Veterans Commemorate "Alive" Day

Many injured veterans recognize two days to celebrate their lives: their birthday and their "alive" day — commemorating the day they were injured and escaped death while at war. Army veterans Pvt. Dexter Pitts and Lt. Dawn Halfaker are featured in the HBO documentary, Alive Day Memories. They discuss life after their injuries.

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LYNN NEARY, host:

I'm Lynn Neary, in for Michel Martin. And this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Just ahead, the nation avoided war, but prosperity remains elusive. A postcard from Macedonia. That's next. But first, every so often, we bring you dispatches, glimpses of the world outside the U.S. Today, we visit with two veterans who have come back from Iraq. More than 27,000 troops had been wounded in the Iraq war. Because of advances in emergency medical technology, most of the wounded survive.

But many faced a greatly altered future and must to learn to live with severe head injuries, amputated limbs, and in some cases, debilitating emotional problems. These wounded men and women now commemorate two days of great importance in their lives: their birthday and their alive day. That's not only the day they were injured, but also the day they escaped death. "Alive Day Memories," a new HBO documentary premiering September 9th, tells the story of these men and women.

And we're joined now in our studio by two veterans featured in the documentary: Dawn Halfaker is a first lieutenant who served with the Army's 293rd military police, and Dexter Pitts is a private in the U.S. Army who served with the 10th Mountain Alpha Company. It' so good to have you with us.

Private DEXTER PITTS (U.S. Army): Thank you.

Lieutenant DAWN HALFAKER (U.S. Army): Thanks for having me.

NEARY: Let me start by asking you about this concept of Alive Day. One of the vets who was injured and featured in the documentary said that he reserved to commemorate that day while he was in the hospital. But to him, it was really the worst day of his life. What does it mean to you, Dawn?

Lt. HALFAKER: Well, I mean, it's a true paradox. It's a day where, you know, you can reflect on the fact that you are alive. And, in fact, I was actually injured with somebody. So I went through this experience with one of my squad leaders, Staff Sergeant Norberto Lara. So we sort of commemorate this day together, and it is, you know, it's nice to know that we both made it. We're both alive. But then again, our lives have changed drastically. And so it is a day that's sort of bittersweet.

NEARY: How do you commemorate it? What do you do?

Lt. HALFAKER: We just make it a point to talk with each other. He's actually in California now. So we used to, you know, have a beer and toast. But now, we just - we'll call each other and chat and just kind of talk about how we're doing.

NEARY: How about you, Dexter?

Pvt. PITTS: Alive Day for me, I mean, it's just - I mean, it's like signifies the death of old me and the birth of a new me, you know, because I went over like, you know, a young teenager. I was like, 19. I really didn't know much about life and what was going on, and I was just going through the motions. And after my injury and everything on my Alive Day, I became this whole new person. You know, I see things more clearly, and I was a real man. I knew what was important in life.

NEARY: I want to ask both of you exactly what happened, and let's begin with you, Dawn. You're an amputee. You lost your arm. Can you tell us how that happened?

Lt. HALFAKER: Yes. I was over in Iraq. I was a military police officer leading a platoon over there. And we were on our routine patrol mission, and it was about three in the morning. We came around corner and just got ambushed. We were hit with small arms fire and rocket propelled grenades.

And so one of those RPGs came through the front of my vehicle and just came tore down my side of it and tore off my arm, tore off of my squad leader's arms and caused just a rash of other injuries. And fortunately, we were able to make it out of a kill zone and get back inside the wire to where we could go get medevacked.

NEARY: When you realized you had lost your arm, did it change your entire sense of self?

Lt. HALFAKER: That's a hard question to answer. I mean, it's really been a process. I mean, you know, I was in a coma for about two weeks, and then I woke up to the reality that I no longer had an arm, and, you know, I was hospitalized. I was on a ventilator, so it didn't all sink in right away. But it's been a process, and it's definitely changed by life to say the least.

NEARY: What about you, Dexter? What happened to you?

Pvt. PITTS: That was January 2nd, 2005. We were in a - we had just moved to our new sector, it was in Abu Ghraib. Our lieutenant was like, you know, fresh, didn't really know what was going on. And he had this thing where he had parked in the same spot three days in a row. And every day in that spot, something would happen.

