- I decided, this is not being egotistical, I decided I was gonna be the best triple amputee there's ever been.
I haven't achieved that and never will, but at least I'm trying to get there.
- I don't think anything I did was heroic.
I think that we made mistakes that actually cost lives.
So I feel, you were talking about survivors remorse earlier, so I don't feel like I did anything that was heroic.
I did almost 300 patrols looking for IEDs at 12 miles an hour, but I mean, a monkey could have done it.
- We don't say commit.
We're teaching died by suicide because it's not a crime.
It's their mental illness that took their life.
That injury they sustained overseas, they're all combat veterans, so that injury took their life.
To me, that's the same as me dying on the operating table.
The injuries I sustained in war is what took my life.
Same thing when it comes to suicide.
They lost that battle.
- It never fails.
If I'm out with my service dog, Charlie, somebody asks me if I'm training him for a veteran.
I realize I don't look disabled, but like so many of my fellow combat veterans, my injuries are on the inside.
Hi, I'm Stacy Pearsall, retired Air Force Staff Sergeant, former aerial combat photojournalist, and founder of the Veterans Portrait Project.
Today, I'm sitting down with Tommy Clack, Bobby Henline, and Jeffrey Crosby, three fellow veterans who also had brushes with death in service.
We talk about their injuries, their recovery, and how they stay positive in life, After Action.
♪ There will be light ♪ ♪ There is a road ♪ ♪ Marching on ♪ ♪ Coming home ♪ ♪ slow music ♪ ♪ (birds tweeting) ♪ bright music ♪ Stacy- Tommy, Bobby, Jeff, welcome to my house.
Thanks for taking the time to come.
Jeffrey- Thanks for having us.
I'm glad you guys are here, 'cause we've got a lot to cover so I'm gonna dive right in.
I'm gonna start with you, Tommy.
And I want to know a little bit about your origin story, 'cause I think you and I share a commonality that both of us come from fathers who've served and have military history.
So why don't we start a little bit about what it was like having a dad who served and tell me a little about him and then about how you ended up in the military.
Stacy-Decatur, Georgia native and Army veteran, Tommy Clack, is the oldest living combat triple amputee in America at the age of 75.
Miraculously, he was saved after being pronounced dead in Vietnam, came home, recovered, married and fathered two children.
He's dedicated his entire life to his faith, assisting fellow veterans, and educating America's youth.
Tommy- At Pearl Harbor, when it got hit December 7th '41, Dad volunteered for the Army and he went to the South Pacific with the 25th Infantry Division.
He came home, married my mom, had five kids, and...very, very discipline oriented.
I share with people, I'm where I am now because he used a belt on my gluteus maximus regularly if I crossed a certain red line in the house or whatever, but he also taught me everything I know about hunting and fishing in the outdoors, which I still love to do, would give you the shirt off his back if you asked for it, but solved his World War II pains with alcohol.
My dad was one of those that never told me he loved me his entire life.
My generation, the Vietnam generation, grew up with dads like that.
World War II, okay, the sacrifice.
Get the job done.
Task is accomplished.
You set out and you go where you're going.
It was just part of how we grew up at that timeframe.
They were there for you.
They paid the bills.
And they just moved through life.
It's really a sad commentary on how we treated World War II veterans.
No help of any kind.
So they just move on.
I knew I was going in the Army, but Dad never said that, but being around that environment.
I think it's Southern boys.
It's ingrained that's part of who we are and what we do with our lives.
And I actually left Decatur, Georgia for the University of Houston on a track scholarship and I dropped out my freshman year because the anti-war sentiment, even in '65 and '66, was there already and I couldn't handle that environment.
So I volunteered for the Army.
I had the opportunity to be stationed at Fort Sill as an artillery instructor.
So when I got to Vietnam in '68, I was a First Lieutenant at that point.
And if you know anything about the Army, Artillery FOs are normally Second Lieutenant slots, but we had literally no Second Lieutenants or First Lieutenants alive.
They'd either been killed, wounded, or attrition or whatever.
So when I made Captain in Vietnam, I really wasn't supposed to be in the field, but there was no place to take my place.
May 25 of '69, First Lieutenant William Eye died and he was my best friend in 'Nam.
We shared fox holes, did everything together, but he got killed on the 25th.
I got hit on May 29th, four days later.
