Archives For Iraq


By Anita Fritz, The Recorder

Greenfield Recorder

ORANGE, Mass. — It was 1948, three years after the end of World War II, when Earl Shaffer, a U.S. Army veteran from Pennsylvania, hiked the entire length of the Appalachian Trail, something no one else had done to that point.

More than 14,000 people have hiked the entire trail since Shaffer, and U.S. Army National Guard veteran Joe Young of Orange says he hopes to be one of the next.

Many have attempted the 2,180-mile trek — some have finished, some have not. They’ve done it for many reasons: the challenge, the sheer exhilaration or just to be able to say they did it.

Others, like Young, decide they want to do it to find the piece of their soul they lost somewhere along the way — Young says he lost his in Iraq.

The 61-year-old veteran retired after spending 42 1/ 2 years in the National Guard. He suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, a type of anxiety disorder that occurs after someone has gone through an extreme emotional trauma that involves the threat of injury or death.

It’s obvious that he doesn’t like to talk about the specifics of what he saw in Iraq when he was deployed from 2003 to 2004 and again from 2005 to 2006. He served at Abu Ghraib prison and says if someone tries to push him too hard into talking about it and he starts to feel too uncomfortable, he simply leaves the room.

“I hope that sometime during my six-month hike with 13 other veterans I find that piece of my soul I’m looking for,” he said just days before he left for Georgia on March 14.

Young planned to begin on Spring Mountain in Georgia on St. Patrick’s Day and spend the next six months hiking to Mount Katahdin in Maine. He expects to cross Mount Greylock in North Adams in late July and reach Katahdin’s summit in September.

Last year, while perusing the Internet, he found the Warrior Hike’s “Walk Off the War” program for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan and immediately contacted organizers.

“I’m in good shape and am an avid hiker, so I thought this would be perfect for me,” he says. “I needed something.”

The veteran, who is in the best shape of his life, according to himself and his wife, says he found it difficult re-adjusting to civilian life when he retired from the National Guard several years ago.

“You’re up early every day when you’re in the guard and you have a purpose each day,” he says. “After I retired I was still getting up early, but I didn’t know what to do with myself.”

That’s when Young says he found VetNet at Greenfield Community College, a club that helps veteran students return to their communities and school, and decided to enroll in college.

“I didn’t want to get a specific degree,” he says. “I wanted to do it for fun and learning. I took a lot of history classes, because that seemed really interesting to me.”

He says it took time to adjust to school.

“I had to sit in the back of the room, because I didn’t want anyone sitting behind me,” says Young. “You learn to do that when you’re deployed, especially to a place like Iraq.”

Young says there are plenty of groups that help returning veterans adjust, apply for benefits, and more, but veterans have to know where to go. He says a veteran should start with his or her local veterans agent and expand their search from there.

“Go online, too,” he says. “That’s where I found Warrior Hike. There are plenty of people out there who want to help.”

Like Shaffer did in 1948, Young says he plans to work out the sights, sounds and losses of Iraq on his hike. He says he won’t have a lot of contact with his family.

“I’ll have my cellphone, but I only plan to use it on weekends or in an emergency,” he says. “That’s just a choice I’m making so I can experience this to the fullest.”

Young says the 14 veterans, including himself, are expected to hike eight to 14 miles a day. They will each be carrying sleeping bags, tents, food, clothes and other necessities.

“We won’t all be sleeping in the same spot,” he says. “Some will move faster than others, but the end of the week, we are expected to be in the same spot.”

Young says the veterans will have the opportunity to stay with other veterans in their homes on weekends.

“We’ll be greeted each weekend by veterans from different VFWs, American Legions, and other veteran groups,” says Young. “I hear they are very helpful and hospitable.”

According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, which oversees the entire trail, statistics show that about one in four people who set out to hike from Georgia to Maine make it, while the rest return home for many different reasons, including injury, family matters, bad experiences or they run out of money. The hike typically takes from four to seven months to complete.

“I’m really looking forward to this being a therapeutic cleansing for me,” says Young. “I want to get my head back where it belongs.”

He says he is looking forward most to hiking with other veterans who understand what he has been through.

“We’ll be able to help each other,” he says.

“I also want to find some enjoyment,” says Young. “I have it here at home with my wife, and my kids and grandchildren, when they visit. I find it on my motorcycle. Now, I want to find it out there, on my own.”

Two years ago, two veterans started the Warrior Hike and finished the Appalachian trek. Last year, 12 others joined those two and did the same.

“We’re a determined bunch,” says Young. “When you think about what some of us have been through in war, you realize this shouldn’t be all that bad.”

Recognizing the physical, mental and spiritual benefits of long-distance hiking, Warrior Hike has partnered with the conservancy, the Continental Divide Trail Coalition and the Pacific Crest Trail Association to create the “Walk Off the War” program, which takes place all over the United States.

