Memorial Day Honors

May 27, 2008

unknown confederate soldier_cemetery_columbus_ms

Last summer I went to Columbus Mississippi for the wedding of my niece. My sister, who is married to an Air Force pilot instructor took us to the old part of the town of Columbus and showed us the cemetery where Union and Confederate soldiers are buried. Hopefully you can read the tombstone in this picture, but if not, it just says “Unknown Confederate Soldier”.

There were hundreds of grave markings like this one in the cemetery—some with names of soldiers and many without. Visiting this graveyard really made me pause and think about the history of our country and the many brave men (and women) who have given their lives for the freedoms we take for granted. Regardless of whether or not these soldiers were Confederate or Union, they believed in what they were fighting for. They believed in their leaders and they believed in their country.

Today our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines are still dying in Afghanistan and Iraq. They also believe in their country. They served their country with honor and should be held in the highest regard. To the men and women of our armed services who have given the ultimate sacrifice for their country—Vietnam, Korea, WWII, WWI and so on, I salute you. You are the cornerstone by which this country was built. You are the eagle, the statue of liberty, the twin towers—you are the reason I look at the flag and get tears in my eyes…You are the stars and stripes that bind our country together.

I would like to pay special tribute to the fallen heroes of Kilo Battery—Corporal James H. McRae, Corporal Matthew R. Zindars, Lance Corporal Robert A. Lynch and Hospitalman Daniel S. Noble. We honor you for the ultimate sacrifice you gave to your country.

Sam’s medical status:

From Sam’s Father Eric:

SAM IS BACK!!!! Just as Erin had predicted, there were medications involved that had conflicting results; leaving Sam rather listless last week. The battle between Seratonin and Dopamine if my memory serves me correctly. I just love it that Erin knows all of the scientific names of most or all of the drugs being used to help stimulate the natural production of chemicals in Sam’s brain…Erin called it last week and Sam’s primary physician (Dr Dougherty) confirmed it on Friday of last week. At any rate, he is feeling much better and is getting back to his steady and sure progression towards wellness.

We spent a few hours yesterday listening to Sam’s own voice
complete and fill in blanks of many different items that Erin had collected. Everything from a “Starwars Rap” to television and movie dialogues. Erin reports that she is beginning to see Sam’s own personality coming through in not only what he says, but how he says it. Little catch phrases that are unique to them and have special meanings just to them. Comments on places and events they have visited, expressions from their almost 10 year history together, (pretty good for them only being 23 & 24) and most of all, terms and phrases of endearment…There isn’t a visit that goes by that I don’t hear an “I Love You” from each of them to each other…We all know God’s love
transcends all understanding; so I can only assume he has given these two a large dose of his own love to share with each other and those around them…

Sam_May_26_KentfieldIt is so good to see Erin in both an attempt to refresh Sam and give
him tasks to complete; offer him a wash cloth and ask him to wash his
face…he vigorously washes his face all over and hands it back to her. She then asks him to check his hair and see if it needs to be cut. He checks the length and flashes her the number 4 with four fingers. We don’t understand and ask if it means 4 times per month, or in 4 days. It is Brandi [Sam’s brother Donny’s fiancee] who suggests later that maybe it is the #4 attachment of the clipper that will be used in the haircut…He is sharper than the rest of us…Ha! It is an incredible visit and I leave so happy…Please note the better look he has about him and note he is waving goodbye to me as I am leaving…It is sooo hard to say goodbye and leave…

It’s been 10 months since that fateful day in Iraq and the 1 year mark
looms…One thing I wanted you all to know that reside in my address book is how much I appreciate Tony & Julie Neria. (That is Erin’s parents)…When this horrible incident first happened, they were devastated like the rest of us…their only thought was what they could do to help and take some pressure off Sam’s Mother and I. Tony, being the gifted computer techie that he is; originated the blog that is still going strong to this day…this media of information has been an effective tool in getting lots of news about Sam to those interested, and around the world. Sam’s Marines were following it in Iraq…Tony started it to keep the questions and endless phone calls to us at a minimum, and back then it was soooo appreciated. It truly is and has been a labor of love, and the Nichols family has appreciated it so much. It’s no wonder Erin is such a dynamo with incredible character and dedication; she comes by it naturally…Tony is the Worship and Music Director at his church; and He and Julie play practically all of the known instruments…They have been blessed by God to be a blessing to others…

Until next time, much love….


