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Group Helps Vets Adjust to Life on the Home Front

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Roger King, left, with Hunter, and Sean O’Donnell, with Kuno, are members of a new veterans support group in Sag Harbor.

By Stephen J. Kotz

U.S. Marine Lance Corporal Roger King was stationed at an outpost in Fallujah, Iraq, on July 31, 2006, when a patrol returning to the base was ambushed near the front gate. Lance Corporal King, who was nearby, ran to get his weapon to return fire. It was the last thing he remembered.

“I was hit by a sniper in the helmet,” said Mr. King, who was knocked unconscious by the bullet’s impact. After three days of medical treatment, he was back on duty, showing no apparent lingering effects from his head injury, and chalking up his lucky escape to his modern helmet.

But Mr. King, a Sag Harbor native, who had been planning to reenlist when his tour of duty ended, knew something was wrong several months later when, during a training mission, he had to play the role of a soldier who had been shot and killed by a sniper. “It led to me getting nightmares and the post-traumatic effects of getting shot,” he said.

Mr. King said he eventually concluded that he could not fulfill the duties expected of him as a marine and reluctantly chose to leave the service. Once back home, though, he continued to do battle with his nightmares and was eventually referred to Katherine Mitchell, a licensed clinical social worker, by a friend at the Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Sag Harbor.

“It became pretty clear, early on, that it was important to have something available to him, beyond just talking to me,” said Ms. Mitchell, who began meeting with Mr. King in June 2013 and thought he would benefit from talking about his readjustment to civilian life with fellow veterans.

After a little research, Ms. Mitchell discovered the PFC Joseph P. Dwyer Peer Support Project, a joint initiative of the Suffolk County Veterans Service Agency and the Suffolk County United Veterans.

The project is named after Joseph Dwyer, an army medic from Mt. Sinai, who, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, committed suicide after his return from Iraq in 2008. The program, which was championed by State Senator Lee Zeldin, is funded by New York State and has now been expanded to a dozen counties statewide.

By September, the project had agreed to launch its first peer support group on the East End, one that now meets weekly at Ms. Mitchell’s Noyac office.

Although Ms. Mitchell said post-traumatic stress disorder is a major concern and that the number of veterans committing suicide has reached epidemic proportions—a recent Veterans Administration study found that as many as 22 veterans kill themselves each day—she stressed that the support group is available to serve all veterans.

“Anybody who serves in the military is changed by it, it’s a change of culture,” she said. “It’s not just about PTSD and guys freaking out. There are a lot of things to come to terms with while readjusting to civilian life.”

“With peer support, we are trying to provide an alternative to group therapy,” said Sean O’Donnell, a sergeant in the Army National Guard from Patchogue, who now serves as the facilitator of the Noyac/Sag Harbor group. “We are trying to catch the guys who fall through the net” and might not actively seek out more traditional forums to discuss their problems.

Mr. O’Donnell said he had his own difficulties readjusting to civilian life. In Iraq, he served on a security detail for convoys of 50 to 100 18-wheel semi-tractor trailers that would barrel from Kuwait into Iraq.

“We didn’t have a lot of fire fights, but there were plenty of close calls,” said Mr. O’Donnell. “Plus, there was the constant tension, the constant threat of a truck rolling over or getting blown up. My job was to sit up and be on the alert.”

When he got home, he found himself suffering from a condition known as hyper vigilence in which he would notice absolutely everything along the road, from the clothing other drivers were wearing to pieces of debris on the shoulder. It got to the point, he said, where he would make his wife drive and he would sit with his eyes closed in a fully reclined passenger seat to try to avoid the stress it caused.

Mr. O’Donnell, who now runs four different meetings in Suffolk County each week, said that another aspect of the PFC Joseph Dwyer Project is that the program is willing to offer veterans non-traditional services that run the gamut from yoga to acupuncture.