And there was mortars, rockets. And in the third day, we left to go to the power plant in Abu Ghraib to drop off some of our guys. We left and came back to the same spot, so I went to the bathroom. And while I was using the bathroom, there was this eerie - you just the feeling that somebody was staring at you, watching you. I went back to my Humvee and told him, I said (unintelligible), I really think we should move. He's like, look.

We're going to be fine. Don't worry. I was, all right. So I got out the turret, moved to the driver's seat, and a (unintelligible) to the turret. And that was like, the last thing I remember. And I remember waking up, looking at the sky, and my friends are standing over me talking, oh, my God. You know, is he all right? What's going on? (unintelligible)

NEARY: What was your injury?

Pvt. PITTS: I had my left arm was broken in three places. I had a, took a hit to the side of the head, took shrapnel into to my back, and my back of my hips were blown out of the alignment, slightly.

NEARY: And you also have, if I remember correctly from the documentary, you've really suffered from a post-traumatic stress disorder as well.

Pvt. PITTS: Yes.

NEARY: Do you think that is less understood than a physical injury? Do you think that that's, in some ways, harder that people just dismiss it?

Pvt. PITTS: Yeah, I mean, it's one of those things that people try to sweep under the rug, people don't really want to hear about. it's out there. People, a lot of people try to look over it, but people don't - the stigma that PTSD is like some people have on different levels. Some people, you know, can just blow up in a minute.

Some people take a differently, it's - I'm glad I'm that person in the film. I could speak for a lot of people. The military has this mindset of where, you know, if you're complaining or if you got mental problems, you know, you're just a weak person. It's not about being a weak person. You went through a traumatic experience, and that's going to happen.

NEARY: Yeah. What's your sense of that, Dawn? You had this traumatic injury, you have an amputation - did you suffer from anything that you might also describe as post-traumatic stress syndrome?

Lt. HALFAKER: Well, certainly. I mean, I think as Dex said, it's something that you don't see, and it's something that's not understood well. And I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that everybody deals with it differently, and it manifests itself in different forms depending on who you are.

And I think that for me, it is hard. Though I have a very clear physical injury, people don't see the scars on my heart and my soul, and those are way heaviest. And it's a process that I've been working through since my Alive Day, and really, since I went over to Iraq.

NEARY: Yeah. I just want to remind our listeners that I'm Lynn Neary and I'm sitting in for Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE. And we're talking with veterans Dexter Pitts and Dawn Halfaker. They're featured in the new HBO documentary about returning Iraq vets. It's called "Alive Day Memories."

Now I want to address this to both of you, because there's been a lot of criticism recently about inadequate care for veterans. How do both of you feel about that? Did you feel that you got the treatment you needed, Dexter?

Pvt. PITTS: I had great treatment, honestly. I can't disagree with my treatment, and my doctors saved my arm. I came so close to losing my arm almost up to the shoulder because of a severe staff infection. And, I mean, like a lot of people complain about the treatment, but a lot of time, people aren't willing to do anything extra to get the treatment that they need.

It's there. You got to go out and get it. People want to give up the fight. You can't give up the fight. It's a conscious struggle. It shouldn't have to be a struggle, but that's just the way sometimes the system's kind of made up. You got to go for it. I refuse to settle for less.

NEARY: Dawn, what was your sense of that? And also, beyond just even the physical care you got initially, are you getting follow-up care that you need?

Lt. HALFAKER: Well, I mean, as Dex said, the care is phenomenal. The clinicians, I was at Walter Reid Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and the doctors put me back together, you know, both physically and emotionally. But I also think that it's - there's a lot of patience. There's a lot of injuries, and the doctors are very busy.

All of the staff there is just, they're overworked. They're inundated with more people than they expected. And so I think that it is easy to be a victim of any system like that, and you do have to be a little bit proactive and whether you should or shouldn't, you know, have to seek out proper care, I mean, you do. You have to make sure that you are your own lobbyist to get the things that you're entitled to.

It's been a little bit of a struggle transitioning to the VA system. They do a lot of things right, but there's certainly a lot of things that they can improve. And it's also a little bit scary. I mean, you know, on active duty, we're taking care of incredibly well, and we're not used to having to go into a system where you have to wait for a long time to get an appointment. And so as just - it's a change of pace, and so it's definitely an adjustment.

