Entries in Afghanistan (5)


Michigan 'Hero's Welcome' for Staff Sgt. Travis Mills, Who Lost Four Limbs

Hemera/Thinkstock(VASSAR, Mich.) -- Two rival teams will face off Friday night at a Michigan homecoming football game, but this year fans from both sides will be sporting the same T-shirts with the motto, "Two Teams, One Hero."

The "hero" to whom they refer is Army Staff Sgt. Travis Mills, who's returning to his hometown for the first time since an IED explosion caused him to lose both his arms and legs. Mills, 25, is one of five surviving quadruple amputee servicemen from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

He has been at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., for the past six months and was waiting until he was ready to visit his small hometown of Vassar, Mich. Everyone had known him in the town as a popular football, basketball and baseball player.

"I decided that I would wait until I was ready to walk and show people the progress I'm making, not that they would ever doubt me or make fun of me," Mills told ABC News. "It was a personal thing."

He has been stunned by his welcome home. Mills and wife Kelsey Mills, 23, and their 1-year-old daughter, Chloe, were grand marshals Thursday night at a homecoming parade. He will address the crowds Friday night at Vassar High School, his alma mater, before the homecoming game.

Mills said his community has welcomed him, "Just arms wide open, big hugs, everybody's cheering, thanking me for my service. It's just wonderful."

Mills' life changed in April while he was serving his third tour in Afghanistan. He went out on foot patrol at around 4:30 p.m. A mine-sweeper surveyed the area, but did not pick up on an IED made of plastic and copper wire that was in the exact spot where Mills set down an ammunition bag.

"As soon as I set it down, five or six seconds later, I woke up on the ground and I looked at my hand and said, 'This isn't good,'" he recalls.

A medic rushed over to him and Mills told him, "Get away from me, doc. You go save my men. Let me go. Save my men."

Mills laughingly recalled the medic saying, "With all due respect, shut up."

The next few weeks were fuzzily spent being transferred from hospital to hospital and town to town under a medically induced coma.

When Mills woke up, he was with his brother-in-law, a fellow soldier who had stayed with him. Mills' first question was about his soldiers and whether they were OK. They were. His next question was whether he was paralyzed. He was not, his brother-in-law said.

Mills told his brother-in-law that he couldn't feel his fingers and toes and not to lie to him.

"Travis, you don't have them anymore but you're alive," Mills recalls his saying. "I said OK."

His limbs could not be saved and Mills lost most of both arms and both legs.

"You have a lot of emotions. At first you're upset. Why did it happen? What did I do wrong? Am I a bad person?" he said. "Then you realize it just happened because it happens. There's no reason to dwell on the past or live in the past. I have a beautiful wife and a beautiful, young 1-year-old daughter and I'm never going to give up on them or my family or the people who support me."

At Walter Reed, Mills' doctor told him that he would probably spend two years recovering in the hospital. Mills told him he could do it in a year.

For the past six months, he has spent every day doing occupational therapy and physical therapy. He works on his therapies from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. every day. He has received support from his medical team, family friends and the few other surviving quadruple amputees. And he has already begun to pay that support forward.

"He has got such an unbelievable attitude," Mills' father-in-law, Craig Buck, said. "He takes time out of his week each week to go up to the fourth floor of Walter Reed. That's where the most critically wounded guys that are coming back home are, and he'll put on all of his prosthetics and go visit them to encourage them."

Buck, 49, has spent the past six weeks at Walter Reed with Mills and his family and has been amazed by his resilience.

"Just his spirit, he lifts everyone up around him even though he's had such devastating injuries," Buck said. "Of course there's down times, which is to be expected, where he's not feeling so chipper, but 90 percent of the time he's positive, motivated and just works so hard at getting better."

Mills has prosthetics for both legs and both arms. He uses a wheelchair sometimes, but is already walking on his prosthetics. He hopes to be completely out of the wheelchair by November, using it only occasionally.

Mills calls his wife "a real hero" for helping him and staying by his side. He says his wedding band is his most prized possession. His brother-in-law pulled it off of his mangled finger after the explosion and Mills marvels that it does not even have a scratch on it. He wears it around his neck.

He is confident that his military career is far from over. His goal of being in the military for 20 years is unchanged after his accident. He hopes to be an instructor.

"I still have plans to stay in the military, if they'll have me," he said. "If I can give anything to the war effort, to the soldiers, to the guys that are signing up, I'm definitely willing to do it and I would love to."

He'll get a chance to address his thousands of supporters and thank them Friday night for their support. His only concern is he hopes he'll be able to get to everyone.

"I've never stopped wanting to help and I'll never stop training, teaching and pushing guys through what they need to push through," he said. "I'll give inspiration and motivation to anyone because that's my purpose. I don't take life for granted and I'm thankful I get to see my kid grow up and teach her to ride a bike."