I actually wrote my mother a letter.
I actually told her I thought I was gonna die soon.
I just had this premonition coming on.
And on the 29th, we were in a big battle on the Cambodian border.
I got hit in the right foot in terms of this massive explosion.
And that's literally what saved my life 'cause when it blew these limbs off, it cauterized everything and I didn't bleed out.
But I was actually, my records show that I was actually pronounced dead.
Dr. Julian Megs, I found him to say thank you, was the MASH doctor that saved my life, you know?
And he doesn't know why he did what he did to me.
And what's really interesting is all the guys that were there when I got hit, they all prayed that I would die, just due to the severity of the injuries.
- That they saw.
I woke up seven days later.
I didn't have to ask what was going on.
I had, and it's documented, what's called a near death experience and I got hit May 29, '69.
I didn't leave the VA until March 5th of '71.
So - Wow.
- I went through 33 operations during that time and the bond that we had, Atlanta became a southeastern center for amputees from Vietnam.
So we had over 300 guys go through there, missing limbs.
So we all gave each other support.
- So I've never been sad about the way I am.
I've always been very positive about what can I do to overcome this and move forward?
You know, when they were telling me I couldn't roll in a wheelchair, we'd find a way to do that.
Not, not electric chair, but you know.
They told me I couldn't walk on artificial legs, we walked out on artificial legs.
I think that's our mindset, okay, in terms of not just being in the military, but deciding how we want to live our life.
I decided I was gonna be the best triple amputee that's ever been.
I haven't achieved that and never will, but at least I'm trying to get there, okay.
I don't want people to view me as a triple amputee.
If you look at me, I got a lot of positive assets other people don't have.
I don't spend money on shoes and socks, okay.
I mean, I don't get cold feet in the winter.
God's a blessing.
Every veteran has a very unique story that is different from everybody else, but yet there is a commonality there.
And I think we are blessed that we've got this bond of fellow veterans that we interact with, this brotherhood, sisterhood of war - Yeah.
- that understand where we come from, okay.
Society will never grasp that reality.
Bobby- You can take all four of us, go to the same basic training, same war zone, same Humvee, whatever, that we do everything exactly the same, but we're all gonna handle it differently.
- So your personality, where you come from, whatever you're made of, and not good or bad, you just handle it differently 'cause we're all made different.
Stacy- Well, I think it also comes where you're from, how you brought up, your parents, your influence.
- Exactly, you can tell Tommy felt the love of his father, even though he didn't say it.
- But you felt it.
Y ou knew it was there.
- Oh yeah.
- You knew your dad was doing the right thing, raising you a certain way.
Tommy-My dad died on October 1, 1986 in the Atlanta VA Hospital, been in the bed for about eight months at that point with cancers and his literally last breath outta his mouth was, "I love you, son."
And he was gone - Wow.
- To me, that was a great point in my life to hear my dad tell me.
I know he felt that way, but it was a great point to hear that, I tell my son and daughter I love them every day, okay.
And the grandkids, I think those are important words in our relationship.
I didn't want to be like my dad.
Bobby- Well from leaders, our parents, we learn, things we don't like too, so we learn how to do it differently.
We take things, all right, I like the way they did this, I'll continue to do it.
I didn't like the way they do it, I'll change it.
Stacy- Bobby Henline was burned over 40% of his body after an improvised explosive device destroyed his Humvee in Iraq, killing all the soldiers inside but him.
During his long recovery, he discovered the restorative power of laughter and has since used his comedic skills to help others on their journey of healing, even founding a nonprofit, Forging Forward with his wife, Jamie.
So Bobby, did you have any parents or family history of military?
Not in the military, they were in the Navy.
[laughs] Dad, Navy.
Stepdad was Navy.
Stacy- Why did you go into the Army then?
- Because I couldn't pass the ASVAB high enough to get in the Navy.
- That makes sense.
So that means you - No nuclear.
- would've never gotten in the Air Force.
- No, my uncle, I didn't even plan on going in the military.
My uncle, I was 17, dropped outta high school.
I'm ready to like join the Hell's Angels or something.
I'm going the wrong direction.
And my uncle said, "You know what?
We should go in Army together."
'Cause he was doing the same thing and he's six years older than me.
- Wait, - My uncle Stacy- your uncle's six years older than you?
Bobby- Yeah, so he is more like a big brother to me.
