Ruth Z. Deming, winner of a Leeway Grant for Women Artists, has had her work published in lit mags including Hektoen International, Creative Nonfiction, Haggard and Halloo, and Literary Yard. A psychotherapist and mental health advocate, she runs New Directions Support Group for people with depression, bipolar disorder, and their loved ones. Viewwww.newdirectionssupport.org. She runs a weekly writers' group in the comfy home of one of our talented writers. She lives in Willow Grove, a suburb of Philadelphia. Her blog is www.ruthzdeming.blogspot.com.
Former Warriors Speak Their Mind
It was a beautiful day in early autumn when Justin Stone was driving an armored transport truck to deliver millions of dollars to the Federal Reserve Bank in New York City. His buddy sat in the passenger seat as they drove on the Jersey Turnpike toward the financial capital of the world in Lower Manhattan.
As they listened to the Howard Stern Show, they could scarcely believe what they were hearing. The World Trade Tower had been hit by a plane and was in the process of collapsing. Then, to their utter amazement and horror, the second tower was hit by another plane.
It was Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001, a day that would live in infamy, as did December 7, 1941, when Pearl Harbor was attacked.
Within minutes they could view the collapsing buildings.
Thick clouds of smoke poured into the sky, visible from miles away in New Jersey, said Justin. He turned the truck around and headed back to the Philadelphia Reserve Bank, where they’d come from.
No question about it. Whatever enemy had tried to destroy his country, Justin Stone was going to fight back. The military was in his blood. His dad had served in Vietnam and Justin had already completed a 10-year tour of duty in the Army.
When he got home to Levittown, where he lives with wife Dana and their two sons, Derrick, then 6, and Dustin, 3, he got ready to be called up by the National Guard. As a member of the Guard, he had worked with them one weekend a month and two weeks in the summer.
Soon he got the call. “Operation Enduring Freedom” – the idealistic name for the American involvement in Afghanistan – began Oct. 7, 2001. Sixteen years ago.
Justin said his last tearful goodbyes to his young family at Fort Dix, NJ, and began the long flight to Afghanistan.
Derrick Lilley joined the Marines as a teenager in 1998. “I wanted to get away from a life of partying and drinking.” With no purpose in life, Derrick counted on the structure and discipline of the Marines to straighten him out, he said.
His plan worked. He served in Iraq starting in 1999, the first of three tours of duty. The Telford native remembers flying over “a lot of desert and open flat plains.”
“I saw too much,” said the then 33-year-old Derrick, a lance corporal, who was a single man when he saw combat in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I didn’t sleep much during the wars and I don’t sleep much now,” said the blue-eyed and cheerful former Marine.
Justin Stone and Derrick Lilley met for the first time while doing construction work after serving in the military. Back then, in 2013, they worked on a new water main near the library in Willow Grove. Justine drove a backhoe and Derrick operated a dump truck.
Their precision work requires great skill and concentration while they work with a team of six to upgrade the water infrastructure.
But the chilling, nonstop after-effects of their war years remained with them, even as they toiled in the hot sun, 9 years after they left the military in 2004.
Justin, then 39, suffers from migraines. “I’ll watch something in the news at night that reminds me of somewhere I was at and then I have nightmares.” He takes four tablets of Excedrin. Extra-strength.
Derrick also has nightmares. “Sometimes I’ll wake up in the middle of the night scared as hell,” he said. “I even get them in the daytime.”
His persistent dreams include hearing piercing blasts of gunfire going off and the high-pitched screams of sirens. “It’s not fun,” he said.
Post-traumatic stress disorder.
It was unnamed and unrecognized until one Dr. Matthew Friedman categorized it after the war in Vietnam.
The doctor described it as a severe anxiety disorder that can occur after a traumatic event such as combat or military exposure, sexual or physical assault, or a natural disaster. Symptoms include anger, fear, nightmares, hopelessness, shame and despair, according to the US Veterans National Center for PTSD.
Neither man wishes to seek professional counseling. Derrick Lilley comforts himself by drinking. Like Justin, he only talks about his combat experiences with other veterans who have witnessed war.
“I have buddies going to the VA every week who are on medicines,” said Derrick. “I don’t want to deal with all the medicines because I've seen my buddies go through all the problems with medicine and side effects,” he said.
Justin finds it helpful to talk to his father, who served in Vietnam in the Marines, and other former soldiers. “No one understands,” said Justin, “unless they’ve seen combat.”
Both men credit their wives with being their staunchest emotional supports.