It just so happens that Ms. Mitchell shares office space with Mikal Gohring, an acupuncturist, who is offering free treatments to the members of the support group following a model that was developed by volunteers treating victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Mr. Gohring said that many veterans the group in New Orleans treated for storm-related stress issues, raved about the results, leading it to expand its offerings.

“I’m looking forward to it growing,” he said, noting that he planned to offer demonstrations at the Sag Harbor VFW and American Legion.

Mr. O’Donnell, whose German short-haired pointer, Kuno, recently sired puppies, has added yet another offered to the mix in the form of a therapy dog program that he leads on weekends. One of his puppies, Hunter, will be going to Mr. King.

“We pretty much offer the whole spectrum,” said Mr. O’Donnell, “from alternative treatments to offering outings for guys who want to go out and go on fishing trips or go kayaking.”

There’s food too. Jordan’s Initiative, the charity started by JoAnn Lyles, whose son’s Jordan Haerter was killed in Iraq six years ago this week, delivers free meals to the veterans on meeting nights.

The director of the PFC Joseph P. Dwyer Peer Support Project, John Schulz, is also veteran, who served in the Marine Corps in Iraq.

“These guys are coming back, especially the reservists, with very little debriefing,” he said. “They are released back into the world and a year later they could be called right back up again.”

“The groups usually start by word of mouth, veterans talking to veterans,” he continued. There are now seven active groups in Suffolk County and he said he expected two or three more to be up and running by summer. “Sag Harbor seems to be a successful. We’d like to set them up in Southampton and East Hampton.”

Mr. Schulz said the project likes to keep the groups small. “We try not to have more than four or five guys,” he said. “One the group gets too big, people sit back and let the other people do the talking or they just get overwhelmed.”

“I do what I can, but this is really about peer support,” said Ms. Mitchell of the meetings at her office. “I’m always on the fringes of it.”

She added, though, that it’s not always just veterans. “They have had a couple of meetings where they have invited significant others so family members get an idea of what their loved ones have experienced.”

“It’s not just talking about your problems,” added Mr. King, who is training to become a facilitator himself as the program expands. “It’s about talking to other vets, bouncing ideas off of them, and pretty much the idea of having that best friend and comrade who is willing to say, ‘Hey, this is what works for me.’”

Honoring Jordan

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An anonymous online petition drive begun late last year with the goal of obtaining the Congressional Medal of Honor for Lance Corporal Jordan Haerter and his fellow marine, Corporal Jonathan Yale, who were killed in Iraq 2008 as they defended their position from a suicide truck bomber, is gaining traction.

On Sunday, U.S. Representative Tim Bishop was in town to announce at the Sag Harbor American Legion that he and Representative Robert Hurt of Virginia, who represents Corporal Yale’s family, had introduced legislation seeking a presidential review to determine whether the two marines, who have been credited with savings the lives of 50 other marines, as well as a number of Iraqi police officers, should be posthumously awarded the nation’s highest military honor.

Despite the fanfare that came with Mr. Bishop’s visit, both he and Jordan’s dad, Christian Haerter, made it clear they were not holding out a great deal of hope that the process, which must wind its way from the House Armed Services Committee to the Pentagon and finally the White House, will ultimately result in the medal being awarded.

But Mr. Haerter made it very clear that the effort has already been a success because it has helped keep the memory of his son alive. That was evident at the turnout on Sunday, just as it has been evident every July when the Wounded Warrior’s Soldier Ride passes through the village, and just as it was evident on a sad April day when Jordan’s funeral procession passed through the village.

Sag Harbor has always remembered those who have served this country in time of war, with monuments commemorating conflicts from the Revolutionary War to Vietnam scattered from Otter Pond to Marine Park, and on Windmill Beach where a memorial was erected for Jordan. And just off Jermain Avenue, in Oakland Cemetery, Jordan’s neatly tended grave, with its flags, photo and mementoes, has become something of an unofficial monument to the bloodshed in Iraq. Anyone wanting to honor his memory would do well to pay it a visit.

