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Charles M. SennottNovember 12, 2007
Over the years, my wife and I have developed an ear for war. After reporting from the Middle East for most of the last decade and covering the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq for The Boston Globe, I have seen and heard too much of it from too close.

During one of my postings as The Globe’s bureau chief in Jerusalem, my wife, Julie, had also learned to discern the more distant rumblings of conflict. In the garden outside our home in Jerusalem, explosions would sometimes rattle our windows. We could usually distinguish by ear between a suicide bombing by Hamas against Israeli civilians and an Israeli tank round hitting the nearby Palestinian town of Beit Jala or Bethlehem.

Frequently, the explosions would send birds fluttering out of a lemon tree in our yard. Our oldest son, Will, who was about 5 years old at the time, would look up from his sandbox at the birds and ask, “What’s that sound?” We would tell him it was thunder. One day, after an explosion and our usual protective lie, he asked, “If that’s thunder, how come it never rains?” That was in 2001, when we knew we had to leave Jerusalem. After that I was reassigned by The Globe to London, which I used as a base to continue to cover the Middle East and report on the front lines of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

After nearly a decade of reporting on the fires of the region, Julie and I and our four small boys returned home to the United States last year. It was not an easy transition for any of us, since we had gone through so much tumult in our own lives and in the lives of those around us. Yet we looked forward to returning to New England. When we went out in search of a place to put down roots, we found a sprawling old home in a small, rural town about 40 miles west of Boston.

I wanted to beat my addiction to the adrenaline rush that comes with covering conflict and to find a more stable life at home, far from the fires of the Middle East. We found peace and quiet and distance from conflict. Or at least we thought we had.

The first morning in our new house last fall, Julie and I sat on the wraparound porch with a cup of coffee and suddenly heard the distinct thud of artillery and the crunching sound of mortar rounds. Then there was the steady crackle of machine gun fire.

“Isn’t that .50-caliber?” Julie asked. I was horrified that my wife could accurately assess the caliber of the machine guns. For a moment, Julie and I looked at each other, puzzled. Were we having a joint flashback? Perhaps the explosions were a construction site or a neighbor playing a war movie with the surround sound on too high a volume.

It came from nearby Fort Devens, an old military installation that was almost shut down until it came back into use after 9/11. National Guard and reserve units train there every weekend. We had to laugh at ourselves for being foolish enough not to have checked out the proximity of the house to a military training ground.

In the following weeks, though, I began to listen carefully to the weekend morning rumblings out at Fort Devens, as the sounds of gunfire and mortars rolled over the hills with their beautiful fall foliage.

On the soccer field one Saturday morning, I heard the thwack of helicopter rotors as they dropped troops in the field. I heard the steady cadence of mortars being marched in closer and closer to their targets. I asked the other moms and dads on the field if they heard that sound. Some nodded their heads and knew that it was Devens. But many looked at me and asked, “What sound?”

That sound,” I’d say when the mortars crunched.

“Is that a construction site?” they asked.

It dawned on me that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are so far from the reality of day-to-day life in quiet towns like the one we had moved into that people could not even hear the sound of young men there training to fight. I also realized that the war is all around us if we choose to listen and if we choose to see.

When the Troops Come Home

So I ventured down to Fort Devens on Oct. 26 a year ago, the same weekend that a Marine reserve unit, the 1st Bat-talion, 25th Marine Regiment, known as “New England’s Own,” was arriving home after a seven-month tour of duty in Fallujah, Iraq.

The battalion had lost 11 men; more than 75 were wounded. They had pulled a hellish tour; and you could see that in the eyes of the men, who hugged their wives and mothers and were swarmed by families and loved ones who had come to greet them. I wondered how these soldiers would manage over the next year.