NEARY: Dawn, you were saying earlier that this has been a process for you right from the beginning. Where would you say you are in the process now? Are things back to normal or will they never be back to normal or…

Lt. HALFAKER: In terms of my process, I mean, I don't know, I guess I don't know what normal is. I don't know if I even want to be normal. But every day, there's something I honestly - sometimes, it's just, like I had need to get through the day, you know, whether it's phantom pain that I'm having, or it's, you know, having to have an awkward social situation that's making me uncomfortable. You know, no matter what it is, it's - there's always something, or just figuring how to do something one-handed.

You know, how am I going to get through this situation with only one hand? So it's definitely a process, and I feel like, you know, I'm always learning things new. I'm always being pushed out of my comfort zone, so I think that I'm just taking one day at a time and trying to recognize the fact of that I am blessed. I have all these opportunities, and so I just need to be the best person that I can.

NEARY: You know, one thing I wanted to ask you about that was very interesting. In the documentary, you were really adamant that you were not going to have a hook instead of a hand, that you would rather just be one-handed. And I was wondering why you were so determined about that.

Lt. HALFAKER: Well, I don't like the hook. I mean, I think it looks scary. I mean, I'm a girl, and I don't want to really look like a robot. And I'm still adamant. I still wouldn't use the hook. I mean, looking back, I'm glad I didn't use it, and, you know, I think that's probably maybe a little bit of my stubborn side. But that's okay. I'm allowed to be stubborn about things, and I figure, you know, if I don't use a hook, I've managed to make it this far so, you know?

NEARY: I'm glad you don't use a hook either, Dawn.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Lt. HALFAKER: Thanks.

NEARY:. How about you, Dexter? You seem to be in a pretty good mood today. You seemed much more down, I think, in the film itself. Are you still suffering from PTSD? Do you still have dark moments, or are you further along the process now it's (unintelligible)?

Pvt. PITTS: I'm further along in the process. There's a thing with PTSD, there's no cure for it. Because, I mean, if you look at a lot of World War II veterans, Korean veterans, Vietnam veterans, these are wars like 50 years over, and these guys are still suffering to this day. It's a process, you learn to live with it. I mean, you have your bad days, you have your good days, and the people around you know - they get to know you. They know what pushes your buttons. They know what to do, they know when not what to say.

And I feel it's not fair that people have to hold back what they have to say because they don't want to, you know, push the wrong button and set somebody off. It's not fair, but at the same time, you know, I could say what happened to me is not fair. But, you know, that's life. Things happen.

I mean, I'm not going to - like I said, I'm not going to let it control me and run my life. I'm going to live a - well, I don't know what a normal life is. I'm going to live my life the way I want to live my life. I'm going to take control of it and I'm going to give it to God, and then I'm going to go with it from there.

NEARY: And I have to ask you just one question about James Gandolfini. This — he's the executive producer of this documentary.

Pvt. PITTS: Yes.

NEARY: He was the interviewer. This is the first project he's taken on since the end of the "Sopranos." Of course, he's famous for his portrayal of Tony Soprano.

What was it like being interviewed by him? He - in the film, he really stays very much in the background, I think. You hardly see him, and you only hear him ask a question here and there. Dawn?

Lt. HALFAKER: Well, I mean, working with Jim was an amazing experience, I think, for all of us. I mean, and he really wanted to know each of us, I mean, he was very easy to open up to. He's funny. He's very smart, and he was very passionate about this cause and what he was trying to do. And so I think that, you know, I have the utmost respect for him. He's obviously going to have a great career post-"Sopranos". And I'm just thankful that this project came together the way it did, and that, you know, HBO and his team worked so well together to send the right message, and it was just a pleasure to work with him.

Pvt. PITTS: Jim is just a great guy. I mean, he treated us like royalty when we were there. I'll sit in the chair, I just felt like I was talking to one of my close friends. I mean, he just made me feel so comfortable, I just — I could open up. He's a great guy. I mean, God bless him, you know.

NEARY: Okay. Well, thanks to both of you. Lt. Dawn Halfaker and Pvt. Dexter Pitts will both be featured in HBO's new documentary, "Alive Day Memories." It premieres this Sunday, September 9th on HBO. They joined me in the studio, and thanks again for being with us.

Lt. HALFAKER: Thanks for having us.

Pvt. PITTS: Thank you. Have a good day.

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