It was five years ago during the holiday season — well, as if they can even remotely be called “the holidays” for a soldier deployed in Iraq — when Shawn Graves’ life changed forever in a fi reball and a lethal spray of ball bearings.
“I was in the Mosul chow hall bombing,” Graves says. “I was sitting in there 30 feet away from the suicide bomber.”
The 34-year-old Medical Lake man’s wounds were so severe that they ended his military career. But that doesn’t mean the war is quite over: Graves has had to fi ght for benefi ts. To this day, he wrestles with physical and emotional trauma.
“They are never going to be the same people. Ever,” says Mike Ogle of the Spokane Veterans Outreach Center. A combat veteran himself whose wounds were rated at 100 percent disability by the Veterans Administration, Ogle shepherds fellow warriors toward whatever help they need in an organization that relies heavily on volunteers.
“It’s all about readjustment, about how can you cope,” Ogle says. And readjustment issues are normal, he adds, for those who have experienced “the terrors of war.”
Graves is a survivor of one of the deadlier attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq — the Dec. 21, 2004, suicide bombing inside the dining facility at FOB Marez, the main military base near Mosul, just as a crowd was piling in for lunch.
At least 22 people — U.S. and Iraqi soldiers and others — were killed and 50 injured when a suicide bomber dressed in an Iraqi National Guard uniform walked into the dining area by tagging behind a group of real Iraqi guardsmen, who were on base for training. The bomber is said to have stashed the uniform and stolen explosives on base before his attack. There is still much unknown, Graves says, because the investigation is classified.
For Graves, it was devastating. The force of the explosion and the vicious cloud of steel ball bearings perforated his esophagus, collapsed a lung and ripped into his chest and abdomen. Graves was injured so gravely that he was kept in a medically induced coma for three weeks while being fl own fi rst to the military’s main emergency hospital in Iraq at Balad; then to Landstuhl, Germany; and fi nally to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
He lost seven feet of intestine, endured surgeries and infection and, by 2006, was medically retired from the military.
His body has been patched back together, but that’s not to say Graves himself has been repaired. He endures “major abdominal” and digestive issues. And emotionally, he still deals with stress and hyper-vigilance for potential threats.
Atop this, as he and his wife were moving home to Medical Lake, the moving van with all their belongings was stolen, and the VA bureaucracy swallowed his benefits claim for half a year.
Graves was helped through these difficulties by the Outreach Center and Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers’ office. He has since become involved in the VA’s Wounded Warrior Project so he, in turn, can help other veterans. This is how it works, Ogle says: Veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan reach out to one another and form groups for everything from talk to skeet shooting. And they don’t just talk to each other.
It's tragic, Ogle says, when we slap an “I support the troops” sticker on our cars and yet remain largely unaware that “the troops” are all around us — trying to rebuild their families, their jobs and careers and going back to school.
“Only 11 percent of veterans complete their GI Bill,” Ogle says.
Some young veterans find they can’t relate well to students their own age. Others have difficulty expressing their experiences to peers and teachers on often liberal campuses.
Ogle is trying to conduct seminars for college faculty to be aware of veterans in their classes and some of the issues they face. He has done such seminars with area clergy and with employers — all in an effort to make people more aware of veterans in their midst.
“One of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress is isolation. Any time you can get people out of isolation and re-engage them, you bring them out of depression,” Ogle says.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
Volunteers who answer the phones at the Veterans Outreach Center’s office (100 N. Mullan Rd., Spokane Valley) don’t have to be veterans. Anybody is welcome to lend a hand with events, such as the annual Purple Heart ceremony.
The center can’t solicit for money but will gladly accept decaf coffee and cookies for the waiting rooms. Call 444-8387.
And some people — such as the Spokane Valley firefighters and the owners of the Newman Lake Resort and Marina — have donated time and facilities to host events where veterans have gathered to reconnect with family and to heal emotional wounds.
The VA Medical Center (not the same as the Veterans Outreach Center) has many opportunities to donate goods or services, says Chief of Volunteer Services Carla Lippert. The Spokane VA hospital serves veterans from Wenatchee and Omak in north-central Washington, through North Idaho and all the way to Libby and Noxon, Montana.
The VA is always in need of drivers to transport vets to and from appointments. There is also an array of welcomers at the hospital itself, people who whisk vets from the parking lots to the entry doors via golf carts, to volunteer greeters at the doors and at information kiosks inside. The VA can also use volunteer help with snow removal, housekeeping and laundry. There is a lot of laundry, Lippert says.
The VA has a wish list, too:
Clean winter coats, new or lightly used; new socks (white), T-shirts, underwear, gloves and hats; Sudoku and other puzzle books; large shampoo, dandruff shampoo and baby shampoo (all unscented); large baby lotion (unscented); large spray deodorant, toothbrushes, denture cleaner tablets, denture adhesive, quilts or lap robes; wheelchair or walker bags; all sizes of flannel lounge pants, sweats and hoodies.
New items can be brought to Voluntary Services at the Medical Center, 4815 N. Assembly St. Call 434-7508.
Nonperishable food items, such as canned foods, as well as used or new clothing can be dropped off at the Health Care for Homeless Veterans office at 222 W. Second Ave. in Spokane.