- Big family, you know.
15 kids on one side, 7 on the other side.
Aunt and uncles and stuff like that.
So my uncle's six years older than me, he says, "We should go in the Army together."
I'm like, "You're right.
We need to do something with our lives."
So we both went and took the ASVAB.
and I passed and then as I went to go get my GED.
Like, "All right, you passed by enough.
You still need to get your GED."
And I started to take the classes for the GED and they called me back up and said, "Are you still coming in?"
I said, "Yeah, I'm just studying up.
Going do a GED test."
Well they knew at that time, I didn't know at that time, that Desert Storm was coming.
Bobby- You know?
So they brought a bunch of us in with no education in 1989, knowing the Persian Gulf was, I think, was happening.
In basic training, they brought a bunch of us off to the side and we had to take our GED test while in basic training.
- So what did you end up doing in the Army?
- I was a truck driver.
They told me I could drive a broken truck or I could fix a broken truck.
17, I was very lazy.
You know, I was a DJ at the roller skating rink with my cool mullet and my Mustang, you know.
I was a cool kid, had the cross earring, Def Leppard, but I didn't want to, I don't know, fix a truck and my dad was never around.
My parents got divorced when I was eight months old.
My stepdad came around when I was 10.
I never let him tell me anything.
You know, got in a little battle.
I learned to respect him after basic training.
Once I went in the military myself, I had a whole different love for my stepfather and understood him better, but I'll just drive a truck.
That sounds easy.
I'll just drive a truck.
So did you end up in the Gulf war?
Bobby- I ended up there in Desert Shield and Desert Storm.
I turned 19 in September.
October 10th, shipped out to Saudi Arabia.
- What was the difference between the two, Shield and Storm?
Bobby- Shield, you're just kind of sitting there waiting.
You're not doing anything yet.
- It's like a staging.
- Yeah, you're staging.
You're getting ready.
You know if he doesn't leave Kuwait soon, then we're gonna have to start the war.
So now I'm gonna leave Kuwait so then the Storm hit and we were already kind doing some raids and stuff and you're on the border just kind of waiting to go in.
I was in artillery then as a fueler.
I drove the field truck for artillery during Desert Storm.
Stacy- Okay, so tell me a little bit about what that experience was like for you.
- Desert Storm was definitely a lot different than today, today's wars.
Being so young and away from home for the first time, that whole experience I was a mama's boys.
As much as bad a rebel I was, I was a mama's boy.
So I didn't like being away from the family.
That was really hard for the first time doing all that stuff.
But I don't think there was any really fear.
Like you said, you'd rather be out there than in the rear.
You want to be out there with your brothers and sisters, out there fighting because you can't help in the back of your head going, "What if, if someone died, what if I was there?
Would I have made a difference if I had gone with them?"
But you, you don't want that.
You don't want that playing in your head, so you want to be out there.
So I enjoyed being out there with everybody that I, couple of guys I went through basic training with, we deployed together.
So I enjoyed being out there and doing what I thought was right.
And I still do, you know?
I don't like seeing other countries get bullied and that's when, you know, Saddam came in to Kuwait and did all that.
I wanted to be part of that.
Let's get the bully outta here and move on with life.
Did three years, came back.
Didn't know what PTSD was back then.
They still weren't talking about it, didn't realize.
Once I looked back, I realized I kind of went through a phase of the alcohol and doing all that stuff.
But I was able, I think, 'cause it was a shorter war.
There wasn't as much violence in it.
I didn't see in that one as much.
It was very minimal.
So I think coming back, I got over it quicker and it didn't bother me as much.
So I got past all that and then started my family.
You know, got married, had children.
Then 10 years later, 9/11 happens.
(somber music) - [Stacy] So 9/11 happened and that inspired you to reenlist?
Bobby- Yeah, I was already talking to a recruiter, like a month before it happened, started talking to a recruiter wanting to go back in and he was like, "Ah, it's gonna take a long time.
You've been out.
We gotta do this whole background check for 10 years.
It's really hard to get in right now."
Course he had no idea what was about to happen.
- And all of a sudden, boom, 9/11 happened.
That morning I remember sitting there watching the news.
I was just living north of Seattle during that time.
And you saw that second plane hit and you knew right away.
I said, "Terrorists."
I told my wife at the time, "Terrorists."