JoAnn Lyles

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web convo Lyles

The mother of the late Marine Lance Corporal Jordan C. Haerter and member of the organizing committee for “Solider Ride The Hamptons” talks about next weekend’s Solider Ride event, staying in touch with her son’s battalion and how she remembers her son, who was killed in combat two-and-a-half-years ago at the age of 19 defending a checkpoint in Ramadi, Iraq.

The last three years “Solider Ride The Hamptons” has dedicated its summer cycling and walk/run event to your late son Lance Corporal Jordan C. Haerter. What drew you to become an active member of the organization?

The first invited me after Jordan was killed. That first year was very hard. Jordan’s birthday is July 30 so it was a lot to take in, but it has grown into a very good thing for me to celebrate. It is a great organization and when Jordan died it was one of those things I could do to keep busy, to stay involved. It is something that helps me get through and the organization does so very much for the veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, which is important to me.

For the second year, the Soldier Ride event will include a tribute to your son in your hometown of Sag Harbor. Will the event differ much this year from last year’s event?

This year, like last year, there will be a tribute to Jordan at the base of the bridge [named the Lance Corporal Jordan C. Haerter Veterans Memorial Bridge in honor of the fallen Marine], but we will also remember Army First Lieutenant Joseph Theinert [who was killed in Afghanistan on June 4 at the age of 24], whose family is from Sag Harbor and Shelter Island so it will be even more poignant. We did talk about having the ride through Shelter Island and over the ferry, but it didn’t work out for this year. One year, we may make that jump though.

Will you ride in next weekend’s event?

I will be a walker. Some day, I think I will jump on a bike. I think a lot of people are realizing the 30-mile bike route is very doable.

Chris Kestler [Theinert’s mother] and her husband will walk with me and I think that is nice. It is nice our families can come to this event and give support to each other.

Soldier Ride has evolved into an organization that not only provides financial support for the Wounded Warrior organization, but is also a rehabilitative event nationwide for wounded soldiers returning from combat overseas. Have you had a chance to meet some of the riders?

I have. We have a VIP breakfast for the Wounded Warrior organization and we get to sit down and talk with a lot of the servicemen and women then. I think though, it is the most beneficial for the people who actually ride in the event. They get to ride side-by-side and see all the nice things that people do, standing on the side of the road with signs supporting the troops. I think that experience really captures the event.

As an organizer, have you found a lot of support from village residents for the Solider Ride cause?

We are trying to involve Sag Harbor more. “In Jordan’s Honor,” the memorial fund I have established in his name will have an award this year for the “Most Patriotic Display” and a “Shows the Most Spirit” award in Sag Harbor and we really want to get the word out on that. What we are hoping is that people on the route will decorate their houses, wear red, white and blue, make sure their flags are up, make thank you signs for the wounded warriors and line Main Street, Sag Harbor and the bridge. The winners will be announced in The Sag Harbor Express. We really hope the business community gets involved, hands out flags, and gets people on the streets. We are also going to put notices on Long Beach so the beachgoers will come up the street and cheer on the riders at the right time.

What are some of the other things you are hoping In Jordan’s Honor will be able to accomplish in the near term?

We are trying to establish a Purple Heart Trail locally. It’s a national organization that marks certain highways and parklands to recognize veterans. We are working with Tom Ronayne, director of the Suffolk County Veterans Service Agency. Next week we are hoping to take a tour of different areas and will start out in the Sag Harbor area.

Last year, members of the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines – Jordan’s division – were able to attend Soldier Ride in honor of your son. Will any members of the battalion be at this year’s event?

Not many, I think first because they are still deployed and will not be back until early August. A few of them did not deploy and one of them who lost his hearing in the blast that killed Jordan will be here with his wife.

Do you keep in touch with members of Jordan’s battalion?

