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Remarks by Colonel Robert Lutz on Veteran’s Day 2018

by | Nov 18, 2018 | Continuing the Mission, News

Col. (Ret.) Dr. Robert Lutz gave the keynote speech. He talked about his battlefield medical experiences and the need to treat soldiers and veterans suffering PTSD. He and his spouse, Suzy, have formed a non-profit organization that trains service dogs as companions forr veterans in need. (Bill Giduz #2 of 8)

The following remarks were given by Colonel Lutz on Veteran’s Day 2018. His leadership and experience came through clearly in his words:

Good morning.  Thank you for letting me come to talk on this Veteran’s Day.  My name is Robert Lutz, and I retired from the US Army just over a year ago.  My first combat deployment was to Afghanistan 17 years ago this month.  My last was a year and a half ago to Iraq and Syria. In between there were 12 combat deployments to the middle east, and one to South America.  I spent 10 years in Command of Special Operations Medical units, and for 8 of those year I had soldiers, sailors, and airmen under my command continuously deployed.

As a physician, I rarely worked in the hospital.  My time was spent providing forward medical support as close to the target as possible.  I’ve been shot at, rocketed, mortared for 60 days straight, landed behind enemy lines, and landed under fire all to support US and coalition forces in our longest war on record.

Along the way I developed deep bonds with those I served with – bonds that transcend many of my civilian relationships.  And therein lies one of the issues that affects our current Veterans so profoundly. 

Human beings are social animals.  We long to belong, have a place, and be accepted in our communities.  Unfortunately, the nature of our current society is one of relatively superficial connections with our friends and neighbors.  When I led 15 highly trained young men in the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003, we slept shoulder to shoulder for months, under multiple different roofs and went on multiple missions deep into Iraqi held territory.  We didn’t care about ethnicity, race, religion, or political persuasion.  We were a team. We had a mission. We respected and depended upon one another. Together we provided lifesaving care in the most demanding environment imaginable.

When we redeploy, it feels like come back to a nation that is extremely polarized and bitterly divided.  We come back to a nation that does not understand us. We come back to a nation where people can live days, weeks, and months without meaningful interaction with another human being, where people can control the information sources they choose to watch, read, or listen to, effectively creating a subjective reality.  We cannot separate an individual’s opinion from their character. We cannot agree to disagree on things. 

Sebastian Junger points out that it is no wonder so many Veterans long for the sense of meaning and belonging that they shared during their service.

Now I would ask you to compound that with symptoms of post-traumatic stress.  The symptoms of post-traumatic stress result from normal changes that we go through when exposed to perceived or real life-threatening situations. 

If you read, watch, or listen to the media, there is a recurrent drumbeat of how so many of our Soldiers, Airmen, Sailors, and Marines are affected by a “disorder” and have behavioral health problems that need treatment. For those returned from war, there is no way to ignore the message: a message that they are broken, and their symptoms are abnormal. They require professional help. They are victims to be pitied. They are scary.  To quote Sean Parnell, a former Army Infantryman in a recent essay: “we need a corrective to the common view that military service is uniquely psychologically devastating”. Parnell goes on to say this breakdown in understanding adds to the challenges of reintegration as we try and bridge the cultural gap that has developed between military and civilian worlds.

We have been done a great disservice.  We are told that normal responses to the situations we have found ourselves in are abnormal. In my opinion, it is abnormal not to have some of these symptoms.  What is abnormal is that we return to a society whose understanding of our issues is framed by the entertainment and news media. 

Additionally, we return to a society that is at war with itself, a theme is well-developed in Sebastian Junger’s book “Tribe”, and he says it so eloquently that I must quote him verbatim:

“Today’s Veterans often come home to find that, although they’re willing to die for their country, they’re not sure how to live for it. It is hard to know how to live for a country that regularly tears itself apart along every possible ethnic and demographic boundary….To make matters worse, politicians occasionally accuse rivals of deliberately trying to harm their own country – a charge so destructive to group unity that most past societies would have just punished it as a form of treason. It is complete madness, and the Veteran’s know this. In combat, soldiers all but ignore differences of race, religion, and politics within their platoon. It is no wonder so many get depressed when they come home.”

As a result of these issues, it becomes easier to stay estranged from society, and to consciously or unconsciously avoid situations that have been associated with danger. In the recent wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, we have been fighting an enemy that blends in with a population that is already unfamiliar to most Americans – to the point where everyone looks like a threat, and upon our return, simple things like crowds, checkpoint analogs like cashier lines, and even just driving a road – stimulate the “fight or flight” responses such as hyperawareness, elevated heart rate, sweating, and an inability to relax. As it becomes easier and easier to avoid these settings, the behavior patterns start to reinforce themselves, and re-integration becomes more and more difficult. 

Many of us don’t even realize what a slippery slope we are on.  I thought I was immune, because from my very first deployment, where I was part of a team that responded to a mass casualty incident deep into enemy held territory, I understood that the reactions I had were normal and would go away with time. I thought they did.  But multiple deployments had a way of changing that. When I first started to recognize some issues I was having, I asked my wife Suzy to rate me on the PTSD Checklist – one comment she made was telling…. She put down “he never wants to leave his house or his dog”. That was a bit of a wakeup call and spurred me to pursue treatment.

So what are we to do – Veterans and non-veterans to address these issues and encourage successful re-integration?  To quote Sebastian Junger’s core question: “How do you make Veterans feel that they are returning to a cohesive society that was worth fighting for in the first place?”