Knew what it was right away.
And she goes, "Well, you don't have to go in the Army then."
I said, "No, this means I need to go."
I knew having my experience in Desert Shield and Storm as being 17, 19 years old, that I had something that I can teach these other young men and women that are about to go to war.
And I was still young enough to still fight.
I was 30 years old.
I could still fight.
I could still protect our country.
We've been attacked like that.
I knew having those skills that I had from before and loving that job and being the comradery and that I could still fight and protect my country.
I couldn't just sit there and just let that happen and do nothing.
So you went in 03.
Bobby- I went in 03.
Had a unique position.
Being in before, I was the same age as the higher enlisted, but my rank was with the younger crowd.
- Were you PFC?
- PFC grandpa?
- I had to come back as E2 then I got the PFC.
- Oh boy.
I was the grandpa at 30 years old, 31 at that point and grandpa, but it was neat because the higher enlisted and even officers, respected my time from before.
And they used me as a go between to communicate to the younger enlisted guys and gals of what's happening, what's going on.
So I could be that communicator in between 'cause it is, you don't really understand.
You don't understand why they're making you do all this stuff.
This doesn't make any sense, you know?
You know, why we get those spankings?
Why do we get yelled at in basic training?
Why do you have to do this with no questions?
Because when that (censored) hits the fan, you gotta be able to react without thinking.
It needs to be automatic and you need to know.
But you do have to make some decisions.
And of course, depending on the situation, but you gotta know second nature can kick in and you're not just gonna freeze up.
Stacy- So did you ever freeze up?
Bobby - Luckily I didn't, I wasn't the one that talked a lot of smack either.
It's usually those ones that are, "I'm gonna do this.
I'm gonna do that."
Jeffrey- So, so right.
- And then pop, pop, pop, pop.
They're like - So right.
- So right.
They talk a big game.
Those are the ones that are gonna to freeze up when it happens.
(calm music) Bobby- The humanitarian stuff's the best for me, to do the humanitarian stuff 'cause I love that part.
The part they don't see.
They don't talk about the humanitarian stuff, rebuilding the schools and the roads and working with the locals and learning their cultures.
That's the best.
Stacy- That's how I got blown up the first time.
Doing the good stuff.
Bobby- Well technically we're all doing good stuff, right?
And we think we're doing good stuff.
We hope we're doing the right thing.
- You hope you're doing the right thing.
Stacy- Yeah, so I was working with the Civil Affairs unit and we were going out there throughout a few months, over the course of a few months, and this school where Saddam's wife actually used to teach elementary and they, they being the Iraqi Army, had taken it over.
The Ba'ath Party used it as a headquarters so when the shock and awe campaign came through, they obviously hit it.
I being the Air Force gal, being attached to the Army Civil Affairs unit, I didn't necessarily have an official position with the Civil Affairs.
So if there was an open seat, that's where I jumped in.
So we kind of drew straws, whoever got to vehicle 1, 2, 3, 4, X, Y, Z.
Now IEDs were just on the rise and this was 03.
We were walking around without doors on Humvees.
Bobby- Y'all were hanging out there with the machine gun, just no big deal.
Stacy- I mean, it was the wild west.
We were just kind of running and gunning.
That's how it was.
And I felt like I won the lottery that morning because I got to be in the Colonel's vehicle.
So I was in the commander's vehicle, behind his driver with the translator to my right.
I'm in the backseat and then we had, it was the sort of pickup style Humvee and they had the gunners up in the up, you know.
It was Mad Max to the nine.
Now the school itself was like on the single lane road and if you pull in, it's a dead end.
And so I'm kind of like loving life because I'm in the first vehicle.
I'm not gonna get hit by an IED because you know, they were doing the old school triggers back then.
- So there's a sort of delay and it was usually one of the last vehicles that would get hit.
So we pull in and we go to the school opening.
They have cake.
It's terrible, but it's a party and hey, who doesn't like a party?
So I'm photographing.
The school's open.
All the kids are happy and laughing.
We go to mount back in our vehicles and then we have to do the like 50 point turn to try and get out of the single lane.
And as we turn around we were in the last vehicle.
Little did we know that when they started tearing the building down, the enemy had already laid a bomb.
- Right there at the school.
So that was the first time I got my world rocked and you just don't really think about it.
