Monday, November 17, 2008

Leif - An Award from Dad & Retirement from the Army - 2002 & 2004

Leif seldom wrote anything long, letters or email, unless it was something about which he felt a sudden and gripping passion. One evening in February 2001, when he was alone and depressed at Fort Drum, he called home and he and his dad had a misunderstanding. He broke down, the only time I ever heard him do that as an adult, hung up the phone and wrote a passionate statement about his military service. In that email, we learned for the first time about his awards, the difficulty he had experienced, and the humiliation he experienced not only from the treatment he got from some of his superiors, but from experiencing the breakdown of his health and body.

Although Leif ultimately was boarded out of the army due to medical reasons, his asthma, which became so severe that he could not keep up on marches when carrying his incredibly heavy load, and for which he was punished instead of being treated, he did not want to leave his chosen military career and felt his body had betrayed him.

The ultimate humiliation came when the army tried, as they have tried with so many vets (just tonight we heard on the news that all these years later they are finally admitting that those who had "Gulf War Syndrome" from the first Gulf War weren't making it up; they are really sick!) to insist that he didn't contract the asthma as the result of his military service, but must have had it before he entered. Luckily for him, he had his entire life's health record from military facilities from the day he was born, with no trace of asthma in any of it until after he was sent to Fort Drum. He had to appeal their decision to board him out without benefits, and appear before a board at Fort Lewis, Washington.

The final result was that the board agreed that his asthma was service-related, caused a 30% disability (which also meant that the law enforcement careers he would have liked to go into instead of the army were now barred to him as well), and permanently retired him from the army in August 2004 after being on a temporary retirement list since May of 2001.

Leif was denied promotions he deserved and denied medals he earned because of his asthma and disability, regardless of the outstanding job he did. He came home demoralized, depressed and lonely.

In July 2002, when his brother, Peter Anthony, and his family were visiting us in Manhattan, Kansas at the old stone house, Peter W. made an award for Leif, hoping to show that he honored Leif's service to his country. He put a brass plaque on a wooden base, used a branch of wood from one of our trees, decorated it with Leif's insignia and medals, and topped it with the statue of a infantryman. He presented it to Leif in front of the family, saying that if the Army didn't properly honor him, his dad would.

Leif was touched, and also bemused. This surely was one of the most unusual and personal awards a soldier ever got. The photo above is of that occasion.

At Leif's Memorial Service, the base of this award, with the brass plaque and the infantryman that had been on the top, were displayed, and some of the insignia were placed on the wooden urn that held Leif's ashes.

Here are Leif's own words:

I am an infantryman. There is a reason we get to wear the blue cord. We do what others would not, what others could not. I have done things that you could not imagine. Carried more, fought harder, endured more pain, pressed on for the mission. You have no idea what I have done. You have no idea what I have endured, what I have carried, how far I have carried it, or how little thanks I have gotten for my efforts. I would challenge you to do the same. I doubt you could.

I have served my country to the best of my ability and then some. I DID serve with honor and distinction. You have no idea what I have done or how hard it was to do it. I may have joined the wrong Service or the wrong MOS but I did my best to fulfill that job. I have suffered more pain, more humiliation, because of that choice, than you can imagine. I am now asthmatic because I would not give up. I am being thown out because my body would not abide with my will.

But I was proud to serve my country, because even if the institution was flawed at least I was one of those that volunteered to be part of it. I have served with honor and distinction. I was the top gunner at Dragon School straight out of Basic, for which I received a Certificate of Achievement. I was the best of the Guard in Bosnia on several occasions, for which I received several more COA's. I was among the best in the Catamout truck challenge, receiving another COA from my LTC.

I was the best gunner in our battalion and had the best gun team in the battalion, and probably the division, for which I also received a COA. I completed many road marches from 12 to 25 miles with full gear. I completed the 7 month rotation to Bosnia with a mission every day that could have meant life or death. These are just a few of the things that I have done in my service.

His Certificate of Retirement reads:

Certificate of Retirement
From the Armed Forces of the United States of America
To all who shall see these presents, greeting:
This is to certify that
Specialist Leif A. Garretson
having served faithfully and honorably,
was retired from the
United States Army
on the Fifth Day of August 2004

Here I will end my account of Leif's military service, which is fragmented and sketchy. We will never know all he could have told us about it, and there are some things he did tell us that I am not recounting online because they are about other individuals whose permission I do not have, or who would not be portrayed in a flattering light.

Although Leif's military service harmed him in body and soul, and I think it quite likely that he suffered from post traumatic stress syndrome, it also formed a major part of his identity, which is one reason his inability to continue because of his health was such a terrible blow to him.

The rest of his life, Leif would identify with his fellow soldiers.


  1. I hear echoes of that sentiment from my husband, who joined as a forward observer, only to be injured at his first duty station and mocked and belittled throughout his entire term of service... during which time his medical records were lost, among many other 'mishaps', and it ended with him being boarded out with no findings. We're still locked in battle with the VA for his care and keeping. He's doing a paper on this topic. Would it be alright if we included this in the case study?

  2. I hear echoes of this sentiment in my own husband, who joined the Army as a forward observer, he didn't want the easy route, he wanted the biggest challenge he could find. Unfortunately, he was injured at his first duty station in Korea, and his entire term of service from that point on was one of bitterness and humiliation as he could not do what he had signed on to do. His unit managed to lose his medical records prior to the medical boards, so they were kind enough to discharge him from service with various ailments. After a two year battle with the VA, we've managed to secure benefits (he's considered 50% disabled by their standards), but it doesn't quite heal the hurt he endured in service. He's doing a paper for his sociology class on this subject. Would it be alright if he includes Leif in his case study?