Yes. Facebook helps. We are able to chat. This deployment helps because they are on a ship and have more access to computers. I definitely keep in touch with all of them. It helps.

Will Solider Ride include the Honor Our Heroes ride down Main Street, Sag Harbor again?

Yes. After the tribute to Jordan, Chris [Carney, one of the founders of Soldier Ride] will lead a pack of wounded warrior riders down Main Street at noon. That is really when we want the business owners to try and win our contest and pass out flags, get people on the streets. Last year, the walk was in Sag Harbor at noon, but it was too hot, so we will start the walk at 9 a.m. and at noon walkers from Amagansett and Sag Harbor can come together on Long Wharf for the tribute to Jordan.

As a mother, I imagine Jordan is always with you. How do you celebrate him daily? Are there little moments you still keep for the two of you?

I go past his grave every day on the way to work and it feels good there. We have a bench and some chimes and it is a nice place to sit where I can tell him what is happening. It is really important to me to keep up with his friends, and his fellow Marines.

I was chatting with one of the Marines, and they can’t always tell you where they are for security purposes. And he said, ‘I’ll give you a hint.’ They all call him Haerter and he said, ‘it’s Haerter’s first name.’ I said, I think I know where that is.

Soldier Ride The Hamptons will host early registration Saturday and Sunday at Windmill Beach in Sag Harbor from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and on The Green in Amagansett from noon to 6 p.m. Registration is also available at www.soldierridethehamptons.com. The event will be held on Saturday, July 24 starting at 8 a.m. with a light breakfast at Oceanview Farm in Amagansett and Long Wharf in Sag Harbor. Participants can choose between a 30 or 60 mile bike route or one of two four mile walk/runs. The tribute to Lance Corporal Jordan Haerter will begin at 11:30 a.m. at Long Wharf in Sag Harbor.

The cost is $50 for the bike ride; $25 for riders under 21; $75 the day of the event and $25 for the walk/run. For more information and for routes, visit www.soldierridethehamptons.com or call 903-1701.

Salute for A Hero: Navy Cross for Jordan Haerter; President Singles Out Sag Harbor Native in Friday’s Speech

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ceremony honoring Jordan haerter

A week after Sag Harbor’s L/Cpl Jordan Haerter was honored posthumously with the Navy Cross for his act of heroism saving the lives of dozens of fellow Marines from a suicide bomber last year, he was singled out in President Barack Obama’s speech this Friday morning, February 27, at Camp LeJeune, where Haerter had done his basic training. In his speech, Obama declared the combat mission in Iraq would end by August 31, 2010, and he praised the servicemen and women who fought to liberate the country. In particular he lauded those who gave their lives, mentioning L/Cpl Haerter and the other Marine who died with him that day, Corporal Jonathan T. Yale.

“In an age when suicide is a weapon, they were suddenly faced with an oncoming truck filled with explosives,” the president said on Friday. “These two Marines stood their ground. These two Marines opened fire. And these two Marines stopped that truck. When the thousands of pounds of explosives detonated, they had saved fifty Marines and Iraqi police who would have been in the truck’s path.”For an excerpt and video of the speech, see the end of this post.    

It was just after 2 a.m. when the bus pulled out of the Pierson High School parking lot in Sag Harbor last Friday, February 20 — headed for the Quantico Marine Base in Virginia for an 11 a.m. ceremony, posthumously awarding the Navy Cross Medal to Lance Cpl. Haerter.
It was a decision made by the Secretary of the Navy, the highest-ranking military official — second only to the United States President, that two particular men receive the award for valor.The Navy Cross is the second highest medal awarded for valor in the military, next to the Medal of Honor.
Haerter was a 2006 Pierson graduate, enlisted into the Marines and sent to Iraq last year. His duties came to an abrupt end when he, along with Corporal Yale, were mortally wounded, defending their post from a suicide truck attack in Ramadi, Iraq.