And you're like, "Oh, that one stung."
Bobby- Right, at that time you don't think about it.
Oh, I survived another one.
Stacy- Well I think Jeff can relate to this.
We're gonna turn to Jeff for a second 'cause you were route clearance.
Stacy- Like so many combat veterans, National Guardsman Jeffrey Crosby's wounds cannot be seen.
As a route clearance engineer he sustained one blast injury after the next leaving deep scars on both his brain and his psyche.
Jeffrey's now a small business owner in his hometown of Harleyville, South Carolina where he lives on a small farm with his wife Renata and one year old daughter Emerson.
So tell me a little bit about what the day to day was like for you Jeff.
Jeffrey- So when we got to country, our sole mission, the only thing we did, we didn't have to pull, like a lot of other units, they had to pay taxes on the FOBs which means they had to stand gate guard or stuff like, you know what I'm talking about, right?
So they had to stay gate guard and stuff like that.
Sit in the towers.
We didn't have to do any of that because of our mission.
So, and it didn't matter if the roads were black, there was no air support.
We still had to go out and clear routes.
Stacy- What does black mean for someone like me?
Jeffrey- They don't allow any convoys to leave the FOB.
They don't allow any birds to leave.
There's usually intel of increased enemy activity.
It could be just a huge dust storm, you know, where you can't see.
We'd usually go out on patrol in the evening.
I mean, you'd be in patrol, it could be as short as two hours and the longest one I think we were on was, I think it was 18 hours.
We were on a patrol and when we got hit and then we had to sit there in the middle of the night, waiting for recovery assets.
You've already been hit.
You're like (censored).
- Still going to hang out here.
- You're just gonna hang out.
But I was in the command vehicle which carried the 50 Cal, so I did all almost 300 patrols in that behind the 50 Cal.
And for whatever reason, the bad guy seemed to want to destroy that gun.
They know what it does.
It was like, "Whack.
Crosby got hit again."
So I think it was a total of nine that we literally drove over.
The largest was 4 155 rounds.
That one was intense.
It was 2 155 rounds that actually penetrated up armored MRAP.
- And I remember thinking, Hey, it looks like that.
I was literally floating back.
It was like time stood still.
And my life was in slow motion and I was looking up at all these sparks and these lights and I was like it's like a firework show in here.
And I had no idea at the time - What are we celebrating?
Bobby- What are we celebrating?
literally just ricocheting all around inside the vehicle.
- You know, afterwards, I was like, it felt like somebody kicked me in my chest.
There was a piece of shrapnel that hit me in the chest and if I hadn't had my vest on, I wouldn't be, we wouldn't even having this conversation.
My driver, his foot got all kind of messed up.
I was telling you this story the other day.
It was the vehicle commander.
He was an E6.
I was E4.
He wasn't wearing his helmet.
He put it on the dash.
I was like, "Dude, put your helmet on."
And he was like, "Nah, nah.
It's hot in here."
I was like, "I don't give a."
I told him.
I was like, "Dude, you gonna put the helmet on."
And I swear to God, it wasn't three minutes after he put his helmet on, we hit that bomb.
- Dude had a piece of, right here on the side of his helmet, like almost the size of a half dollar, gone.
The piece of shrapnel landed right by his leg.
And it was just crazy, man.
It was intense.
But we did that every single day after day after day after day.
And it got to where it was just.
- But that shows the intestinal fortitude Tommy- But that shows the intestinal fortitude - You start at point A. Tommy- You start at point A.
That's ingrained, you know.
You know you're gonna have people killed or wounded, but you get out and do it anyway.
- So Bobby, I know we were in Iraq Stacy- So Bobby, I know we were in Iraq Well that was when I got hit.
So it was April 7th.
Bobby- So it was April 7th.
The Humvee got hit at 5:00 in the evening.
I don't remember the whole day.
I remember having cup of coffee that morning.
- It was 3-4 155 rounds.
Found us out later buried in the center of the road.
Threw the Humvee 20 meters.
Left a hole five foot in diameter and three feet deep.
The pictures I have, you barely even recognize the Humvee except for my door.
It was flipped upside down.
They say I was burnt to the skull.
But I think, look at the photos afterwards three years later, definitely a convertible, I could have been drugged and why helmet wouldn't be on 'cause the other guys with burnt heads and it's not as lumpy, their skulls messed up.