The program is designed to support combat veterans who are transitioning from military service by hiking through American’s national scenic trails.

Young says he was provided all of the necessary equipment and supplies by Warrior Hike. He has to supply his own food and clothes.

He says the six-month hike will allow him to decompress and come to terms with his wartime experiences, while learning to use the outdoors as an alternative form of therapy.

“It’s the camaraderie that I am looking forward to most,” says Young. “That runs so deep when you are serving in the military and then you get home and you miss it.”

Young says he has also been told by many veterans that everyone eventually has a good cry.

“I haven’t had my good cry yet,” he says. “I’m hoping it happens on the trail.”

According to Warrior Hike, the “thru-hikes” and the interaction veterans have with other veterans and members of trail towns’ veteran organizations and local communities along the way restores their faith in humanity and builds a network of lifelong friendships and relationships.

Young, who was born in Winchendon, grew up in Orange, where he lives today. He attended Orange schools and graduated with a degree in agriculture from Smith Vocational Agricultural High School in Northampton.

The retired sergeant-major plans to write about his experiences each day. He says he will not cut his hair or shave until he returns home — he started growing his beard six weeks ago.

“It’s the first time I’ve had a beard in my life,” he says. “I hope there are going to be a lot of firsts for me over the next six months.”

Young’s trail name is Quabbin Trekker, and in his first entry, dated Jan. 25, he writes, “I have decided to dedicate this hike in honor of all my brothers and sisters that have paid the ultimate price.” He ends each of the entries he has made since then, “Onward, upward, forward.”


By Jim Morrison, The Patriot Ledger

Ben Johnston of Quincy, and his son, Oliver,at home.

QUINCY, Mass. — When a new father from Quincy read that his college buddy’s next-door neighbor in Brookline was ill and in desperate need of a kidney, he did what few people would even consider.

He volunteered to be tested to see if he was a match, our news partners at the Patriot Ledger reported.

He was.

Ben Johnston, a 32-year-old songwriting student at Berklee College of Music, decided he would donate a major organ to a total stranger.

The man who needed the kidney was Dr. Ferenc “Frank” Jolesz, 67, who was suffering from kidney failure for the second time. His daughter Marta Jolesz donated a kidney to him about seven years earlier.

“There’s a huge shortage of available organs and people are dying every day” Marta Jolesz, 37, said. “The average person is on the waiting list for five to 10 years. Most people don’t have that kind of time. My dad didn’t have that kind of time.”

The Brookline TAB profiled Jolesz and his efforts to find a donor via a website and Facebook last August.

“If the TAB wouldn’t have run the article, I wouldn’t have found out about it,” Johnston said.

“Basically, when I first read about it, I thought, ‘Oh, he’ll have no problem finding a donor,’” Johnston said. “Then, I thought if this person was my father or my father-in-law or someone I cared about, and he didn’t find a donor, I’d probably be angry.”

The idea got lodged in his mind and didn’t go away, and Johnston said he’s not sure why.

“I even waited a few days to tell (my wife),” said Johnston. “I thought it would go away, and it didn’t.”

Johnston’s wife, Heidi, is the pastor of the Faith Lutheran Church in Quincy. She had just started a new job and given birth to the couple’s son, Oliver, two months before. She was not enthusiastic about her husband undergoing a major elective surgery, so she spent about a week contemplating the decision, spiritually.

“Every week I stand up in the pulpit and ask people to step outside their comfort zone and care for people in need,” Heidi Johnston said. “I thought, ‘This is the opportunity that we’ve been given to do that,’ and I thought I should support Ben.”

Ben Johnston did some research and learned that most donors are back on their feet in a couple of months. Also, the hospital staff emphasized that he was free to change his mind at any stage of the testing, which took about two months.

Ben Johnston is composing a song about his organ-donation experience. This is the first verse of what is tentatively titled “Goodbye, Dear Kidney.”

After a third of a century, you up

and left me

Jumped right in to some other man

All my scars are still healing, and

I’ve got the feeling

I won’t be seeing you again

You left a hole deep within in me,

and I’m just beginning

To fill up the space the best that I can

And though sometimes I miss you,

the truth is I wish you

A long happy life with him

So goodbye, goodbye dear kidney

If I start to cry, if my tears don’t dry, forgive me

It’s hard to let you go, but in my heart I know

You’re better off without me

So goodbye, goodbye dear kidney

Heidi said she was with the Jolesz family while Ben and Frank were in the operating room, which was a great comfort. Ben’s surgery went very quickly.

“The kidney started perfusing (taking in blood) instantly,” said Heidi. “We were hugging and crying at Brigham and Women’s. That was incredible. That certainly bonds you. The daughters were in Ben’s hospital (room) rubbing his head and feet.