As the two Marines held their positions at a checkpoint just outside a security station, they motioned for the truck to slow down. Both Haeter and Yale noticed the truck was ignoring their requests and identified the vehicle as a threat. They shot at the truck, killing the driver, but at the same time, setting off the 2000 pounds of explosives in the vehicle. Both Haerter, 19 and Yale, 21, belonged to the First Battalion, Ninth Marines. Now they are credited with saving 33 of their own men, and hundreds of others through their heroic efforts.
As friends, family, and military personnel found their way to their seats on Friday at the Quantico Marine Base in Virginia, Marines surrounded the room, poised at attention.
Haerter’s father, Christian, recalled walking through the museum, when he first arrived, and said it was “breathtaking.”
“It was like a shrine to the Marines,” he said, “a lot of history oozes from there, and to know that we were there specifically in honor of Jordan, brought tears to my eyes.”
As the Marines escorted people into the museum, portraits of both Haerter and Yale stood on easels, underscoring the story of their heroism for everyone who entered that day.
Christian also added there were small framed photos of both Haerter and Yale in the gift shop, with their dates of birth and death. He said he saw those photos and realized what his son’s heroism meant to so many others.
The ceremony began with the Marine band playing the National Anthem.
The men in the One-Eight and One-Nine battalions then “snapped to attention,” according to JoAnn Lyles, Jordan’s mother, as Secretary of the Navy, David Witnner looked them over, to make sure their uniforms were up to military standards. He then released them to parade rest and gave his speech.
“The ceremony was really beautiful,” Lyles recalled. She said the secretary spoke “eloquently” about both young men being honored that day.

“Today’s ceremony is a great occasion to give the American people some sense of the debt we owe to our Marines and to all of our military forces who defend freedom around the world,” said Witnner, the day’s only speaker.
“Jonathan and Jordan are shining examples of the promise of America’s next generation,” Witnner continued. “They could have had many other opportunities in life. Yet they chose to leave these things behind and devote themselves instead to the calling of their country. They gave their lives as they lived them, for truths as emphatic as they are simple: Brotherhood. Loyalty. Devotion. Sacrifice. Extraordinary Heroism—those words epitomize their last selfless act on this Earth.”
Lyles said, amid tears, that she had mixed emotions sitting, listening to the speech.
“As the citations were being read, all the military stood [out of respect] and we were told to stay seated,” Lyles said.
“It was tough,” she said, “it was truly an honor and I was fighting back tears.”
First Witnner stood in front of Yale’s wife, and read the entire citation to her. Then, Witnner moved to both Lyles and Christian and read the citation to them. Witnner presented each parent with the Navy Cross.

During reception ceremony, Tom Toole, a Sag Harbor native and retiree from the U.S. Air Force, who knew Haerter from a young boy, gave Lyles and Christian a hand-made shadow box, made of cherry wood, with replicas of all Haerter’s medals, his dog tags and a reproduction of the Navy Cross inside. Toole also gave each of them a flag that flew over the capital in Albany.
Lyles said now, in her living room, she has a new coffee table, with a velvet lined draw and a glass cover to showcase her son’s achievements.
Sag Harbor Mayor Greg Ferraris and Assemblyman Fred W. Theile Jr. both flew down to Virginia Friday morning to participate in the honoring of the two young men.
Ferraris felt the ceremony was impressive and said he was “deeply honored to be able to witness this event, and humbled at the same time.” He added that Haerter was being awarded for such an amazing sacrifice.
Christian said that now, as he sits and reflects on the experience, he told his friend this very same thing:
“I’ve kind of come to realize and accept Jordan’s death. The thing that is hard to believe is the magnitude of what Jordan accomplished and the sacrifice that allowed him to do what he did that day.”