Justin met his wife while serving in the army base of Kitzgen, Germany. Dana, also in the Army, was secretary to a major. Pretty much love at first sight, said Justin, they were married in Germany by a justice of the peace.
Neither one is religious, though, ironically, Justin’s late grandfather was a Baptist minister and Dana's mom is active in the Lutheran church and sings in the choir.
Through the miracle of the Internet, he and his family communicated frequently while he was in Afghanistan. Justin learned his younger son, Dustin, joined the wrestling team. The Stone family are all wrestlers, including Justin’s dad who wrestled in high school.
Justin coaches wrestling today. Amazingly, several other wrestling coaches served in Afghanistan. Might there be a connection, he wonders, between wrestlers and warriors?
In ancient Greece, wrestling was highly prized. The sport was glorified in The Iliad, the eighth century B.C. story of The Trojan War as told by Homer.
Wrestling could be brutal, as described in the mythical battle in which Hercules crushes the vicious giant Antaeus in a bear hug.
Lance Corporal Derrick Lilley was a single man when he came home from Afghanistan in 2004. He was doing landscaping for a 4-H building when the facilities manager asked him if he was interested in dating her daughter, Vicki, who now works as a financial marketing consultant.
Derrick jumped at the opportunity. But his car would not cooperate. The battery was dead and he was forced to cancel their first two dates. Vicki wondered if he would stand her up a third time. Fortunately, his car, with a new battery, started up and so did their relationship.
“I drove to her apartment in Harleysville,” he remembered. Vicki's son was at her parents' house. "We had dinner – hoagies – and watched a movie. We hung out until 10 or 11 pm.
“I came over the next day. Then I started staying over and never left.”
They were married a year later and in rapid succession had two daughters: Greyson, 2, and Colby, 1, who join their half-brother Aiden, 10.
“We have everything in common. We joke around and laugh a lot. She’s been at my side all this time,” he said.
What did the warriors dream about doing when they would finally get home?
If Justin dreamed of going swimming and fishing in the Delaware River while stationed in Afghanistan, Derrick had his own set of daydreams. “I’d dream about eating pizza and drinking.” Drinking was strictly forbidden in Iraq and Afghanistan, he said.
The first thing Derrick did upon returning to the States in 2004, was drive from the Philadelphia International Airport straight into Philly to order a beer and pizza.
Not surprisingly, Justin did the same thing when he got home from Afghanistan. Good ole Sports Pizza awaited him in Levittown.
The men in the construction crew are all good buddies. Munching on doughnuts from nearby Weinrich Bakery, they join in the discussion about the war years.
“Did you get a good reception when you got home?” asked Brad Yurick of Norristown, whose cheek puffs out with a wad of tobacco like former Phillies’ left fielder Raul Ibanez.
Justin, who’s 5-foot-9 and sports a trim beard, responded with a hearty yes. “When I go to a bar everyone wants to buy me a drink,” he said. “It’s hard to take it all in because I just think of it as doing my job. It didn’t dawn on me that what we were doing was pretty big.
“I felt like a rock star,” he laughed.
No one had any idea what war was really like.
“I really enjoyed serving in the military,” Justin reminiscences.
And then there was Afghanistan.
When Justin first flew over the landlocked country where he would serve for 18 months, he saw the brown mountainous terrain and flat colorless deserts. "There was very little green," he remembered about the land that had been occupied by Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, the Mughal Empire, Russian tsars, the British Empire, the Soviet Union, and currently a coalition force of NATO troops and the United States of America.
Just as Vietnam was a gargantuan challenge because of the intense heat, so was Afghanistan. Said Justin: “It’s 130 degrees during the day and then it drops to 50 or 30 in the night. You sweat all day long and freeze at night.”
In the morning, the soldiers would strap on 80 to 100 pounds of equipment. Their physical endurance was tested to the limit.
Justin’s close buddy, Chris Geiger, 38, of Allentown, PA, became a casualty of the blistering heat. With his voice breaking, Justin talked about Geiger perishing from what turned out to be a heart attack from the suffocating heat. Justin pulls up his sleeve to reveal a tattoo, made by a friend of his, to honor Chris Geiger. See photo.
The dead are shipped home from Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan. “They actually have a good way of doing it,” said Justin. "They escort the coffin to the C-17 or C-130 airplane which will arrive at Dover Air Force Base."
In “chow hall,” Justin sat with the renowned Pat Tillman, the National Football League linebacker who quit a promising career to enlist in the Army. He served several tours of duty in Afghanistan before he was killed in 2003 at age 38 by friendly fire.