They had to shave parts of my skull cause it was so bad - Holy crap.
- to get skin up there.
It took 18 months.
So I was burnt over 38% of my body.
The other four men died in country.
I had my left hand for two years.
They tried to fix it.
I kept telling 'em take it off.
Six months inpatient, three years total recovery.
Well total recovery until I retired but then I went on to have surgeries and surgeries after.
I'm up to 48 skin graft surgeries.
This is my stomach on my head.
They took 'em 18 months to get that skin graft to work.
I didn't think I was gonna make it.
Chances for infection were high.
So they eventually, luckily I just sat around and grew my own skin, got fatter and fatter.
So they gave me a tummy tuck, not the way to go about getting one, but I did get a free tummy tuck and they put it on top of my head.
- So Bobby, Stacy- So Bobby, - And I think, I love to laugh and if you can't laugh at yourself, then what's life worth living?
- It disarms people when you use the humor with it.
Bobby- It disarms people when you use the humor with it.
- You do kinda look like Freddy Kruger.
Jeffrey- You do kinda look like Freddy Kruger.
well that's why you have me here on Friday 13th.
I know it.
- Plus you're great for Halloween.
Tommy- Plus you're great for Halloween.
Bobby- Oh Halloween, I've done it all.
You know I just joked about it in the hospital.
Make light of stuff we talked about.
In the hospital, I'd do funny jokes just to deal with the pain too and just to make everybody kinda laugh and enjoy their day, doing physical therapy.
It made my friends and family feel better.
Some of the staff would get off work and they'd come back to my room 'cause some other patient gave 'em a hard time.
So they'd come laugh before they went home in my room and just doing that, joking around, eventually I got asked to do standup comedy.
In fact, last year it was summertime.
I went, I got invited to be with the Wounded Veterans in Nashville for a fishing tournament.
I out there and I went in to go check in the hotel and the lady at the front desk actually asked me, "Are you with the Wounded Warriors?"
(audience laughing) "No, ma'am.
You see, this is a rare birth defect."
(audience laughing) - I have certain days of the calendar year Stacy- I have certain days of the calendar year and the thing is sometimes if I'm not paying attention, my body knows, regardless if I'm paying attention or not, where I just feel something snaps in my brain, in my physiological being.
- Do you go numb?
in my physiological being.
Jeffrey- Do you go numb?
And something just goes numb and things feel a little hollow.
And that just happens to be a couple of key dates for me.
You know, some trigger dates where I lost a lot of friends or you know, even the dates that I was blown up.
Do you guys have that happen to you?
- That's May 29 for me.
Tommy- That's May 29 for me.
on the 28th.
I can't stop the feeling.
I don't know how or why that permeates my body, but it's coming.
- Yeah, but it's coming.
Bobby- Yeah, It's senses it.
- It's coming the next day.
- Every year it knows.
- And the next day comes and I wake up and it goes away.
But yeah, it's there.
I freely admit that.
- All the years, Bobby- All the years, I know that week ahead of time, I start digging into the four guys lives too and contacting their families.
And so I know my body knows it.
And I know that date.
I'm not gonna forget the day I got blown up, but there's another time where it didn't make sense to me.
I'm like, why am I feeling this?
This is in March.
I got blown up in April.
Why is this feeling so weird?
I didn't understand.
It's like I didn't want to do anything.
I got that numb feeling.
What's going on?
So I was like, I'll just check some emails.
I get on my computer and there's a little Yahoo message in the news.
10th anniversary OIF.
March 10th when we first rolled in.
It was that day.
- And my body knew it - That's crazy.
- and my brain put it together.
- Well see, the VA is telling veterans today Tommy- Well see, the VA is telling veterans today Okay?
And I think that is very wrong.
- Oh never.
- We keep their memory alive.
- The first time I went to Arlington, Jeffrey- The first time I went to Arlington, and it was so humbling to be able to walk on that ground and know that every freaking one of those men and women died for my freedom.
How are you gonna forget that, you know?
- So uniquely - Exactly.
Stacy- So uniquely obviously I was bouncing around from unit to unit and I, you know, would spend hours, I mean, I was there with them all the time.
So I got to know so many really great people and after the first group of guys got killed, I realized that I had pictures of some of them and I didn't with others.
