Tampa resident Cathy Sprigg had rejoiced when her son, Army Specialist Robert Allen, came home to the U.S. from deployment in Iraq. She’d thanked God that he’d returned safe and sound.
“Little did I know that he didn’t,” she said at the city’s Veterans Day ceremony at Heroes Memorial Park Nov. 11. “He was suffering from his silent wounds.”
Sprigg’s son died by suicide in 2012. His body wasn’t escorted home by law enforcement or patriot riders or flag-bearing citizens.
“His name won’t even be chiseled in a memorial for the heroes,” Sprigg said. “Not coming home a hero adds to the heartache. … My family and I, and families like ours — we know they were heroes.”
At the ceremony, the city of Palm Coast unveiled a memorial honoring veterans and members of the military who, like Sprigg’s son, developed invisible wounds: post-traumatic stress disorder, or traumatic brain injury.
“Dedicated to those brave hearted men and women who have served this great nation and have suffered and continue to battle the ‘invisible wounds of PTSD/TBI,” reads the monument's text, etched in white on black granite. “Let their service and sacrifice never be forgotten.”
Sprigg hoped the memorial would help reduce the stigma surrounding PTSD and TBI. One of her son’s friends, she said, had returned from deployment with a traumatic brain injury after his Humvee rolled over in Iraq. He struggled with life after the injury.
“I read a while back in the paper that he was arrested,” Sprigg said. “Under the article, in the comments, somebody wrote, ‘One more scumbag off the street.’ When I was handed the flag and told, ‘On behalf of a grateful nation,’ and then I hear such comments, and many other similar stories, and learn of the long waiting list for treatment — sometimes coming too late — I wonder: Is it really a grateful nation?"
More must be done to educate the public, she said.
The initiative to add the Invisible Wounds Memorial at Heroes Memorial Park was led by Palm Coast resident Cathy Heighter. Heighter’s son, Raheen Tyson Heighter, was killed serving with the 101st Airborne Division in Iraq in 2003.
“This memorial has nothing to do with me, but it has everything to do with all those who have served this great nation,” Heighter said before the memorial’s unveiling. “All the families that have sacrificed, having their loved ones go off to war, having them sometimes not return. And sometimes when they return, they’re not the same person that left.”
Palm Coast Mayor Jon Netts led the city’s ceremony, the last time he will do so: Netts is stepping down due to term limits, and mayor-elect Milissa Holland will take his place as mayor after a change-over ceremony at the Nov. 15 City Council meeting.
“No one deserves the support of the American people more than our veterans,” Netts said at the ceremony. “Their strong military presence both at home and abroad maintains our nation’s freedom and national security.”
Heroes Park, Netts said, will be the first location in Florida to have a monument dedicated to raising public awareness of PTSD and TBI among veterans.
“We hope Palm Coast will lead the way for other cities and counties in Florida to follow,” he said.
Jack Howell — commandant of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, Chapter 808, founder of Teens-In-Flight, and a retired Marine colonel — said at the ceremony that the nation’s veterans “gave us the right to have that strange election that we just went through.”
“It gave us that right to have a peaceful election, without a junta taking place, and we had that right to choose,” he said. “Whoever you voted for, that’s neither here nor there. But the fact’s that nobody was twisting your arm or had a weapon pointed at your head.”
But military service in war, he said, takes its toll on veterans, including those who don’t come home with visible injuries.
“There’s nothing glorious about war — nothing glorious at all; it’s inhumane. It’s horrible,” Howell said. “And young boys and young women are thrown into this, and then, it changes you. … It changes you forever. And you have to wonder why humanity allows this."