The food overseas was fairly good, said Justin.
Justin’s wife Dana would send frequent “care packages,” as did his grandmother.
“You look out for all your enlisted people,” said Justin, whose rank as Staff Sergeant made him a leader.
“If you take care of your men, they’ll take care of you. They’re like your own kids,” he said.
Dana’s packages – which were shared by everyone - included “newspapers from home, socks, shampoo, and baby wipes because you couldn’t always get a shower.” They also included candy.
“Jolly Ranchers were really big favorites,” he said. His grandmother would send chocolate oatmeal cookies, which were also a big hit with the guys.
Dana also sent care packages for the Afghanis. Included were winter coats, toys for the children, and all sorts of balls - footballs, baseballs, and soccer balls.
“The big thing was soccer balls. They loved them. In some of the villages, you made really good friends.
“It was sad leaving them behind,” he said.
Dana always found time to help out the Afghan people. “The average income of the Afghani,” said Justin, “is only $80 a year.”
A dancer her whole life, Dana owns her own dance studio in Bristol Township.
Justin kept physically fit overseas. He spent three to four hours every day working out in the gym. He would daydream about coming home and holding his wife and sons, now 18 and 15, in his arms.
But he was far from home and far from safe.
“The enemy shot mortars into our camp once or twice a week,” he said, referring to the primitive Soviet-made pieces of artillery.
When he first got to Afghanistan, he couldn’t sleep for the first three days. He and the other new soldiers acclimated to the frighteningly loud explosives. “I got so I was able to sleep through anything,” he said.
His emotions were "all over the place. It was a roller coaster of emotions every day," he said.
Toward the end of his 18-month stay in Afghanistan, the unthinkable happened. Because the United States was fighting two wars – Iraq and Afghanistan – there wasn’t enough ammunition to go around.
“We were told to ration our ammunition. How can you do this when you’re fighting?” he said. "How could I do this to guys who looked up to me?"
He is still incredulous.
Justin spent time with the Afghani people. “They liked us,” he said. "They were glad we were there. They wanted the Taliban out because they’re pretty awful people.”
Meeting the tribal elders was a memorable experience. “They’d cook up a big meal for us. There was lots of rice and squash and vegetables.”
He got used to seeing the Afghani women in their dark tent-like burkhas which enveloped their bodies.
“You’d only see their eyeballs because they had mesh over their eyes,” he said.
At the construction site where the noonday sun shines over the crew, Justin Stone jumps into his orange backhoe. Its huge teeth easily dig up chunks of asphalt on Park Avenue, near the Upper Moreland Library and the historic five-story apartment building – now Willow Grove Apartments - that once housed band leaders, such as John Philip Sousa, who performed at the former Willow Grove Amusement Park across the street, which is now the Willow Grove Park mall.
Justin dismounts from the backhoe and helps lay pipes and iron ductiles into the 4-foot by 8-foot trench. With military precision, six other men in the team do their part.
“It’s a very demanding and dangerous job,” said Brad Yurick, in his mirrored sun glasses and orange hard hat.
“This one water main is a particularly involved job because of all the utilities underground, some of them unmarked.” There’s always a danger, he explained, that a gas main might explode. And, although the men are extremely careful - "We watch out for one another" - every single one of them has suffered injuries at one time or another.
Brad extols the virtues of the crew and how well they work together: young Dalton Kirkman, aka “Roadhouse,” named after the 1989 action movie whose shapely tattoos adorn his body; Rick Hinkle, who wears a silver cross; Kevin the white-haired foreman, with whom Brad rides to work; Steve Church in the orange excavating machine, and Derrick Lilley, waiting to see action in his huge white dump truck. While waiting, he watches videos of his kids on his phone.
Each man does his part, like members of an orchestra awaiting his turn to perform.
“Do you feel you accomplished anything in Afghanistan?” Brad asked Justin.
“At the time, yes,” said Justin. “But then, things would turn right around and you’d give it all back.”
Derrick believes the same thing. “Some people wanted us in Iraq and Afghanistan, and some didn’t.
"In the end, we made no difference at all.”
It will take a couple of weeks to install the water main the whole length of the block. The men work from 7 in the morning until 3:30 p.m.
At the end of each day, former Army Lance Corporal Derrick Lilley backs up his white dump truck and drops a load of stones into the trench to fill it up.
Afterward, a coat of blacktop is poured over the stones. It glistens in the sun when it dries, the end of a rewarding day of hard work.
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