‘It’s All About How You Carry It’
By: Brian Kehrl
The events of Christmas Day 2006 come up frequently for James M. Manning when he meets with the small group of combat veterans.
The soft-spoken 31-year-old Mashpee man was then a US Army medic attached to a combat engineer platoon with the 1st Infantry Division in Baghdad. It was late at night when the first vehicle in his convoy hit a roadside bomb. From the third vehicle, he could feel the explosion and saw it light up the desert sky. Three men were killed and one survived the bombing.
Mr. Manning would not say what he did that night, but he was awarded the Bronze Star with Valor clasp, which is given for heroic service during combat.
Less than a month later, President George W. Bush announced that he would send a surge of 20,000 more troops to Iraq, mostly to Baghdad.
His blue-green eyes steady, Mr. Manning recalled that explosions and gunfire were a daily occurrence from the fall of 2006 until the fall of 2007.
“It was a very bad time to be in Baghdad,” he said.
Mr. Manning is one of a core group of Cape Cod veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who meet to share ideas for how to cope with the trauma of war. The veterans support group, which began in January, is sponsored by Heroes in Transition, the foundation started by the Mashpee family of US Marine Captain Eric A. Jones.
Captain Jones was a helicopter pilot killed in action while flying a support mission in Afghanistan in January 2010. His parents, Kenneth A. and Cynthia J. Jones, said this week they are pleased with the progress the foundation has made after operating less than a year. Mr. Manning is one of the beneficiaries of the foundation’s success.
“When I got back, I was interested in going to group therapy,” Mr. Manning said, referring to his return to civilian life on Cape Cod in 2009. “But there just wasn’t anything here. It was in Providence and Brockton, but not on the Cape.”
Now, every two weeks, he meets with a group of four to six other Cape Cod veterans and two facilitators to talk about their experiences.
One of the therapists, Pamela W. Brighton, said that a typical problem for returning veterans is trouble with sleep.
“They can’t fall asleep, can’t stay asleep, or they don’t sleep six to eight hours at a go,” she said. Others feel uncomfortable with crowds and loud noises. “They have a startle response that keeps them from being able to relax.”
If the support group succeeds, it will counteract the isolation that the veterans feel once they rejoin the civilian population and are surrounded by people who are unaware of their wartime lives, she said.
Ms. Brighton began her career treating veterans of the Vietnam War who were serving prison terms in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Together with therapist Freda Diamond, she said she wants to make sure the most recent veterans have better lives than the Vietnam vets she worked with.
“Most of them are dead now,” she said. “We didn’t do a good job at dealing with PTSD [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder]. I see another generation of people coming home changed by their wartime experiences. I think we owe it to them to help them transition back into a world that is so different from where they came from in a way that allows them to have happy, productive lives.”
By all accounts, Mr. Manning is an example of successful transition to civilian life. Last summer he bought a house in a neighborhood off Great Neck Road South with his wife, Mashpee High School Spanish teacher Marla M. Manning.
The couple married on Cape Cod in February 2007 while he was home on a two-week break. He works at the Veterans Administration outpatient clinic in Hyannis, making use of his training as a medic. In May, he plans to go to nursing school at Massachusetts General Hospital Institute of Health Professions in Boston.
Ms. Jones said in an interview this week that Mr. Manning has been the perfect ambassador for getting the word out about the Heroes in Transition support group. In addition to recruiting young veterans by word of mouth, Mr. Manning is running a 24-hour relay race at the end of the month from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to Washington, DC, to raise money for the foundation. The race is called the American Odyssey Relay Run.
Once she and her husband learned that there was a need for support groups, it became part of the core mission of the foundation, Ms. Jones said.
“When our veterans come back, it’s hard for them to relate to their friends who have not been in combat,” she said. “I’m very happy about the way in which the group has taken off, the way the walls have come down.”
The foundation has achieved some major milestones in its first few months. After receiving 501(c)3 nonprofit status last August, the organization raised enough money at a gala dinner in October to pay for the $20,000 training of a service dog, which will be given to a disabled combat veteran.
The black Labrador puppy is named Jethro, which was Captain Jones’s call sign as a pilot. Jethro is currently in training at the NEADS program, which employs inmates in a Boston prison to teach the dogs skills and socialize them.
“It’s just a wonderful program,” Ms. Jones said.
Running the foundation has been a kind of therapy, Ms. Jones said, although the pain of losing her son just 15 months ago is never far from the surface.
“As hard as it is to do this, it’s helped in our grieving tremendously,” she said. “It has shown us the compassion and love inside of people. I would never wish this on anyone, but it is a matter of taking what God has given you and turning your lead into gold.”
For Mr. Manning, the lead weight of his experience in Iraq has not lifted, but it is made lighter by sharing with other veterans.
“I’ll always have Christmas—that will always be with me no matter how much I transition,” he said. “But it’s all about how you carry it. That’s what we work on in the group.”