Sacrifices honored in Port O'Connor

May 18, 2013 at 12:18 a.m.
Updated May 19, 2013 at 12:19 a.m.

PORT O'CONNOR - Staff Sgt. Joseph Forward sat in a little boat in the bay last year with his fishing line in the salty water, but his thoughts were in New York, where his home burned down a few weeks before.

Leader of a Wounded Transition Unit for the U.S. Army, Forward came to Warrior's Weekend last year not for his own enjoyment, but to be there for his injured soldiers.

So when a soldier in Forward's unit, Spc. Travis Mettelholzer, sat down by his saddened commander and offered compassion, Forward embraced it.

"He said a few words that brought me out of my daze," Forward said. "And that was the most inspiring moment for me - having someone else come over and give comforting words."

Life is precious, Mettelholzer told Forward that night.

The two men, already united as soldiers, connected as friends that weekend.

"When we were fishing, we were laughing and joking, and there were good spirits that came and met one another," Forward said. "When he left the Army, he said 'I'll see you next at the Texas fishing trip.' So when I got the word that he had passed way, I was like, 'I really have to get back there.'"

Mettelholzer, a 31-year-old veteran who served in Afghanistan and who Forward described as a great and spirited man, committed suicide in October.

And Mettelholzer is not alone. The number of suicides in the military surpassed those killed in active duty, with 349 suicides and 295 combat deaths in 2012, numbers first reported by the Associated Press.

Preventing deaths and post-traumatic stress disorder is a large part of why Warrior's Weekend was started in 2007, said Ron Kocian, founder of the nonprofit that brought 700 wounded military men and women plus their families to Port O'Connor for an all-expenses paid fishing trip this weekend.

The wounded ranged from amputees and burn victims to those experiencing PTSD and depression.

"Depression is so big with these heroes. So when they have something like this to look forward to, it helps. We have been told we save lives, but I'm not going to claim that. I know we help effect lives because they tell us that," Kocian said.

And the Warrior's Weekend volunteers do affect their lives, Forward said, which is why he brought his wounded men and women back to Port O'Connor this year in honor of Mettelholzer.

Forward said he felt that he had to come to Warrior's Weekend to fish and heal for his friend who did not get the chance to come back.

"Last night when I lay down, Travis' face showed up in my mind, and I was like, 'OK, he wanted to be here, and he is not, but it is going to be all right,'" Forward said as he fished off a little boat in the bay again, catching a redfish like Mettelholzer caught in 2012. "Him not being here, that is the hard part, but there are new faces that you see, too."

Dr. Sandra Morissette, assessment core chief for the Veteran's Affairs Center of Excellence for Research on Returning War Veterans said even though she did not have specific data about Warrior's Weekend and its success in helping soldiers, general data supports the aim of the organization.

"From a research perspective, one of the first things that pops into my mind is that social support is one of the most robust predictors of reducing suicide risk," she said. "I think it is vital for communities to come together and for people to come together to provide that social support to our troops."

Though Forward, 45, has been deployed several times - to Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait - he said he has not experienced PTSD or depression in his 15 years on active duty and 11 years in the National Guard.

But he has been through hardships - missing irreplaceable moments with his three children, enduring the horrors of war and suffering multiple injuries that could forever leave him in pain.

Some of those memories he won't forget, especially those invoked by smells. When a friend's daughter asked him what a dead body smelled like, for example, Forward knew just what to relate it to - fingernails.

"I said the next time you clip your fingernails, hold one with a pair of tweezers and burn it - and then you will know," Forward said, eyes glancing off to the side, as if remembering the source of the smell he will recognize for the rest of his life.

Forward said even though none of these traumatic events have led to depression, he is always on guard.

"I constantly tell my family members and friends to not hesitate if they see me doing the opposite of what I am normally doing, like joking around or being friendly, to tell me and get help. Yeah, it worries my family, but it is not just my family. It is all military families," Forward said about concern for PTSD.

Morissette said most people will experience traumatic events in their lives, from war to a bad car wreck, and having recurring memories or dreams is expected. PTSD cannot be diagnosed, however, until those symptoms persist for at least a month and they interfere with daily life. Though these tragedies occur, a minority of returning servicemen and women will suffer from what is diagnosed as PTSD, she said.

"In many ways, PTSD is a normal reaction to pretty extraordinary life events," Morissette said. "We all learn from our life experiences, and the life experiences of some of our service members involve really intense, life-threatening situations, and it is really hard not to react to that."

Staff Sgt. Bruce Lee Hernandez, a soldier in Forward's unit, has been in the Army for 18 years and has been deployed on seven combat tours.

He has not been home for more than six months at a time since he enlisted at 18.

Hernandez described numerous near-death experiences - the armored vehicle behind his getting hit by an improvised explosive device, being ambushed by Taliban insurgents and stepping on an IED pressure plate that malfunctioned.

His constant brushes with death is why he was so shocked when he got a call in Afghanistan a little more than a year ago saying his 36-year-old wife was dead.

"She died of a heart attack. I was prepared for myself to die. I never thought she would be the one. It should have been me," Hernandez said.

It took Hernandez almost three days to get home and collect her body from the morgue to have the funeral.

Three months later, he was back in Afghanistan.

"People like yourself - if I tell you what happens, you can't relate. Everyone has fear, but you don't really know what fear is until your first engagement (battle), and then you are like, "Oh sh--. This is real," Hernandez described, saying the difficulty of connecting emotionally with civilians can make it hard to come home.

Forward said he is more frustrated when people simply don't care.

"When you come back home, you want to express your feelings, but some people don't understand, or they don't want to understand. ... They rely on the news media or on other people to answer their questions instead of coming up and trying to find out the facts themselves," he said.

Despite the hardships, Forward said he does not regret his choice to join the Army.

More than that, he would be proud of his two sons, 20 months and 2 months, if they decide to join the military when they are old enough.

"I love my family. And my family knows I am doing this to serve my country and to serve them," Forward said, just before excitedly reeling in a shark from the sparkling blue water. "I would not change it. I would do it over again."



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