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Subject: In Defense of the Small Unit, in Battle and After the Fighting Ends - New York Times Guest OpEd
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November 28, 2012


Joe Lovelace sent this article around.  It's a good read.  He says: "Excellent article describing the need for the veteran peer to peer network that was established by SB 1325 (Sen. Nelson), 81st Legislative Session and implemented statewide by DSHS through contracts with the Local Mental Health Authorities.  The Texas Coordinating Council for Veterans Services in its report, October 1, 2012, recommended the state continue its commitment."

At War - Notes from the Front Lines

 November 27, 2012

In Defense of the Small Unit, in Battle and After the Fighting Ends


A few weeks ago, it was my friend's first anniversary of when he was struck by a roadside bomb in Sangin, Afghanistan. To celebrate his recovery, we pooled as many members of the old platoon together as we could to share in a night of antics.

That night I learned that it wasn't a party only for my friend, but also for all of us. That night, we were monuments to ourselves - each of us a tribute to what we had survived. We were monuments to the adventures we shared, the lives we lived and the friends we lost.

We came together in honor of a friend, but I think we came together because we needed to. It had been too long since we had reminded ourselves that we did exist, that we weren't just pictures on a computer screen and that we had fought and bled and lived through some of the worst times of our lives together.

Shakespeare says it best in "Henry V": "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; for he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother."

Today, though, it seems that this quote's theme has lost some of its sway. Of course, men and women are still fighting in Afghanistan and other parts of the world, and of course, those bonds are still being forged. But battles with post-traumatic stress disorder and moral injury appear to be fought, more often than not, by the individual. It is the individual that sheds his uniform and leaves his unit. It is the individual who is left to deal with the residue of battle.

The separation from a small cohesive unit comes as a shock to many, as it certainly did for me. One day you're on base in a unit that has felt every loss together as family would, not to mention you reside in a close-knit community where mind-sets, attitudes and professional relationships are based on shared experiences.

Then one day you're driving off base for the last time, and that physical support network of the barracks and familiar faces is gone.

You are cast into a world that is now based on your decisions. The mission of the unit is immediately removed from the question. Your immediate future is based on where you are going to go, and what you are going to do. The collective is gone and as the months pass, you find yourself looking wistfully through pictures of yourself on deployment - your friends crouched beside you, rifles held, eyes alert. You can feel the lingering swell of something momentous that you were once a part of, but now it feels like a dream.

This isolation can be overwhelming; our new environment is populated with people who can only listen and nod while we find ourselves craving someone who can just remind us that we actually went to war.

In the end you're left with pain from the bad days, the friends you can't call, the things you can't take back. Sure, you can talk to a psychologist, but it's tough. What do they know? They weren't there.

This is why the concept of the small unit must exist after one leaves the military. This is why it is so important to stay in contact with one another. In a small unit, you deal with challenges as a collective. No man is trained to take on an entrenched machine gun alone. You overcome as a team.

This mentality can and should be applied to mental wellness long after leaving the service. Check on your soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. Just because they've left your squad, it doesn't mean that the squad has left them.

How would you feel if an old member of your squad committed suicide tomorrow, and the last time you talked to him was that last day he was on base two years ago? It's a jarring question, but we all know it has happened.

It is unacceptable to pretend that once our friends leave the military, their issues are theirs alone to deal with. That's not how we would have dealt with problems in garrison, and it sure is not how we would do things in combat. As war fighters, leaders and friends, we can always do more.

We must do more.

Check out TexVet and the Military Veteran Peer Network to find a buddy near you

Thomas Gibbons-Neff, a native of Boston, is president of Georgetown University's Student Veterans Association and a former Marine. He served on active duty with the First Battalion, Sixth Marines, from 2007 to 2011 as a rifleman and participated in two deployments to Helmand Province in Afghanistan.

You can download this report at

The Governor's office released this information today.  TexVet participated in the workgroups that led to this report and we think that it is a great step toward improving the already excellent support Veterans receive in Texas.
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