Jolesz wasn’t able to do a face-to-face interview because of the drugs he is taking to suppress his immune system, but he wrote in an email that he’s feeling much better.

“Ben gave me the gift of life, something that I almost lost,” Jolesz wrote. “Words are not enough to express my gratitude for Ben and Heidi’s selfless act of helping me. My hope is that what they did for me will motivate others to help those in need.”

Ben served two tours of duty in Iraq when he was an officer in the Army. His job was building bridges and other kinds of road construction. He said that he felt ambivalent about his work and the war in general, but donating a kidney was something he’d do again if he could.

It’s now just over two months after the operation and Ben said that except for the occasional pain at the incision, “I’m pretty much back to normal, and to me, that’s such a small amount of time to give someone a new lease on life. I would do it again.

“It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever done. Heidi made me a scrapbook for Christmas, and I get emotional looking at the pictures and reading what his daughters wrote.”

Everybody interviewed for this story said that they hope it encourages more people to donate kidneys.

“Everything aligned for Ben and he was able to give the gift of life to my father and help our family,” said Marta Jolesz. “This journey has been truly unbelievable, and we feel so fortunate to find not only a donor, but a donor like Ben and his family.”


Str / AP

Mourners and Sunni gunmen chant slogans against Iraq’s Shiite-led government during the funeral of a man killed when clashes erupted between al Qaeda gunmen and Iraqi army soldiers on Friday in Fallujah.

By F. Brinley Bruton, Staff Writer, NBC News

The United States will help Iraq fight an al Qaeda-linked group that seized the city of Fallujah in the west of the country, but will not send American troops, Secretary of State John Kerry said on Sunday.

“We will stand with the government of Iraq and with others who will push back against their efforts to destabilize,” Kerry told journalists as he left Jerusalem for Jordan and Saudi Arabia. “We are going to do everything that is possible. I will not go into the details.”

The Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (ISIL), which took control of Fallujah and Ramadi over last week, is one of the strongest rebel groups in Syria and has imposed a strict version of Islamic law in territories it holds.

U.S. intelligence officials said Friday the situation in western Iraq was “extremely dire” after the radical forces raised their flag in the town of Fallujah — site of two of the bloodiest battles during the Iraq war — and gained control of the city.

Kerry admitted that the U.S. was “very, very concerned” by the fighting, and called ISIL “the most dangerous players in that region.”

The ISIL claimed responsibility for a suicide car bombing in in Lebanon on Saturday.

Reuters contributed to this report. 

Related:

Al Qaeda fighters take over parts of two Iraq cities


Mohammed Jalil / EPA

An exterior view of the local council’s building destroyed by attackers in Fallujah, western Iraq, Jan. 3, 2014.

By Andrea Mitchell and Courtney Kube, NBC News

U.S. intelligence officials said Friday the situation in western Iraq was “extremely dire” after radical Sunni forces linked with al Qaeda raised their flag in the town of Fallujah – site of two of the bloodiest battles during the Iraq war – and gained control of the city.

Islamist insurgents have also battled tribesmen for control of the Iraqi city of Ramadi.

The fighters brandished their weapons and set police vehicles ablaze on Wednesday, The Associated Press reported. A provincial spokesman said the militants had taken over police stations and military posts in Fallujah and Ramadi after security forces left.

An interior ministry official told Agence France-Presse that ISIL, the al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, remained in control of parts of the two cities on Thursday.

The move is another sign that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has not been able to maintain control of the country since the United States withdrew its troops in 2011, failing to reach an agreement with the Maliki government to leave behind a residual force.

There are currently no U.S. troops in Fallujah or Ramadi, according to the Pentagon.

The State Department said the violence that reached another peak Friday was a spillover from the civil war in neighboring Syria — and that the border between Syria and Iraq has now become meaningless.

The United States rejected suggestions that American troops could help stabilize the situation.

“If we couldn’t control that border with 150,000 troops in that country during the war, what would a few hundred accomplish?” one U.S. official said.

The U.S., however, did last month authorize the sale to the Maliki government of Hellfire missiles and Scan Eagle surveillance drones.

The United States continues to have a large diplomatic presence in the country, along with about 100 Marines and 100 high-level institutional trainers — nearly all in Baghdad. There is also a smaller U.S. Consulate in Erbil.

During the two battles of Fallujah in 2004, the U.S. lost 51 and 95 troops, respectively. More than 1,000 U.S. troops were injured in total.


20130901-060955.jpgIraq’s grim August toll: 804 dead http://www.wcvb.com/news/national/Iraq-s-grim-August-toll-804-dead/-/9848944/21738256/-/gbusur/-/index.html?absolute=true via @WCVB

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