Here are some things to think about:

For Non-Veterans – first understand that we are not broken, damaged, or dangerous. Like anyone else we have different backgrounds and experiences that have shaped who we are. Second, I encourage you to realize that society works best when it focuses on our shared humanity; we can and will disagree on the solutions, but I know there are common goals.  Demonization of others with contrary views does not lead to effective solutions.  Junger’s point that we are a nation that has moved from criticism of alternate viewpoints, with logical arguments, to one of contempt that focuses on the moral superiority of the speaker, resonates with me.

For Veterans – I encourage you to find employment or volunteer work that is meaningful to you and uses your skills to help others in need.  There are organizations out there always in need of help – Habitat for Humanity, the Red Cross, or for a more military flavor – Team Rubicon, which organizes Veterans to respond to communities such as those in dire straits after the recent hurricanes.

We have been given a great gift – the unity that comes with shared experiences and goals that allow us to focus on what unites us rather than divides us.  We need to find ways to help others in our communities experience that gift. In doing so we can set the standard for others to follow.

For all of us: we need to realize that based on recent polls, most of us are concerned about the descent into polarization, separation, and threats of violence. 

I for one, choose to believe that the America I was fighting for consists of the four out of five of us who don’t participate in the demonization and denigration of those with alternate viewpoints – those of us who work together to make our communities a better place. I choose to believe in the America that produced SFC Christopher Speer, a medic I took care of who in the week prior to being mortally wounded, entered an active minefield to rescue two trapped and injured Afghani children.

For the other one out of five – the one that the media relentlessly focuses on, and the one that flourishes in the unaccountability afforded by social media, I will paraphrase former Army Ranger JC Glick: If you really want to thank your service men and women, Stop behaving so poorly to each other. Stop the ideological vitriol pointed both ways. Start looking to see where we are closer in opinion than media, social or otherwise, would have us believe.

I will conclude with how my wife and I have put this into practice, in our marriage and in our community. Suzy has trained dogs in obedience and agility for over thirty years.  As I was heading towards my military retirement, she was looking at ways to remain involved with our Veteran community.  After seeing the tremendous change a dog made in the life of a young woman whose active duty husband died, she looked for ways to provide training for dogs that could change Veteran lives.  The idea transitioned into an unfunded need for service dogs to help re-integrate Veterans with PTSD.  She enlisted my help, and together we developed the project. She founded Continuing the Mission and serves as the executive director.  I work for her as the medical director, establishing criteria, reviewing candidates and providing input on need and suitability for a service dog. She has turned this into an incredible program that not only provides service dogs, but also has built relationships and community among Veterans and non-veterans alike.  She has partnered with a prison vocational program, New Leash on Life, working with inmates at the Rutherford Correctional Facility to help train the dogs, and with other Veteran Service Organizations.  The goal is not only to pass the leash of a service dog to a Veteran, but to touch as many lives as possible along the way with that leash. She has placed three fully trained service dogs over the last two years, and five dogs that didn’t fully meet her standards with active duty and veteran families.  She currently has 9 dogs in the program, including Eli and Ela, our two most recent puppies.  With me on stage is Reid, who will soon be heading off to his finishing training and will be paired with a Veteran within the next several months.  Please stop by and say hello at the conclusion of today’s event. 

Thank you for this opportunity to speak and as I begin the “third half” of my career, I look forward to continuing to serve the Davidson community.

Colonel Lutz was introduced at the Veterans’ Day Ceremony by one of his fellow veterans, Captain Jane Campbell. The following are her remarks: 

Good morning – thank you for joining us here today.

It is my great pleasure to be able to introduce our guest speaker. COL – Dr. Robert Lutz, U.S. Army-retired – my Davidson Classmate. Robert spent the vast majority of his military medical career serving with Special Forces.

And as the daughter of one of the Army’s first Green Berets, this introduction is an even greater honor. My Dad was an enlisted Medical Aidesman – and he would have LOVED learning about all the things that Robert did to advance battlefield medicine.

Robert and his wife Suzy recently returned to Davidson – and Robert is now serving as the Team Physician for the Davidson Wildcats. He also has a Sports Medicine practice in town. And if that wasn’t enough, you’ll hear about the nonprofit that they brought with them when they moved to Davidson.

He is board certified in Emergency Medicine and Sports Medicine.

Now I could read his full biography, but allow me to focus on a couple things.

First – there are two kinds of “Docs” in the military – those who are given the opportunity to command and those who aren’t. And while they are both great, I believe the distinction is an important one. Among a multitude of assignments throughout his career: Robert was one of those few who earned the opportunity to command. And he earned that honor at various levels of the chain of command – including:
• Commander of the Jt Special Operations Medical augmentation unit
• Commander of the Special Warfare Medical Group
• Commander for the 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment- Delta

Next, I want to focus on a few of his critically important accomplishments. In an interview with a medical journal, Robert shared one of the most important, but often overlooked, aspects of the U.S. military – “Humans are more important than hardware!”
How true.

Under his command, the Special Warfare Medical Group spearheaded work on the development of Tactical Combat Casualty Care Guidelines.

Special operations forces are regularly deployed in small units –around the globe, often in places with limited medical infrastructure.

These Tactical Combat Casualty Care Guidelines have been critical to treating battlefield injuries – the care the patient receives before getting to a medical facility.

Robert’s career, like mine, spanned the pre & post- 9/11 military. Before 9/11, many of our combat surgeons trained at civilian trauma centers to maintain their expertise in treating gunshot wounds. During the height of the wars in Iraq & Afghanistan, that reversed.

Military medicine tactics and techniques, especially those from the special forces medical teams – like the ones commanded by Robert, have been so successful that they are now recognized in training civilian pre-hospital providers. Robert is bringing some of that training right here to our town’s first responders.

Robert is also keenly aware of the importance of treating the invisible wounds of war. You’ll hear more about those efforts this morning.

Fellow veterans, ladies and gentlemen – Dr. Robert Lutz.

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