period of their life need that.”
in December 2013, King married his wife, Jaclyn, who he met after returning from his second deployment in 2010
A new rewarding yet challenging era of their lives began eight months ago when Jaclyn gave birth to their first child, Vivian.
Lake Highlands’ Military Moms
Last fall, Lake Highlands families filled a hundred boxes with toiletries, clothing and other donated goodies. The event has been a feel-good holiday tradition for the past 10 years. In the last few, as the number of active Lake Highlands soldiers dwindled, the volunteers mailed the packages anyway. Recipients included any troops serving alongside a Lake Highlands soldier. Rhonda Russell launched Military Moms, the group that organizes the drive, in 2005 as a way to cope with her own son’s deployment to the war in the Middle East. She continued the project long after her son, Lee Russell, returned from Afghanistan. The group still meets once a month, sometimes inviting speakers to talk about issues facing veterans. “Our main objective for these meetings is to provide moral support to our families left at home,” Russell says. “At these meetings, we do still send care packages overseas every other month and particularly on holidays. We also participate at various events throughout the year to promote patriotism, as well as partner with schools to help them in their care-package events.”