And I think that was really hard because those I had pictures of got sent back to the family and I told the guys, I said, "Please don't tell 'em it was me that photographed 'em."
And I took all my name and my information out of the pictures 'cause they were all digital pictures.
So after that, I made it a point before we went on an operation to take portraits of every guy that I was going out with in case something happened.
And sadly, sadly it did.
But Tommy, you asked me what are the pictures that I appreciate or hold most dear and it's really those.
(somber music) Tommy-Well, we all still today react to loud noises.
One thing that's constant with me If something goes off around me, you know, it's automatic.
What are we doing here, you know?
Jeffrey- For years I didn't like the lightning, completely destroying me.
I couldn't, it would literally have my anxiety so high 'cause I think, being, you know, driving over that many IEDs that one of the very first things is the light.
- And it's - Sound.
- Well, it's the feel.
- You feel, then you hear.
So the lightning storms really (censored) me up when I got back.
Stacy- It's the percussion for me.
- I live down the road and I don't know what they're doing over there, whether they're blowing up a mine or something like that.
But when I'm just walking around my farm and I feel that, my heart stops for a minute.
Jeffrey- So apparently they blast at the cement plant.
My wife was telling me something about that.
- Well, we're neighbors so you would know.
- Yeah, you can feel it.
- You feel it.
- I get what you're saying.
- It makes my heart race.
Bobby- Cause I have no problem with fireworks, watching them and stuff like that.
Watch fireworks, so I know it's going on.
No big deal.
One year we're at an event and they're like, "Oh, you guys should come up closer."
So they brought a bunch of us veterans up closer where we could watch them set 'em off and didn't think about.
We feel that that percussion coming up.
- Oh man.
- Two of us just stood up back to back and just cried until it was over.
- We just leaned against each other.
We just waited it out, but I didn't realize how much it effected me.
Jeffrey- I almost turned a table over at Applebee's.
- Oh God.
- I was dating my wife and we went out on one of our very first dates.
Actually, it was on our very first date.
It was our very first date and some dude popped a balloon like the table over and I almost flipped the table upside down.
And they would look at you like you're crazy.
If I did it, they'd go, "Oh, okay."
And I was doing an assignment down in San Antonio, Texas, along along the River Walk.
They've got a number of sort of commercial restaurants.
One of 'em's name is Dicks and the whole point is the restaurant wait staff - You didn't.
- are total jerks to you.
- But I went with a fellow combat veteran, a friend of mine by the name of Steve Thorough, so he knows and he is like, "Listen, we'll just let the wait staff know."
We saw them going up and popping balloons behind people.
And I was like, - Someone needs to tell them.
- I was like, "Listen, you can be a jerk to my face.
You can call me any name but late for dinner, but do not pop a balloon behind me."
And I they're like, "We got you.
We would never do that.
This is Military Town USA."
So I'm sitting there and I'm just getting settled in.
And they're like, "Boom!"
I'm like, "That's it.
And I went out to the River Walk and people were there celebrating their children's graduation from the Air Force.
And I'm bawling.
- Oh wow.
- Bawling my eyes out.
- Trying to find a safe spot.
- Couldn't catch my breath.
And I'm like, "I don't know where to go.
I don't know where to go."
And I'm like peeing my pants.
I'm like, "That's it."
Tommy- Well, y'all familiar with Stone Mountain, Georgia?
- Well they have a laser show.
And I got hit in 69, left the VA in 71.
I went to Stone Mountain in 19.
I still remember this, July 4th, 1980 and we're sitting there waiting for it to get dark.
The laser show goes on.
The laser show goes on and green tracers are coming at me.
The enemy fired green tracers.
I actually jumped out of my chair to get low and realized how stupid I was, okay?
But I mean, think about that 69 to 80 and it's automatically ingrained.
You just do it.
You gotta react.
- Don't think about it.
Bobby- Body's trained.
Jeffrey- Shit, it was probably 10 years later.
We were in our house and lightning struck, that thunder.
It hit the pole of a neighbor's house and it literally shook my, well it hit, I literally jumped off of the couch in the floor and Renata was looking at me like, "What, what are you?
What are you?
What's going on?
Are you okay?"
I was like, and it was 'cause the concussion, the sound.
It was so real.
Bobby- The thing is when I went, I've gone back overseas three times since I've been injured, doing the comedy shows and talking to the troops and people are like, "How do you do that?