An hour at the VA TBI-Polytrauma center gym

January 2, 2008

Sam working out in the gym_12_26_07 Christmas day this year was spent at the VA hospital in Palo Alto, Ca visiting Sam and Erin. On the 26th I went into the TBI-Polytrauma center physical therapy/gym with Erin and Sam.  He has been going to the gym for a couple of weeks for his physical and occupational therapy.  The whole process of getting Sam to the gym is quite extensive.  There are usually 3 therapist involved in getting Sam into a sling/pulley/crane device that gently picks him up out of bed and puts him into his wheel chair.  The wheel chair has a head rest if needed and can be tilted back if desired to make the patient more comfortable.

I’d like to describe for you, the hour I spent in the gym with Sam.  It was very intense.  I felt so helpless and at times scared.  I had to leave a couple of times to pull myself together.  Partly because of Sam, but also because of my experience of the other young men in the room:

Sam isn’t very “sprite” today, (we later found out he wasn’t being given his stimulate medicine this week) but—he is still really impressing me with what he can do in the gym!  He spends about 15 minutes on the cycle machine.  His feet are strapped in and there is a motor moving the peddles…but, the machine readout indicates how much power the rider is using on their own and it shows Sam is providing 50% of the peddling power!  You’ll notice also that even though Sam’s wheelchair has a neck brace, he is not using it.  In fact, through the 45 minutes or so we are in the gym, he keeps his head up by himself the whole time.  I wonder if he’s showing off for Julie and me?

While we are in the gym, two other TBI patients get wheeled in for their therapy.  I want to share with you my experience of these two brave young men because this is really a part of the “war” that isn’t in the newspaper or on the local news; at least, not that I have seen.

Dan (name changed for privacy), doesn’t look a day over 18. He is in the Air Force and is also a victim of an IED attack in Iraq.  He doesn’t need the modified wheel chair that Sam needs, but I can tell he is in pretty bad shape.  He’s sort of stooped over to the side in his wheel chair and mostly just stares at the floor in front of him.  The therapist asks Dan if he knows where he is and why he is here.  He speaks in monotones and stares off into space as the therapist speaks to him. She occasionally repeats the questions—but, he does answer her correctly.  My daughter leans over to me and tells me Dan has incredible anger issues and is prone to throwing things at the nurses and therapist on his bad days—anger and frustration issues are very common with TBI patients at a certain stage of their recovery.  Dan isn’t married so his disabled mother comes occasionally to be with him when she can.  One of the local charities provided her with a motorized wheelchair so she can get around the hospital and to/from the Fisher House when she is able to visit.

Mario (again a pseudonym) looks to be about 21 years old. He is in the Army—also recovering from TBI after receiving a bullet in the head in Iraq.  Mario has a wife and two young children. The therapist moves a curtain around his therapy area as he is wheeled in for his session.  I’m wondering why they are using a curtain, but soon understand.  Mario lets out blood curdling screams as the physical therapist starts working on him.  The screaming continues for a while—Sam doesn’t seem to mind and continues with his cycling.  After a while, I hear giggling and laughter from behind the curtain as Mario says his first word after being wounded, “amore”  (love).  Little miracles and victories do occur among the despair and anguish in the TBI ward.

This is our new (and mostly hidden) generation of wounded war veterans:  so young—so damaged.  They will spend the rest of their lives recovering from their wounds. Will they get forgotten like so many Vietnam and Korea era veterans?  Welcome to an hour at the TBI Polytrauma center at the VA hospital in Palo Alto.

Father and Son Marine Corps Stories

December 22, 2007

Eric and Erin at her birthday party

Such a busy time of year!, but I wanted to get out one last blog post before Christmas.  It’s not really busy for the same reasons it has been in the past though.   It really a relief to not be running around doing last minute shopping.  I keep getting reminded all the time of the kindness of so many people.  This past week, my wife and I were honored guest at the Vietnam Veterans of America Sacramento Valley – Chapter 500  monthly meeting.  They gave us a wonderful gift to help out with the cost of driving down to Palo Alto and spending Christmas day with Erin and Sam.  

