Archdiocese Local Parishes

Soldiers of Misfortune

Two archdiocesan parishioners returned from the war in Iraq dramatically changed — one physically, the other mentally. These are their stories.

Parish unites behind wounded warrior

by Jill Ragar Esfeld LENEXA — On June 9, members of Holy Trinity Parish here were shocked by the news that the son of Gary Lammers, their beloved school principal, had been seriously injured in Iraq. Suddenly, an overseas war they’d acknowledged for years through Masses, rosaries, cards and care packages had landed on their doorstep.

“He’s a boy from the parish,” said pastor Father Tom Dolezal. “There are other people who have sons or daughters or relatives in the war, but Matt’s the first one from our parish to get seriously hurt.”

During his tour of Iraq, Sgt. Matt Lammers’ Humvee hit a buried explosive. Though his life was miraculously saved by quick-thinking comrades, Matt sustained critical injuries in the blast and suffered the loss of his left arm and both legs.

As Gary Lammers, his wife Barbara, and their immediate family became consumed in the process of coping with this horrific situation and providing support to Matt, Matt’s wife Tessa and their two small children, members of their parish family could not stand helplessly by. Instead, they resolved to do whatever was needed to ease the financial burden they knew this family would soon be facing.

As often happens in close-knit Catholic communities, plans were formulated by parents during downtime at their kids’ sporting events. By the end of a softball game in late June, Holy Trinity parishioners Mary Dykmann, Cecilia Hand and Craig Hemke decided they would organize a parish dinner to raise support for the Matt Lammers family. They enlisted the help of parish life director Stan Nill who had already received dozens of calls from people wanting to help. The organizers knew their cause was great, and expected fellow parishioners to respond charitably. What they didn’t expect was the unprecedented outpouring of generosity and support that followed.

Nill approached Chris Herrold, a parishioner known as much for his generosity as his skill with a smoker. A Bishop Miege High School graduate, Herrold fondly remembered Gary Lammers as his vice principal there and told Nill he would do anything to help.

He wasn’t kidding.

Herrold, along with food vendors he solicited, provided almost everything needed for the barbecue. He then spent many sleepless hours preparing 100 pounds of smoked sausage, 160 slabs of baby back ribs, and 1,400 pieces of chicken.

One vendor Herrold approached was so moved when he heard Matt Lammers’ story that, in addition to donating food, he threw in a check for $1,000.

Dykmann witnessed similar generosity when recruiting volunteers.

“With just the school families, I got more help than I needed,” she said. “And I even received messages from parishioners who got my e-mail from … I don’t know where…more people wanting to help.”

Holy Trinity School vice principal Joanne Mayfield, who took on the task of recruiting teacher volunteers and selling tickets, agreed.

“I got so many teacher volunteers, I didn’t know what I was going to do with all of them,” she said. “And people overpaid for their tickets, or bought tickets whether they were going to come or not!”

Almost every group in the parish stepped up to assist the barbecue in some way and expand its capacity for raising funds — the Daughters of Isabella sold an incredible array of homemade desserts; St. Thomas Aquinas High School cheerleaders sold $1,000 worth of tickets to a car wash; the Knights of Columbus stepped in to help with everything from setup to cleanup; and PTO members contributed side dishes and set up an area for attendees to make cards for Sgt. Lammers.

Even the young people of the parish got involved.

“They set up some of our school carnival stuff and charged a quarter for a chance to win donated candy and prizes,” said Nill. “So the kids were able to participate in giving to Matt, too. Everybody jumped in to help out in any way they could.”

A week before the event, Hemke optimistically predicted, “I think we have a shot at maybe approaching $10,000.”

In the end, the amount topped $26,000 . . . and donations are still coming in.

Many of the organizers believed the overwhelming response stemmed from parishioners not only wanting to support Matt but also, through Matt, to demonstrate their support for all veterans of war.