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Could US Soldier's Afghan Killing Spree Have Been Prevented?

ABC News(NEW YORK) -- Whether it was a psychotic break or an underlying mental illness that led a United States Army soldier to allegedly massacre 16 Afghan civilians -- including women and children -- is still unclear.

But as military investigators reportedly interrogate the 38-year-old staff sergeant they believe is behind the Sunday morning killing spree, psychological experts said such actions are generally preceded by strong signals that something is wrong -- signals that, in this case, may have been missed or gone unreported.

The soldier, whose name has not been released, is believed to have returned to the base on his own volition after the killings and turned himself in.  According to military statements, investigators have the soldier in custody and are trying to learn more about what happened, and what may have precipitated the incident.

All of the mental health experts contacted by ABC News said that until more information is made available they could only speculate as to exactly what happened.  But most said that warning signs generally presage violent actions like this one.

"This could have been signaled by erratic and changed behavior in the soldier including strange or unusual behavior, insomnia, weight loss, talking nonsensically or incoherently, making threatening statements and using drugs," said Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman, chairman of psychiatry at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and director of the New York State Psychiatric Institute, in an email.  "Rarely do such incidents of extreme behavior occur without some preceding signs."

"The individuals responsible for mass murders similar to this in the United States... have often given off strong signals of serious mental illness to friends, parents, associates, etc. prior to the incident," said Dr. Paul Newhouse, director of the Center for Cognitive Medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tenn., and a former lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Medical Corps, in an email.  "If this individual was seriously mentally ill, then it is possible that he may have showed signs of this type of disturbance to fellow soldiers and NCOs or medical personnel."

Dr. Simon Rego, director of psychology training at Montefiore Medical Center in New York, said in an email that warning signs "are not always obvious," but he noted that some of the more well-known ones -- such as "difficulty regulating emotions, discipline problems, getting into fights, withdrawal from others, damaging/destroying property [and] increasing risk-taking behavior" -- may be observed before an act of extreme violence.

Whether any of these warning signs were present before the alleged mass killing is not yet known.  But Dr. Bengt Arnetz, professor of occupational and environmental medicine at Wayne State University in Detroit, Mich., said that even if these signals were present, the current system used by the military is woefully inadequate at detecting them.

"All the systems have never been evaluated," said Arnetz, whose research focuses on the effects of stress on the psychological well being of police, first responders and soldiers.  "I think that they're very, very bad at monitoring people close to the breaking point.  We don't have good surveillance tools."

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Childbirth Deaths in Developing Countries Are Preventable

Getty Images(NEW YORK) -- It's hard to imagine this: children married before their teenage years. And when little girls get pregnant, having a baby will put their lives on the line.

One in every seven girls in the developing world is forced to marry before the age of 15. In Afghanistan, 57 percent of marriages involve child brides.

Girls under the age of 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than young women in their twenties.

"Many of these girls end up in a marriage when their pelvises aren't fully formed , so they're much more likely to end up having obstructed labor and, in many cases, dying," said Nicholas Kristof, a columnist for The New York Times who has written extensively on issues facing the developing world.

But the girls' deaths are preventable.

"We know exactly how to save these lives. It's not that we need some kind of new technological breakthrough. The question is, are we willing to make those lives a priority?" he said.

By law, getting married before the age of 16 is prohibited. But it's not easy to break centuries of tribal custom, customs that can also keep pregnant women from receiving the care they need.

"There are enormous cultural impediments and one of the most frustrating things to me is the notion in a number of conservative Muslim countries that if a man is not there, if her husband is not there, then she can't be taken to a hospital to give birth. He has to give his permission," Kristof said.

Every two hours a woman dies in Afghanistan from pregnancy complications. They travel hours over rough, stony roads to reach the most basic of medical care. Many of them die before reaching it. But there are simple things that could save lives.

"The presence of some transportation to manage rudimentary roads, the presence of personnel trained in recognizing common complications," said Dr Sandra McCalla, clinical director of obstetrics for Maimonides Medical Center in New York.

More than 30 percent of women in the world still give birth without a skilled medical attendant.
If a mother is alone and undergoing a hemorrhage, she will die. Most women still give birth at home partly because of tradition, but also because they are too poor to pay for a birth in a clinic.

For many girls, getting married and having a baby heavily affects the amount of education they receive. Giving them a choice, Nick Kristoff said, could be one of the single most effective ways to help these young women.

"The expectation that a girl at 13 or 14 is going to be married off to somebody she's never met," he said. "You educate that girl and she's much more likely to stand up and say, no I want to stay in school I don't want to be married."