Erin mentioned to me yesterday that they are getting so many Christmas cards from all over the place.  She said they’re getting five to ten cards a day! 

To all of you, friends and family, who are supporting and praying for Sam and Erin:  You’re prayers are being answered and you have given the Nichols and Neria families a wonderful gift in your prayers and the love and caring you have shown us….Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

I have a special guest writer for today’s post.  Sam’s father wrote about a couple of wonderful father-son experiences he had with Sam that he has graciously agreed to share with everyone through this blog.  But before that, here is a quick (and exciting) update on Sam:

Monday December 21st, 2007:  Sam said his first word yesterday!  Well, sort of first word, “uh-huh”!  Erin asked him a question (I forgot what it was), but instead of using his finger signing, he said “uh-huh”.  Erin asked him the question again and he repeated the word.  Both her and the speech therapist looked at each other in disbelieve!  Today he also used the same word.  It’s a baby-step, but he is on his way. 

Sam has had a cough the last 4-5 days.  He’s had his chest x-rayed a couple of times this week and it has been clear both times, so Erin doesn’t think it’s a cold.  Probably allergies or something like that.

Eric’s letter: 

Hello to all….I want to thank you all for remembering to pray for Sam’s recovery. It is slow but constant and the progress is indeed measurable…It is obvious to me that the miracle is just not Sam’s restoration; but the ripples that move away from Sam affecting so many others from around the world…God will make good use of this to further his designs for all of us….

I wanted to take the time to tell a story of Sam and what kind of a man and son that he is….where his heart is and the love he so demonstrated for his Dad…

First I think it is well known that he could have chosen any branch of the service and would have succeeded anywhere he went. I think he chose the Marines to please me and so that we would have something to share…he had heard many stories and although he only had the opportunity to do the Air Force JR, ROTC program, there was a certain mystique about the Corps…I must admit I was pleased when he left to talk to an Army recruiter, but came home and announced his decision to be a Marine. I immediately felt ill as I knew he would be put in harm’s way and somehow I contributed to that…Nothing makes you take it to God faster than the thought your kids may be in danger….but on with the story…

When he came home from boot camp he was fit and extremely muscular…(Marine Corps boot camp will do that to you)…The boys had never beaten me at arm wrestling although they were getting closer and closer as I developed tendonitis in my elbow…we playfully challenged each other regularly and this time was no different so it was on…Sam and I on the kitchen table and the rest of the family were interested spectators…I think they saw Sam as a possibility to put some humility in this swaggering brute…It was like arm wrestling a fire plug. He was so strong and seem to do it effortlessly. We both seem to get some advantage and then lose it…and then the pain in my elbow…oh shoot I thought (only I didn’t say shoot), this was it; I am going to have to relinquish my crown…and then with one last burst of strength I dropped his arm to the table…Amidst the laughs and jeers of the onlookers, I saw something that I’ll never forget as long as I live….Sam leaned back in his chair a twinkle in his eye; a sheepish grin on his handsome face and I knew then and there he had let me win…Did he think my ego so fragile that a loss would do me irreparable harm? No I just think he wanted me to have that continued victory because he loved me. That selflessness that made him a Marine’s Marine was so aptly demonstrated there that night….but that was only the first time he had done this…

Donny and I had gone to Oceanside the few weeks before he left for his second tour in Iraq…He and Erin were packing and getting ready for her to move to Citrus Heights and he to leave for the big sand box…Sam and Erin wanted to take us to “Medieval Times” for an afternoon of fun and games…It was great fun…after he wanted to take us to a private indoor firing range to practice for an upcoming qualification that would help determine his promotion to Sergeant. As we walked in, Sam wanted to compete for targeted
rounds and I told him loser would have to pay for dinner at the “Lobster Taco Shack” he had been telling us about for two days…he agreed…Shooting a weapon for a Marine is like riding a bike and not forgotten so I did well from the beginning…He let me shoot first and he would follow up…When we came down to the last of the competition it was neck and neck and his last target showed three rounds just outside of the first ring…It was a
fraction of an inch, but I had won…Erin even said at the time, “Your Dad got ya honey”! Of course I pridefully accepted my victory and thought that I should be shooting competitively somewhere..Ha! About two weeks later, I had gotten word that he had scored “Expert” with both the rifle and hand guns…a dual expert and then it hit me…he pushed those rounds outside of the circle just to let me win. He could have placed those slugs exactly where he chose and he did…By this time he was in Iraq and I haven’t as of this date ever talked to him about that contest, but I will someday….

