'Soldiers Of Kindness' In Harm's Way

The nation is honoring America's warriors during Veterans Day. But mental health professionals in the armed forces also put themselves in harm's way. This week's Washington Post Magazine tells the story of a military social worker who died in Afghanistan. Host Michel Martin speaks with journalist Jim Sheeler.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Veterans' Day was yesterday. That's the day we set aside to salute those who've worn the uniform of the United States, but today we want to tell you about a soldier who made the ultimate sacrifice that you might not have heard about, a soldier of kindness. That's the inscription on the tombstone of Army Lieutenant Colonel David Cabrera. He's believed to have been the first military social worker killed by enemy fire in the line of duty. It's also the title of a Washington Post magazine article that tells his story, which also describes the sacrifices of military health professionals.

It might surprise you to know that, since 2001, some 290 medical service members have been killed in the line of duty. Jim Sheeler is a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and professor of journalism. He wrote "A Soldier of Kindness" for this week's Washington Post magazine and he's with us now.

Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

JIM SHEELER: Thanks so much for inviting me.

MARTIN: How did you learn about Lieutenant Colonel David Cabrera?

SHEELER: I've been covering a lot of military issues for a long time, but he's the first one that I've actually known who's died. I met him in Germany at a conference for military caregivers. At the time, I didn't know that there were social workers in the Army, much less that they were actually deployed. I went out and had dinner with him and Jeff Yarvis, who's also in the story. They told me about what they did and I was just fascinated and I kind of filed it away as, you know, a story that I needed to do in the future and then, as so many stories, they just kind of get lost until Jeff emailed me last year and told me that Dave had died.

And then I still wasn't sure that I was going to write the story. I went to his funeral, though, and I started seeing some of the things that I thought the public needed to see and, when they actually had the interment at Arlington, I was able to really spend time with his family and learn more about him.

MARTIN: Well, what were some of the things that you thought the public really needed to see or hear about? Just give us just a couple of the details from the piece.

SHEELER: You realize that, when the caregivers, you know, spend so much time looking out for the other soldiers, that when they lose one of their own, there's really no rule book. You know, they get kind of lost sometimes and that's what happened with Jeff Yarvis, the other social worker who was one of Dave's really good friends. I mean, he was having these recurring nightmares of actually being in the funeral home and them wheeling in another casket next to Dave's casket and, when they opened the casket up and, in the dream, he sees his own face in the casket.

You know, he was having a really hard time dealing with it and he even thought about quitting the military, but then he realized that, with all the PTSD issues and suicides and - he really needed to honor Dave by staying in, so there's aspects like that, you know, and the woman who was - August Cabrera, who is Dave Cabrera's widow - one of her best friends was also a Army master sergeant and she had to juggle these sort of two roles of being August's really good friend - to this new widow - and also being her Army role. And she had to actually notify August, so there's so much that went into them trying to figure out who they were and how to care for themselves, as well as looking out for all the people who still needed to be cared for.

MARTIN: As you describe in the piece, Cabrera was killed by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan in October 2011 when a van packed with explosives swerved into the vehicle that he was riding in. He was one of almost 20 people who were killed. Is it common for mental health specialists to be in the field, to be in harm's way?

SHEELER: It is. I mean, from the surgeons who are there on the bases to the medics, corpsmen who were out there, you know, really out there in the field. But Dave Cabrera and many others feel like they need to be out there with the soldiers because, otherwise, it's unlikely that a soldier or sailor, Marine would gain the trust that they need in order to allow them to open up to someone like a social worker, a psychologist or a psychiatrist.

MARTIN: Well, you know, you talk about that in the piece. You talk about how it really meant a difference when people saw the combat patch.

SHEELER: Yes, absolutely.

MARTIN: You know, they say, you know, I get that you get where I'm coming from. You know...

SHEELER: Right. It makes a big difference.

MARTIN: But what about that? When you talked about who cares for the caregivers, is there any care for them?

SHEELER: I think they're still trying to figure it out. In many ways, they just try and care for each other. They - in the hospital where I was and where Dave - where he both taught and saw patients, the doctors and other mental health professionals - they basically would come and see each other, trying to deal with what they were going through. And they go through the same things that these soldiers go through. Even though they're trained to know what to look for, it still happens to them.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin and, in honor of Veterans' Day, we're talking about the dangers faced by military mental health specialists. Our guest is Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Jim Sheeler. He wrote about them, one in particular, in a piece for this week's Washington Post magazine. He wrote about Lieutenant Colonel David Cabrera killed in Afghanistan, believed to have been the first military social worker killed by enemy fire.

Tell us, if you would, about the inscription and which is also the title of your piece. It's actually a very beautiful phrase, you know, soldier of kindness. Where did that come from?

SHEELER: Yeah. It's just part of that amazing family. You know, August and her two boys, who are six and seven - you know, they're very thoughtful and kind of wise beyond their years, I think, and especially when she had asked the boys, you know, what they should put on the tombstone, you know, they knew that - you know, the kind of traditional inscription that - you know, with his name, David E. Cabrera, LTC Lieutenant Colonel, U.S. Army and the dates of his birth and death. They're allowed one more line on those white tombstones at Arlington and in military cemeteries and, sometimes, people will put inscriptions, such as a loving father or we will always remember or something like that.

But, as soon as she asked little Max what they should put for the last line on Dave's tombstone, he said immediately, a soldier of kindness.

MARTIN: It sounds like he certainly was. Professor Sheeler, thank you for telling us about him. Before we let you go, Veterans' Day officially was Sunday, but many Americans are observing it today. People are doing that in a variety of ways. Some people are running errands, catching up on rest, pausing to think about people in their own lives. Is there something in particular you would hope that people would do on this day, perhaps, to know about Lieutenant Colonel Cabrera or others like him? Is there something you particularly want to leave us with today?

SHEELER: You know, there are so many different places where you can learn about veterans and Veterans' Day is also for veterans who are still with us. But, you know, there are so many places where you can go to find out more about the veterans who sacrificed and that's what I would suggest is just find a website like Fallen Heroes Memorial or something where you can read about somebody and just keep them in your memory. That's all the families ask is that we remember all of these veterans as more than a number, more than just a name, that we remember their legacy.

MARTIN: Jim Sheeler wrote the piece, "A Soldier of Kindness," for the Washington Post magazine and he was kind enough to join us from member station WCPN in Cleveland.

Thank you so much for joining us.

SHEELER: Thank you.

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