From President Barack Obama’s speech at Camp LeJeune, February 27, 2009:

“The starting point for our policies must always be the safety of the American people. I know that you – the men and women of the finest fighting force in the history of the world – can meet any challenge, and defeat any foe. And as long as I am your Commander-in-Chief, I promise you that I will only send you into harm’s way when it is absolutely necessary, and provide you with the equipment and support you need to get the job done. That is the most important lesson of all – for the consequences of war are dire, the sacrifices immeasurable.

You know because you have seen those sacrifices. You have lived them. And we all honor them.

“Semper Fidelis” – it means always being faithful to Corps, and to country, and to the memory of fallen comrades like Corporal Jonathan Yale and Lance Corporal Jordan Haerter. These young men enlisted in a time of war, knowing they would face great danger. They came here, to Camp Lejeune, as they trained for their mission. And last April, they were standing guard in Anbar. In an age when suicide is a weapon, they were suddenly faced with an oncoming truck filled with explosives. These two Marines stood their ground. These two Marines opened fire. And these two Marines stopped that truck. When the thousands of pounds of explosives detonated, they had saved fifty Marines and Iraqi police who would have been in the truck’s path, but Corporal Yale and Lance Corporal Haerter lost their own lives. Jonathan was 21. Jordan was 19.

In the town where Jordan Haerter was from, a bridge was dedicated in his name. One Marine who traveled to the ceremony said: “We flew here from all over the country to pay tribute to our friend Jordan, who risked his life to save us. We wouldn’t be here without him.”

America’s time in Iraq is filled with stories of men and women like this. Their names are written into bridges and town squares. They are etched into stones at Arlington, and in quiet places of rest across our land. They are spoken in schools and on city blocks. They live on in the memories of those who wear your uniform, in the hearts of those they loved, and in the freedom of the nation they served.”

Haerter to Receive Navy Cross

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This Friday, friends, family and members of the community will be traveling to Virginia to attend a ceremony at the National Museum of the Marine Corps, where Lance Cpl. Jordan Haerter will posthumously be awarded the Navy Cross – the highest medal for bravery given by the Department of the Navy.

JoAnn Lyles, Jordan’s mother, said the Marines are expecting around 400 people to attend Friday’s ceremony, which will begin at 11 a.m. at the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Triangle, Virginia at the Quantico Marine Base.

Haerter, a 2006 Pierson High school graduate, joined the Marines after getting his diploma. He was sent to Iraq, and after just one month, the 19-year-old and fellow Marine, Cpl. Jonathon T. Yale, 21-years-old from Burkesville, Va., saved the lives of 33 Marines, dozens of Iraqi police and hundreds of Iraqi citizens by stopping a suicide bomber from entering their territory.

For their efforts, both Marines will posthumously receive the Navy Cross, the second highest honor of all the armed forces, just behind the Medal of Honor, with the families accepting the medals.

According to Lyles, Lt. Col. Brett Bourne, commander of the Battalion, learned that the two Marines would be receiving the medal as he was driving back from November’s Sag Harbor Bridge Dedication in honor of Haerter.

It is going to be a proud day for all Marines,” said Lyles, “some of the people attending are from the 1-9 [First Battalion, Ninth Marines, the same Battalion as Jordan and Yale], from the Vietnam error.”

The Haerters, both Jordan’s father, Christian and Lyles, will meet Yale’s family for the very first time on Friday.

Lyles organized a Hampton Jitney bus for those looking to attend the ceremony, which originally had a cost attached to it. After learning of the trip, the Suffolk Police Veterans Association offered to pay the entire cost of the charter, and a guided tour through the museum.

On Tuesday, Lyles said she has learned that a tour guide at the museum has already added Yale and Haerter’s story to her tour. The guide will explain the story of both Marines and how their story is similar to that of Marine’s in Beirut. JoAnn said the make and model of truck was the same in both cases. On her blog, the tour guide said the theme she uses to explain the connection between both cases is “how Marines know they can count on each other.”

Further, she said Marines “do the things they do because they know there are other Marines counting on them. Indirectly, they do what they do because there are civilians counting on them, too.”