So you see your prayers aren’t wasted on some undeserving and selfish man that only thinks of himself…he is giving, loving, and full of compassion for all those around him. I am proud to be his Dad as I am of all my sons, but this is about Sam and I wanted you all to know what I know to be true about  him as well……


Advocacy group holds rallies across the country for homeless veterans

December 18, 2007

homeless_veteran_by_XAG_on_Flickr Falls Church, VA:  Beginning in December 2007 and running through February 2008, the president of the Circle of Friends for American Veterans will again lead a circuit of rallies across America to raise support for the homeless veterans on our streets.  The rallies will feature a color guard, speakers, an open bar, and recognition of veterans who are in attendance.  Invited speakers include 2008 Presidential candidates or their representatives.  A complete schedule of rallies can be found at the end of this press release.

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), there are approximately 300,000 homeless veterans on our streets any given night.  About 3,000 of the valiant troops who served in Iraq and Afghanistan are now homeless veterans.  The VA only funds 12,000 beds a years for these homeless veterans.

The burden for supporting homeless veterans comes to rest on the approximately 250 not-for-profit transitional facilities in our country. Only about 50 of these receive any kind of VA funding, and even then, this funding is inadequate.  Closer to home, the VA funds only 56 beds for homeless veterans for the entire state of Iowa.  To read the full story and to check for rallies in your area, click here.

Erin and Sam in the news:  Erin and her mother Julie were interviewed recently by Kristina Peterson with the Palo Alto Daily News.  The interview was printed in their Sunday paper this past weekend.  The full story can be read hear.

Sam’s medical status:  Erin said she’s hearing more and more grunting and groaning from Sam in the last 4-5 days.  Still no words, but Sam is getting better at opening his mouth and using his tongue—all good signs that his brain is working hard to relearn how to talk again.  He is also becoming more and more aware of his surroundings and/or alert when he is awake. 

Sam has been getting better and better at answering Erin’s or the therapists questions without being prompted.  Today the therapist read off about 30 questions to Sam and he got most of them correct.  He answered a few of them wrong towards the end, but that was probably because he was getting bored or tired.  The therapist told him when they began, that some of the questions were going to seem a little silly.  The first question she asked him was “are you awake?”, and he turned towards her and gave her a look like, “you’ve got to be kidding!”.  Both Erin and the therapist broke out into laughter.  He was in a really good mood during the question/answer period, and Erin told him he gets extra points for the added sarcasm.

Erin sent me a text message this evening that said, “Sam didn’t have a headache today!”…so it looks like his migraine medicine is starting to take effect. 

A Vietnam Veteran Resists Temptation

December 10, 2007

The two irresistible temptresses:  I wanted to share Erin’s comments that she left on the blog a few days ago after meeting a Vietnam Veteran at the Palo Alto VA hospital:

Yesterday I was reminded that God does know what He’s doing, even when we’re not so sure.

I was sitting outside reading when a spinal cord injury patient, Rusty, an Air Force veteran from the Vietnam War rolled over to chat. I asked him what he was in for, and he regaled me with the tale of his injury. Rusty lived in San Francisco in the late sixties and early seventies, 2 blocks from Haight and Ashbury. A fella could get into a lot of trouble in that time, at that place; and he did. I’ll spare you the details, which he didn’t spare me, but for the last 11 years Rusty has been clean and sober and running a “clean-house” in Hawaii.

Rusty divulged that his biggest weakness is a beautiful woman, and such a woman showed up one day with heroin and was willing to share. Against his better judgement, but faced with two irresistible temptresses, he was ready to throw away 11 years of sobriety. The needle was primed, and he was ready when he heard a siren. In retrospect he says he should have just flushed the heroin and stayed calm, but the adrenaline rush of what he was about to do had a firm grip on his mind, and he bolted. He lived right on the water and as he aimed to run down the beach, he fell four feet off an embankment. He awoke the next day in the hospital with no feeling in the left side of his body.

