• Two Veterans Open Up About The Realities of Service

    By Neil A. Carousso, Special to ConnectingVets.com and WCBS Newsradio 880

    NORTHPORT, N.Y. — As the sun set on a beautiful Thursday evening at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs campus on the North Fork of Long Island, a group of veterans finished their first yoga session and enjoyed dinner together before sitting down in their recreational room to watch the New York Yankees host the Kansas City Royals on television.

    It was a light-hearted evening discussing the latest sports news as a distraction for the veterans’ personal struggles since returning home.

    “Boot camp was great. I went in at 17. [It] toughened me up to be a man,” said Andrew Brand, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who served from 1981-83.

    Just moments before he offered to speak on camera about his service in the Marines, Brand was passionately discussing New York sports, including his love for the Yankees, Rangers hockey, Knicks and Giants football, and lighting up the room with his larger-than-life personality and friendly jocularity. Then, he turned serious.

    “[I] came home on leave prior to going to Beirut and I got in a car accident and I was in a coma for 32 days and I was read my last rights by a priest,” Brand said, continuing, “And, October 23, 1983, they car bombed two barracks, 220 Marines were dead and I would have been there.”

    A group called the Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the Beirut barracks bombings – a terrorist attack on United States and French service members on a peacekeeping mission during the Lebanese Civil War. It was the deadliest attack against the U.S. Marines since the battle over Iwo Jima in February 1945.

    “They’re brothers,” Brand said as he acknowledged he thinks of them often.

    Brand is recovering at the Northport VA Hospital from alcoholism. One day, his 14 year old daughter confronted him after returning from a bar and asked him to seek help. He checked himself in at the VA about 8 months ago and he will be returning home to his family in Sayville on Long Island where his daughter and 8 year old son, Andrew, Jr., live.

    Brand has kept himself in good shape physically and mentally, exercising daily and eating a healthy and consistent diet as if he was still standing a post – six eggs every morning for breakfast and tuna for lunch and dinner. He is adamant about successfully finishing his recovery and avoiding relapse. As Brand says, “Family first.” Brand has been sober since he checked himself in.

    As a Marine, Brand is trained to look out for his cohorts. He shared experiences with Army veteran Donail Sykes who is recovering from a substance abuse issue compounded with PTSD.

     

    Army Veteran Donail Sykes (left) and Marine Corps Vet Andrew Brand play a game of chess at the Northport VA Medical Center. (Neil A. Carousso/Entercom)

    “I’m working on it and I’m fighting back and I’m doing well and I’m about to complete this program, but as far as completing the problem I had, it’s a never-ending problem, it’s forever, so I’m working on staying clean every day,” Sykes said.

    He is returning home to New Jersey in a few days where he has two supportive brothers and two loving sisters waiting for him, hoping he takes the lessons on stress and coping with PTSD that resonated with him to daily practice when he leaves the VA hospital.

    “You know, it’s an every day struggle, but I get through it. I’m getting better now. They give me a lot of training,” said Sykes.

    Both veterans said positivity and sharing their experiences with their fellow vets who can relate and understand their tribulations are therapeutic.

    “Prayer has helped me a lot,” said Brand who makes it a weekly practice to attend Sunday mass with The Greatest Generation on the other side of the VA campus. He then walks the World War II veterans, many with missing limbs, back to their rooms and spends time talking to them. “It gives me a great feeling inside and they’re very happy that they have someone to talk to and it’s a great experience.”

    Each veteran has a story that begins with tremendous sacrifice, and often times, all they need is a welcoming ear to listen.

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