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Monday, September 11, 2006

Looking Backwards. And Forwards.

About September 11th, I can't add anything more that hasn't already been said.

Many of you know I was a flight attendant for American Airlines on September 11, 2001. I'd been based in Chicago for most of my career, with side adventures flying international out of Miami and JFK in the mid-90's. I turned in my wings after 15 years in November 2001. I took the leap not out of fear, but out of a need to grow in new directions. Fortunately, I found that new direction last year: advocating for and writing about our returning veterans. (Steve Robinson of Veterans for America has asked me to share an LTE with you guys on this issue, and that follows below along with more news).

Click on 'Article Link' below tags for more...

As for today, last year I submitted a photo essay in remembrance of the 4th anniversary, sharing pictures I took of my journey to Ground Zero three weeks following the attacks. Twelve months earlier, I'd submitted an essay describing my day and a few that followed, and asked others to share theirs as well. That diary turned out to be one of my most treasured, filled with some of the most incredible contributions.

ilona_aa1997aThe looking forward part of my diary has to do with looking for ways to try to make the world a better place, and find my way in it since I left a career behind that I'd loved.

The career, as anyone flying these days knows, isn't the same; so, I don't have any regrets. I was fortunate to see a lot of the world, meet a lot of interesting people, and made many good friends and even met my husband at AA. (If you're a nurse, don't ever say you won't date a doctor. And if you're a flight attendant, don't ever say you won't date a pilot. The fates will conspire against you every time. :o)

Anyway, last year at this time I'd just begun getting curious about what was happening with our troops as they returned home to us. Two events led me down what would become my new life's path: 1) losing a sister to suicide in 2000; and 2) reading an August 31, 2005 Seattle Weekly article that talked about a handful of vets that had returned home only to commit suicide.

From that article, and questions that flowed from it (Is this happening a lot? What's the military doing? Why isn't the media reporting on this? What can I do?), I began the work that I had no idea would transform the direction of my life. Thanks to people at Daily Kos, and at My Left Wing, and at Political Cortex, but most most most especially the wonderful people, now friends and colleagues, over at ePluribus Media for the greatest support under the heavens.

It's been an incredible year, and we've done a lot in that timeframe. I'm now in the final weeks of finishing up my first book, Moving a Nation to Care: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and America's Returning Troops. The process has been grueling, but filled with small little pockets of miracles and help from far and wide. Working with the military families who extended themselves and their stories to help with the book has been a humbling and deeply moving experience.

One of those miracles came bundled in the work that I was able to do with Laura Kent, mother of 1st Lt. Phillip Kent, a soldier who committed suicide on September 28, 2005. His story will be presented among those of, sadly, many others. I believe I'm the first author she agreed to give the story to; her first news interview was just broadcast this evening. A video clip and transcript are now available at WIS-10/Columbia, SC.

I won't go into sharing what the miracle was that she and I shared, but suffice it to say that if nothing else is accomplished with the book, it will have been worth it for my having had the opportunity to get to know Ms. Kent if even just a bit. (A thank you and deep gratitude to Wade Hampton for being the person to bring us together).

So, while I pray for the victims of September 11th, I also pray for those lost in our new century's wars. I dedicate this diary to Phillip. And I continue to ask for your help as we move forward to do right by those who have been asked to give up so much.

Wishing you all peace today...

Paul Sullivan asked via Steve Robinson at Veterans for America that I share this with you.

To the Editor:

As a former Department of Veterans Affairs headquarters project manager who monitored returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, I agree with Paul Krugman's comment that the V.A. is a stunning success for quality medical care ("Health Policy Malpractice," column, Sept. 4). But the V.A. is running full steam into a brick wall because of a lack of capacity.

Why? This administration failed to plan for the consequences of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The V.A. fell $3 billion short last year, and both wait times and the doctor-to-patient ratio rose.

Nearly 1.5 million men and women have been deployed to war since 2001. Army research indicates that one-third of recent war veterans may need mental health care. The V.A. can expect a staggering 500,000 combat veteran mental health patients in the next few years.

Sadly, Dr. Frances Murphy, the V.A.'s deputy under secretary for health, confirmed the V.A.'s lack of capacity this May, saying some V.A. clinics do not provide mental health or substance abuse care, or if they do, "waiting lists render that care virtually inaccessible." Without adequate financing and a comprehensive plan to increase capacity, the V.A. may spiral further into crisis and buckle under a tidal wave of demand.

Paul Sullivan
Sept. 4, 2006

The writer, a Persian Gulf war veteran, is director of programs at Veterans for America

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