Submitted by Bobby DeVito, USN
I grew up in a military family. My father, his brothers and myself all served in the US Navy. My younger brother (the rebel of the family) served in the U.S. Army. I have great respect for service members and veterans from all branches and try to do my part whenever I see an opportunity to be of service.
"I explained that I wanted to buy it and return it to the service member who owned it. They let me have it for fifty bucks and my Rakkasan journey began."
Last year, I was trawling through pawn shops, thrift stores, and antique shops in the St. Petersburg, Florida area seeking out old guitars, watches, and other cool stuff. I have a very orderly way of doing this – usually a left to right pass through the store, around the front, and back out if nothing catches my eye. At one particular pawn shop, I saw a shadow box full of military patches, medals, and insignia that made me circle back. The clerk handed it to me, and I recognized the famous “Screaming Eagles” logo of the 101st Airborne, one of the most storied and legendary Army outfits ever. All of the items were obviously worn and service used – not some “collectible” reproductions that one might see at a flea market. I asked the guy behind the counter who had pawned it and what it was doing in there for sale, but its pawn shop law to not reveal who owned it or how it got there. I explained that I wanted to buy it to return it to the service member who owned it. They let me have it for fifty bucks and my Rakkasan journey began.
I knew from my limited experience that this was an Operation Enduring Freedom service member from the 101st Airborne. Further research led me to the Rakkasans, and specifically the 3rd brigade Combat Team, 626th Support Battalion. This particular unit has seen extensive deployments to the “sandbox”, and I knew I was getting closer to finding Meiners.
My initial hope was that I could track this soldier down and reunite them with their military insignia, patches, and ribbons. I had no idea what kind of rabbit hole I was going down, but I was determined to follow through. I reached out to Fort Campbell in Kentucky to the HQ office at the 626th, and I did manage to get in touch with a soldier who said they were going to talk to their C.O. and see if we could track Meiners down, but after several months of messaging back and forth, there was no joy. I kept at it for a while but getting veteran info from the active duty Army proved to be understandably difficult.
The homeless shadowbox sat in my office, glaring at me from my worktable. I considered donating it to a friend’s collection of military memorabilia, but the thought of letting it go didn’t feel right. I kept up searching and happened upon the website for the National Rakkasan Association. I made contact with webmaster Rachael Vance (a Marine veteran) who took one look at my photo, confirmed that Meiners was indeed an Assurgam Rakkasan, and promised to look into it for me. Over a few days and several emails, she revealed to me that "Meiners" was named Alex. She added that after his service ended, he had returned to St Petersburg, was plagued with struggles and that his fate was speculative but unknown. I wasn't surprised. I have worked with a variety of veterans over the years that fought with substance use, mental health, and homelessness issues. This hits close to home for me, back in 2009 I was that homeless, addicted person struggling to find my way.
Once I had his full name, I was able to do a few public information searches that helped me learn more about Alex. The story I discovered is sadly familiar. So many young people went to war in the campaigns of the last 20 years and have come back with PTSD, substance use, and other mental health struggles. From the limited information I was gathering, I developed a sinking feeling that I might not get to meet Alex once this story came to a conclusion.
The Department of Veterans Affairs can be a byzantine labyrinth for someone who is trying to get the support they need. The aftercare and re-integration into society for someone who has seen the type of war our service members dealt with in Afghanistan and Iraq needs to be much more extensive and consist of more “wrap-around” services. After my own experiences with homelessness and addiction, I ended up helping other veterans at the shelter I was staying at. I eventually began to work at treatment centers and other community-based organizations that help underserved populations with mental health and substance use issues. Many of my clients for counseling were veterans, and I have always tried my best to reach out to those men and women who needed a friendly hand back up.
"Jill poured out Alex's story and told me about his fight after the war."
Through continued research, I was able to find Alex’s sister Jill. I sent her a short message through Twitter with a photo of the shadowbox to see if she could help me find Alex. I was not prepared for her response. She informed me that Alex had passed away just a few months prior in November. All she had to remember him by was a few photographs, his ashes, and a Rakkasan Christmas ornament he had given her years ago. Jill poured out Alex's story and told me about his fight after the war.
I was sad that I could not have met Alex myself. I could have helped him navigate our broken system of health care and treatment for veterans. His story is unfortunately common and the burden of filling in the gap of inadequate resources falls on us - the veteran community. There is funding from the Federal Government to help the homeless veterans but how do we get the help to them? How do we stop another young veteran like Alex from slipping though the cracks and spare the family left behind the heartache of such loss?
My motive for telling this story is twofold: I wanted to honor Alex. Seeing the shadowbox that haunted me for so many months displayed in its proper place was a moving experience. I am glad this Rakkasan was able to be reunited with reminders of a happy time in his life. I also want to raise awareness for our veterans and reiterate that what they fight with in their head with is not something they need to do alone. PTSD and Trauma are two of the primary causes of addiction and other mental health issues. This can lead to a revolving door of treatment, shelters, and other facilities that act as band aids - without any real healing taking place.
Meeting Jill was such a bittersweet experience, but I am grateful to have been a part of it. The 626th Battalion motto is “Assurgam”, which is Latin for “We Rise Up”. I feel emboldened to RISE UP to the challenge of not letting any struggling veterans down and I hope you do too.