When he finished his story, clearly embarrassed, but still a little proud of what he knew to be an interesting story, I asked him to clarify something for me. “So if I understand the timeline correctly, you’re still clean right?” He answered, a little relieved, “Yeah, I guess I am.”

God is good; even when we can’t see it.

Erin Nichols

Sam’s medical status: 

Monday December 10th, 2007:  Back in the gym again today.  Erin said Sam’s neck is getting stronger since he’s having to be more upright, so he’s holding his neck up more and not needing the wheelchair’s neck brace as much. 

Sam was prescribed Oxycodone for the headaches he’s been having in the afternoon.  Erin thinks the biggest contributor to the headaches is the afternoon light coming in his window, plus the overhead florescent lights.  He’s been on Oxycodone for three days and Erin said his headaches go from about a 3 on a scale of 1 to 5 to a 1 after about an hour when he takes the drug, so it’s really been a great help to him. 

Sunday December 9th, 2007:  Erin came back from Church this morning to find that Sam was taken to the gym for therapy. When she got there she found him fast asleep.  The therapist said he did manage to spin the stationary “arm” bike by himself for a while before his nap. 

Saturday December 8th, 2007:  Sam did the arm bike today in the gym.  The bike does have a motor to assist the patient, and he was also strapped into the bike so he wouldn’t fall.  He was able to spin the bike a little on his own with his right arm.  Sam told Erin he felt stronger after the therapy session.  He was in the wheelchair for 1/2 hour today.  They’ll extend this to a longer period once he gets more accustom used to being upright.

Circle of Friends for American Veterans

November 15, 2007

Here is a startling statistic—one in four homeless people in the United States is a veteran.  Even more startling is that veterans make up only 11 percent of the general adult population. 

Many of these homeless veterans are from the Vietnam Era but the Veterans Affairs Department estimates that there are at least 1,500 homeless veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. 

This is only the beginning.  With no end in sight to our envolvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, less time between deployments and multiple deployments (some active duty troops are on their third and fourth deployments!), our veterans hospitals are being overwhelmed by veterans with PTSD.

circle of friends for american veterans image001

What we need to do is “PUT VETERANS FIRST”.  There is an organization dedicated to this very noble cause.  They are the Circle of Friends for American Veterans (COFAV).  This organization is dedicated to raising awareness about veterans issues, particularly homeless veterans, by influencing public opinion to shape public policy.  Since 1993, COFAV has worked with veterans and homeless groups, policymakers at the local, state and national levels, foundations and corporate partners, as well as individual supporters to address the plight of veterans left homeless and secure the help they need.   Please take a few moments to look through the COFAV web site.  I have a link to their web site in this blog under the heading “Veteran Support Groups”.

Medevac Units in Iraq race against time:  I read a very interesting article from NPR (the first in a three part series) on the incredible medevac system that is in place in Iraq.  A soldier or Marine severely injured in a firefight or by an IED can be in a fully equipped trauma surgery hospital in Baghdad in less than 30 minutes from the time of their injuries.  Click here to read the full story…

Sam’s medical status:

Tuesday November 13, 2007:  Sam has a urinary tract infection and fever to go along with it.  He’s taking antibiotics and Erin said he should be fine in a couple of days. 

The speech therapist, Debbie, has been working with a “communications board” that has various pictures for things like, hot, cold, in pain, I love you, need sleep.  She gave Sam a series of 10 questions to test his comprehension and ability to respond, like Do you have a sister?, is your name Sam, etc.  Sam got 9 out of 10 right.  In the past he was getting something like 5 or 6 questions right. 

Marge, the massage therapist will be doing acupressure and Jin Shin Jyutsu on Sam.  I think Erin might also get a massage tomorrow too!

Thursday November 15th, 2007:  Sam still has the low grade fever.  He’s sweating a lot and Erin thinks it’s partly because of the new bed.

The internal medicine doctor will be talking to Erin today about Sam’s left arm.  Since taking the Botox treatments last week, his right hand and forearm have loosened up but his left bicep is still very tight. 

