Heather Deater, 49, was getting ready to drive to Spokane for a medical appointment at Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center when she heard the news of a veteran killing himself in the parking lot of a VA hospital.
It didn’t happen in Spokane, but Deater is keenly aware that it could have.
The Newport, Washington, resident served in the Marines from 1988-92, and was deployed to Saudi Arabia for eight months during the Persian Gulf War.
“I signed up for the Marines at 17,” she said. “I was a tomboy, extremely competitive, never a girly-girl. I love the Marines. Always have.”
Women serving in Saudi Arabia had to cover their heads and arms.
“I dehydrated within my first 24 hours,” she said.
As part of a supply squadron she didn’t see combat, but she returned stateside wounded, nonetheless.
“I came home sick,” Deater said. “Depending where you were in theater, we were exposed to so many different things.”
Though she would have loved to stay in the Corps, she was plagued by a relentless cough, swelling in the joints and fatigue. Her then-husband was also a Marine, and he wanted out, so they both left the service.
Deater soon found another career that suited her.
“I served in law enforcement for 24 years in Martin County, Florida. I was a lieutenant with the sheriff’s department,” she said.
But that career was also cut short by Gulf War syndrome, which refers to unexplained chronic symptoms related to the Gulf War. The symptoms include fatigue, headaches, joint pain, indigestion, insomnia, dizziness, respiratory disorders and memory problems, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
“I wake up every morning in pain,” she said. “It takes me several hours to get going.”
Visits to a slew of specialists proved unhelpful.
She and her current husband left Florida and settled in Newport because they both love the outdoors, but the transition wasn’t easy.
“Last year was difficult in many ways,” Deater admitted.
She missed her friends in Florida. She missed her career. She missed feeling healthy. And she felt forgotten by the country she had served.
“During that time, a group of quilters in Newport presented me with a patriotic quilt,” she said. “These strangers made me this gorgeous quilt. It made such an impact on me at a very low time.”
That tangible gift of recognition and appreciation led Deater to come up with her own way of honoring veterans, especially those of the Gulf War.
She scoured the woods around their property and began crafting hiking sticks from fallen branches. She decorates them with service medals and calls them Hiking Sticks for Heroes.
“My goal is to get 30 done this year,” she said.
Neuropathy in her right arm has forced her to do much of the work with her left. And then on May 1, the news of another veteran suicide prompted her to offer a different gift to veterans.
She grabbed a copy of “March On,” one of two poems she’d written after moving to Newport, and decided she would read it beneath the flagpole.
“I feel like Gulf War vets are forgotten because we’ve been at war for so many years,” said Deater. “I wanted to say don’t give up, keep marching on, wait for your miracle.”
Her appointment took longer than she anticipated, and by the time she was ready to read her poem, the facility was emptying.
“I saw a guy when I was coming out and asked, ‘Would you like to read a poem with me at the flagpole? I want to encourage our brothers and sisters who are struggling,’ ” she recalled.
“Then we stood at the flagpole and waited for our next victim,” she said, laughing.
With four other vets beside her, she began to read.
Listen for the marching cadence of heroes who’ve gone before
Left, right, left, victory is on the horizon, you can win this war!
Your uniform is made of pride and honor, battle fatigues with tearstains and blood
Your boots are worn out, but your tour is not done!
No retreat, no surrender, you must live and love on.
Veterans and employees smiled and nodded as they walked past. Now, Deater brings copies of her poem with her to every visit at Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center. She hands them out to everyone she meets, but her eyes are always on the lookout for other Gulf War vets like her, who may feel forgotten.
She hopes her acknowledgment may make a difference in the alarming rate of veteran suicides.
“I ask vets to try to lift up other vets and encourage each other because we need each other,” Deater said. “We can all do something, even if it’s a little thing.”
Most of us returned home to parades and welcome home bands, but the celebrations would quickly come to an end.
It was soon realized the casualties of this war were far from over, as the Gulf War Illness symptoms started to take over.
Somewhere in the sands of time, the healthy parts of us were left behind.
– From “Gulf War Curse” by Heather Deater
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