At that moment I decided to ask my editor for special projects at The Globe to allow me to undertake a series of reports on veterans and to focus in on “New England’s Own.” I wanted to dedicate a year to returning combat veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, documenting their lives and reporting on the concerns they face as they come home. My editor agreed, and a photographer, Bill Greene, and I launched what is so far an eight-part series titled “A Promise to Keep.” The purpose is to be sure that the country is living up to the sacred promise it makes to veterans to care for them when they return. That promise, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, is etched in bronze at the entrance to the massive Department of Veteran Affairs building in Washington, D.C.: “To Care for Him Who Shall Have Borne the Battle.”

What I have found in this year of reporting has been both encouraging and disheartening. It has made me proud and angry at the same time. I am encouraged by the outstanding trauma care those wounded in combat received in the field, but I am disheartened by some of the failures of the sprawling V.A. bureaucracy to care for them once they make the transition into civilian life. The drop-off in the level of care is dramatic. I am proud of the way military families and communities have pulled together to support wounded veterans, but I am angry that the veterans have had to rely on this network while the V.A. struggles to care for them.

It has been a heartbreaking year.

We have chronicled the life and death of a young marine in Minnesota, who suffered severe post-traumatic stress disorder from what he experienced in Iraq. He became suicidal. The V.A. services around him were overwhelmed with requests for mental health counseling. When he went to the V.A. seeking emergency mental health treatment, he was told there was a waiting list for in-patient care and was given number 26 on the waiting list. Days later he took his own life, hanging himself in a basement.

We have chronicled rural veterans struggling within a V.A. system that has shut down many of its hulking old hospitals and consolidated its services in urban areas, a process that has left rural residents struggling to get service—this when most of the veterans returning home are from rural areas.

We have also chronicled the battle by families of those with traumatic brain injury to get the best possible care for loved ones who have suffered the signature wound of this war. The families say the surgeons who save their loved ones from severe trauma to the brain are to be applauded. But critics say that after the surgery, the system, particularly the V.A. system, is failing to provide adequate rehabilitation. Long-term therapy, particularly cognitive therapy, is essential to healing T.B.I. Many families of veterans have told me they are frustrated with substandard levels of care within the V.A.

A System Unprepared for Injury

The overwhelming sense we get from our reporting is that the V.A. was not prepared for the onslaught of wounded veterans who have returned home. There is a backlog of hundreds of thousands of cases for veterans seeking benefits; wait times for benefits in many cases exceed a year.

Throughout my year of reporting, I have tried to stay particularly close to the 1,000 marines who make up “New England’s Own.” Their tour, from March 2006 to October 2006, was brutal. The worst day was Sept. 4, 2006, when a roadside bomb killed three of “New England’s Own” and severely wounded a fourth. Later another roadside bomb, or improvised explosive device as it is called, hit an armored Humvee and severely wounded two more Marines, Cpl. Patrick Murray and Sgt. Terrence Burke, known as Shane. Both men lost a leg, Murray his right and Burke his left.

None of those severely wounded people have wanted to complain much about their care, but several have struggled within the system; and the battalion has fought hard within the bureaucracy to make sure the shortcomings in care were taken care of. According to their fellow marines, Burke and Murray in particular are examples of courage in the way they have gone through the recovery process. They have kept up their spirit and a remarkable sense of Irish humor that both men share. The humor is captured in Murray’s quips that he and Burke like to go “shopping for shoes together.”

Last summer on a hot day, Murray was honored by the unit when the battalion gathered at Fort Devens for a weekend of training. Murray was pinned with a medal for his service. To receive his commendation, he walked with confidence—after months of rehabilitation. One would never know he wore a prosthesis. Then he saluted smartly and pivoted on his right leg, but the prosthesis buckled and he stumbled. His commanding officers, Lt. Col. Brian Sulc and Capt. Brendon Fogerty, were there to catch him.

That vignette sums up the spirit of a battalion whose members have always been there for one another, even if the government hasn’t always delivered on its promise.

Editor’s Note: Reports on “New England’s Own” will begin to appear in The Boston Globe on Nov. 11, Veteran’s Day.

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