Sam’s backside is looking better since taking the pulse-lavage treatments.  The wound care nurse should be coming in today to make the decision on whether or not they will be able to start wound-vac treatment next week.  Once the wound-vac treatments are completed, Sam will be able to sit in a wheelchair and will also be able to participate in many other types of physical therapy.

The therapy dog came into visit Sam today.  He is a black lab and his owner is a former patient at the VA hospital.  The dog’s name is Calvin.  Erin said the owner tells Calvin, “up”, and he puts his paws up on the edge of the bed.  Sam didn’t pet him, but he was very interested in touching Calvin’s nose. 

Erin’s been reading the bible to Sam a lot lately.  When she came in this morning, she asked Sam if he wanted to watch TV or listen to Erin read the bible…he indicated to her that he preferred to hear her read the bible.  Erin said it also seems to put him in a better mood.

Veteran tramps walking the street

November 9, 2007

Veterans For America
Let me explain the title of this post before someone gets the wrong idea.  There are many possible origins to the word, but during the Civil War, “Tramp” was used as slang for a soldier who marched off to war.  Later, the Civil War homeless veterans camped out at our nations capital waiting for their bonus money and the word morphed into what would be considered a vagrant or squatter.  Then there were the homeless veterans of WWI, WWII, Vietnam War, Korea…I think I see a trend!

The  National Alliance to End Homelessness which is a public education nonprofit group, estimates that 1 in 4 homeless people in the United States is a Veteran.  Veterans make up only 11 percent of the general population but 194,254 out of 744,313 homeless persons walking the street at night are veterans (2005 statistics).  These numbers are based on information from the Veterans Affairs Department and the Census Bureau.  The Veterans Affairs Department also identified 1,500 homeless veterans from the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and they predict this is only the beginning of the “surge” of homeless veterans from the current wars. 

In doing my research on this issue, the root-cause always comes back to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI), the two signature wounds of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

What is needed, or a better question is: what is our obligation to our veterans to ensure they don’t end up in the streets?  There is a very comprehensive document that was just released by the Veterans For America (VFA).  It talks about what I believe is the root-cause of homelessness among our returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan.  To read VFA’s report “Trends in Treatment of America’s Wounded Warriors” and to download the complete report (PDF file), please click here.

Sam’s medical status:

Wednesday November 7th, 2007:  Tomorrow Sam will be given a different type of stimulant.  He has been receiving a form of Ritalin but it has been really hard on his digestive system.  The last few days, Sam has been trying to move around and keep his eyes open but he’s been having a hard time staying awake, so maybe a change in stimulant is a good idea all around.

Even with Sam’s struggle to stay awake lately, today he scored a 20 on the CRS-R (Coma Recovery Scale-Revised)!  He was a 16 on the CRS-R scale the last few weeks.  The scale goes from 0 to 23, and at 23 a patient is considered to be out of a “minimally conscious state” (MCS).  Once he starts talking he will surely score a 23.

In the same “cognitive function” vein, Erin told me that she was asking Sam some questions sort of out-of-the-blue as opposed to things she’s done in the past that were taught.  In one example, Erin asked Sam to stroke his goatee.  After thinking about it a few seconds, Sam lifted his arm up to his face and used his index finger and thumb to stroke his chin.  When the physical therapist was in the room, Erin asked Sam what the comb was for.  At first he didn’t do anything, but after about 30 seconds, he lifted up his head and legs (to help his momentum) and raised the comb up to his head. 

Thursday November 8th, 2007:  A few weeks ago, I mentioned Sam was going to get Botox treatment in his left arm since it seems to be stiff and curling up a bit.  He actually didn’t get the treatment at that time because the hospital didn’t have the correct needles.  But, yesterday he did get his Botox treatment.  Erin said it should take affect in about 10 days or so.

Sam got his backside debride  (debridement) yesterday.  If they can get that portion of his body healed enough, they will be able to get him in a wheelchair. 

Sam was put on a new stimulant called Amantadine yesterday.  He was more awake and responsive than he has been the previous few days.  Hopefully this drug won’t be so hard on his digestive system.

BBC News

New York Times

The Cincinnati Post

The Kansas City Star

Jon Soltz – The Huffington Post