“I think a lot of us my age remember Vietnam and the soldiers that came back from there and what they had to go through,” explained Father Dolezal. “So maybe what people are trying to say is that we really blew it with the Vietnam vets, and we don’t want to do it here.”

Many participants also saw this as an opportunity to thank Gary Lammers for his dedication to their own children.

“[People] feel he has given so much for this school. He is such a spiritual man, the nicest man you could meet. He would do anything for anyone,” said Mayfield. “Now this was an opportunity where people felt they could give back and help him.”

Beyond his sacrifice on the battlefield, Sgt. Lammers has become an inspiration to many people who have visited his Web site and been moved by his incredible story of strength and positive spirit.

One phrase he uses often to cheer himself and those around him is: “It’s better ‘n dyin’.” To make Matt’s uplifting spirit visible at the fundraiser, his parents had the phrase printed on T-shirts worn by family members and key volunteers.

“We learned early on not to be surprised about Matt. But we are surprised at how quickly and to what extent he has inspired others,” his father said. “He’s been an inspiration to us. Barbara has said, ‘I didn’t know what generosity was until he taught me this summer.’”

Matt and his wife recently moved into their new, handicap-accessible, house in Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. As soon as they’re settled, their daughters Taena and Jaelen will join them. Holy Trinity parishioners hope the funds raised at the barbecue will help this young family on their long journey ahead.

Reflecting on the outpouring of support he’s experienced from his parish family, Gary said, “It really has been amazing. Barbara and I thought that we were giving people, but we have been humbled by the extent people have gone to pray, and give, and do so many different things for us.”

When Johnny came marching home. . . 

by Joe Bollig

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — While John Smith was a soldier in Iraq, members of his home parish bowed their heads and prayed for his safe return. And despite a few close calls, their prayers were answered.

After John (not his real name) came home, however, his name was dropped from the parish’s military prayer list. They assumed that at least for John, the war was over.

But in a larger sense, it had only just begun.

You wouldn’t know it from outward appearances, but John was badly wounded in Iraq. No wounds from bullets or shrapnel scar his body. Rather, Smith was injured in his psyche — one of thousands of returning veterans afflicted with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

The struggle is not his alone. His family members, overjoyed by his survival and return, are now struggling to understand these unseen wounds and discover ways they can help him recover.

Call of duty

John was a high school senior when Islamic terrorists hijacked four planes on Sept. 11, 2001.

Like most Americans, he reacted with shock and anger to the attacks on his country. Before the attacks, he had planned to go to college after graduation, but patriotism and a desire for adventure led him to enter the U.S. Army.

“After 9/11 there was no [doubt],” said John’s mother. “He wanted to join the Army.” John completed his training and was assigned to a unit that was deployed to Iraq. Because of his specialty, he spent most of his time at a forward operating base. Insurgents would bomb and shell the base frequently.

After completing the tour and returning home for a visit, he was sent on a second deployment to Iraq, this time as a vehicle gunner for supply convoys. It was something he wanted to do. He enjoyed the challenge.

“He was all over Iraq, from Baghdad to the Sunni Triangle,” said John’s father.

“They didn’t have regular hours to eat and sleep,” said John’s mother. “Sometimes they’d get two hours [of] sleep. They might lay their head on the ground and an hour later be woken up for the next assignment.”

In addition to the strain caused by the heat and miles traveled, convoy personnel had to endure the ever-present threat of snipers and IEDs — improvised explosive devices. Some are powerful enough to flip a 68-ton M1A1 Abrams Main Battle Tank. Needless to say, an IED attack on a Humvee or truck can be truly catastrophic. Survival depended on maintaining a tense, constant alertness.

“He told me that he experienced six or seven IEDs, [and was] in close proximity to two or three of them — one so close it damaged his facial armor,” said John’s father.

Finally, the second tour was over. John was honorably discharged.

Battle on the home front

John returned physically and mentally exhausted. He moved back into the family home.

“Just give me six months of sleep,” he said.

Soon, however, it was apparent he needed more than just rest.