For the past 10 years, organizations like Jhpiego have assembled an army of women – midwives– to teach women all over the world how to save their own lives.

"I'm honored to work with such incredible women," said Sheena Currie, who has been working with Jhpiego in Afghanistan for the last nine years. "I think the people are Afghanistan's greatest asset. Seeing their dedication and enthusiasm to move ahead despite all their obstacles, they're becoming empowered."

There are now about 3,000 trained midwives in this country. In fact, according to a recent survey, the number of women who die because of childbirth has dropped from one in 11 to one in 50 in Afghanistan.
Around the world, the number of women dying from childbirth each year has dropped from more than a half a million to about 350,000, Kristof said.

"There are still far too many women dying," he said, "but one gets the sense that change is not only possible, but to some degree inevitable."

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


Army Releases Latest Mental Health Survey for Troops in Afghanistan, Iraq  

Siri Stafford/Lifesize/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- The Army’s annual survey of the mental health condition of troops deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq was made public Thursday. Some details were made public a few weeks ago by USA Today, namely that morale among Army troops last year had reached the lowest point in five years.
But there’s no context in news reports that that number would show morale had also dipped significantly in 2007 to 48.7 percent from 65.7 percent in 2005, a year when violence had yet to peak in Iraq.  The 2010 rate of 46.5 percent is comparable to 2007, a tough year in Iraq as the surge of troops got underway and more troops saw more combat.  That’s comparable to what happened in 2010 in Afghanistan where there was a comparable troop surge.
A 19.8 percent rate of acute stress and combined psychological problems in 2010 is more than double what it was in 2005.  But they’re only three percent larger than the 16 percent in 2009 and still below the 23.3 percent recorded during the violent year of 2007.  However, the study’s authors say the 2007 sample numbers were too small, so making comparisons aren’t totally reliable.
Col. Paul Bliese, one of the report’s authors, said Thursday it was no surprise that morale had suffered given the dramatic increase in fighting, which they said noted the highest level of exposure to combat among those surveyed since they started doing the mental health studies in either Afghanistan or Iraq.  The study calculates a mean number to determine that rate.   Certain categories are higher than ever.  Among those surveyed, almost 80 percent said they’d shot at an enemy, 48.4 percent said they’d killed a combatant, and 62.4 percent said they’d experienced an IED go off near them.
However, Army officials who briefed this seventh version of the survey found the troops felt they were better trained and equipped for combat stress and for identifying fellow soldiers at risk of suicides, etc.  One of the report’s authors, said, “I look at those can make the case that here have been some positive changes in the military…preparing soldiers for the harsh reality of combat.”
As in previous surveys, the troops that have been deployed three or four times have reported higher psychological issues than those with fewer deployments.
Lt. Gen. Eric Schoomaker, the Army’s surgeon general noted, “There are few stresses on the human psyche as extreme as the exposure to combat."
Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


Marines Battalion Mentally Upbeat, Despite Record Deaths

U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Gary A. Witte, 300th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment(CAMP PENDLETON, Calif.) -- The Marine 3-5 battalion returned home from one of Afghanistan's deadliest war zones this week after a grueling eight-month deployment with record casualties.

Remarkably, military psychiatrists say the men appear, for the most part, to be relatively unscathed mentally.

"So far so good," said their second-in-command, Maj. Mark Carlton, who endured the 20-hour flight back with the first wave of Marines and Navy personnel from Afghanistan's Helmand Province to California's Camp Pendleton.

The battalion witnessed 25 dead, 140 wounded and more than a dozen amputees.  But overall rates of combat stress among the 250 mostly infantrymen, at least in their first medical evaluations, appeared to be no higher than other units in the southern province, experts said.

Some wonder why that battalion -- nearly 1,000 in all in the heart of the Taliban insurgency -- appears so psychologically intact, when some reports show as many as 37 percent of recent war veterans are being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD.

Carlton attributed much of the good mental health to the battalion's "proactive" small-unit leadership structure.

"They know each other and live with each other the entire deployment and are never far from someone on the team," he said.  "If there's a change in behavior or signs of stress, it's immediately picked up by someone who knows the guy really well."

The 3-5 battalion faced combat almost immediately when they took control of the Sangin District from the British last September.  One of the fatalities was 2nd Lt. Robert Kelly, son of Lt. Gen. John Kelly, the personal military aide to Defense Secretary William Gates, the most senior officer to lose a child since American troops arrived in the country in 2001.

But as casualties mounted, visiting mental health professionals said they didn't see a comparable rise in mental health issues and were surprised by the unit's resiliency.

Now, back at Camp Pendleton, the Marines have ordered the unit to stay intact with their families for three months to allow them to decompress together.  There, additional mental health professionals have been brought in to watch for signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

ABC News Radio