“Progressively he became more and more on edge, restless,” said John’s father. “I noticed his alcohol consumption was pretty high.”

John became quieter, less open, more isolated, and more preoccupied. He appeared uninterested in furthering his education or seeking employment. Rather, for the first six months he was home he became a virtual recluse, passing his days playing video games. He didn’t have a “normal” pattern of sleep and waking.

“He [got] frustrated sometimes, and sometimes it [got] a little scary,” said John’s mother. “The look in his eyes — one night he went out and just screamed. It was late at night, and most of us were in bed.”

At one point, the Smiths were worried that John’s unpredictable and extreme behavior would lead him to hurt himself, or even the family. This is no longer a concern, because John has made some progress. However, John’s mother is afraid that he might feel unwelcome, and that he’ll suddenly take off and disappear, as other PTSD veterans have done.

The Army offers help and resources to all soldiers who are re-entering civilian life, but it appeared to the Smiths that it didn’t do enough for John before he exited — and it did nothing to prepare them.

“We don’t know what kinds of debriefing [he received],” said John’s father. “They did do something, because when he left the Army he had a diagnosis of chronic PTSD, and they gave him medications. To my disappointment, they honorably discharged him. I think they should have kept treating him and made sure he was ready before they let him out into society.”

Smith’s mother was surprised that the Army and Veterans Affairs, with all their vast institutional experience with PTSD, offer so little to families.

“I want people’s eyes to be opened up,” she said. “The VA offered no help to our family. If John was married and had kids, they’d probably help, but we’re not an ‘Army family,’ so we had to wade our way through without help.”

John’s lucky to have a supportive family. His mother believes that if John didn’t have his family, he might be homeless — or dead.

“We’re a family, and we’re there for him, and he knows that. There’s lots of love, but really to get to the issues and to help him further requires professional help,” said John’s father.

Professional help is available from nearby VA facilities. John receives VA counseling once a month. Additionally, the VA offered him a PTSD therapy group and a residential program, but John refused these.

“They haven’t offered a lot more,” said John’s mother. “There’s not a lot out there.”

The Smiths sent John to a private counselor once a week, but John didn’t feel that this was helping him, so he quit. Currently, John is taking medications to help with PTSD symptoms.

They contacted Catholic Charities, but it has no specific program to help returning veterans.

Additionally, the Smiths also went to a returning veterans conference, where they learned about PTSD and organizations that offer help.

One entity that has always been there for them is the church. The pastor occasionally asks about him. They’re sure that some parishioners who recognize their need have never stopped praying for them. Archbishop James P. Keleher and a military chaplain also stopped by to talk with John privately.

“Prayers are so important,” said John’s mother. “It is just so nice as a parent to know that people are praying for him and for us, because that gives us hope in this situation. . . . The support of the church is what gives me hope.”

Looking at the future

Today, the Smiths have a better idea of what PTSD is and what they can do to help their son.

“You learn some things,” said John’s father. “As family members, you have to be loving, nurturing and caring, and so forth. I wouldn’t use the words ‘tough love,’ but I think it’s important that families be very firm about the rules in their house.”

Now the Smiths are beginning to draw boundaries and set rules. They realize that they can’t live their life “walking on eggshells” nor can they ignore the effect John’s behavior will have on his siblings. Months ago, they gave John an ultimatum: Stop drinking, or leave. He went cold turkey.

“I believe that he needs a more intense treatment setting, intensive treatment that would involve residential 24-7 [care],” said John’s father. “And I don’t know how long that treatment should be…. And I think it needs to be delivered by professionals rather than family members.”

John’s situation is not rare among returning veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. A March 1, 2006, article in the Washington Post reported that one in three soldiers and Marines who served in Iraq later sought help for mental health problems.

There is hope for improvement, according to “A Guide to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder,” published by The Blue Star Mothers: “Through time, love, and understanding those suffering from PTSD can get better. As your family goes through the journey with the effects of PTSD, please remember that statement.”

About the author

The Leaven

The Leaven is the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.

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