How do you go?"
I said, "It's easier for me to fly into Baghdad than is into Dallas."
- Yeah, for real.
- The issues I have back home with the hyper vigilance and everything is normal.
That's what I need to survive there.
I fit in.
I turn that back on but here it's hard to turn it off.
- Cause it's survival.
Jeffrey- Did you guys when you got back, three or four, five years, all I could think about was going back to war.
- That's all I wanted.
Bobby- When I realized that I couldn't do it anymore, when it really, really hit me when I got home outta the hospital and my wife at the time said, "All right, there's a trunk that came home with you."
And I started going through it and I just sat down and started crying.
I can't do my job anymore.
- My career got taken away from me.
So I'd see friends going on to Civil Affairs and Special Forces and they're touring still.
I'm like, "Oh," and I just cried, just wanting to be there.
- Just missing it.
Stacy- Now that you bring it up Bobby, I think that's a really great thing to talk about next is, each and every one of us had what we planned in our lives and what we projected to see for ourselves.
For me, I was a combat photographer.
I was living by the seat of my pants, traveling around the world.
I was on the road 180 days, 280 days a year and loved what I was doing.
I planned on becoming an E9, staying in the Air Force, making a career.
You know, fate had other plans for me.
And I think what I was talking about earlier, after being injured, I was sent home and I started the 18 month process of recovery which was long and it was hard.
And I felt, I felt abandoned in so many ways because my unit used me up.
They sent me all over the world.
Granted, it was great and I volunteered for every minute.
But the minute I came home and I needed their help, I felt like they weren't there.
You know, my husband who was in the same unit was continuing to go on the road and he was continuing to deploy and doing his part.
And I supported him through that.
But when I needed to go under anesthesia and I needed somebody to drive me, people from my unit were supposed to come pick me up and they didn't.
- And when it finally came time for the neurosurgeon to break the news to me that it wasn't my future anymore.
I just couldn't really cope with that.
And I had a really hard time because you, you know, I came in when I was, I enlisted when I was 17 and through the most formidable part of my years, I grew up in the military with that mentality, that it's service before self.
It's, if you're hurt, rub some dirt on it, and keep moving forward.
Nobody says, nobody says they're weak.
And Tommy, you and I have talked about this that you don't want to ask for help.
That's not in our DNA, in our makeup.
And you want to be proud and do things for yourself.
And suddenly I found myself career less without a family because the military is the only family I ever really had.
And especially when you make that family in combat, - Yeah.
- I think all of you can probably affirm the fact that you'll never have friends like the ones you've made there.
Bobby- And I think what you had, looking from what it sounded like, because you weren't only with your unit, you got more attached to other units that you were assigned to.
- You became closer to them and they weren't where you're at.
So that may have been even harder for you I think.
Stacy- Yeah, that was really hard.
And to leave in a way I never had anticipated too.
And I think, you know, you guys could probably appreciate that more than I did.
They were like, "We're going to send you Medevac to Germany."
And I was like, "No, I want to go out on my own two feet if I have the capability of that."
So they gave me morphine pills.
I got on the rotator and I went home and that's when my recovery process started.
But I think what was tough was this sort of systematic shutting down of everything I thought my future was.
And then I went into this really dark place and those who were closest around me, I didn't want them to know - Yes.
- I was struggling.
- And I think too, maybe in some ways, looking back, hindsight as we know is always 20/20.
And I think many of my unit maybe looked at me and if I could be broken, the person who was allegedly at the top of her game, if I could - Yeah.
- fall victim and if I was touchable and if I could hurt, then they could too.
And so out of sight, out of mind?
Tommy- Well, society doesn't know how to interact with us as it is.
If I go into, you know, traveling as a speaker and I go into a venue, most people avoid talking to me 'cause they don't know how to interact with what they're seeing.
- It's always incumbent on me to break the ice.
- To show that I have a voice and a brain, you know, the whole bit, but we also have this mentality and I'm glad I have it, somebody asked me how's my day going, I'm having a great day.
I don't care how bad I feel.
I always respond, "It's a beautiful day in paradise."
You wake up, you got another day to live.
There's nothing wrong.
You know, pain lets you know you're alive.
and I think that part of my battle in life is for people to accept me is for me to hear that I'm not hurting.
That everything's okay.
You know, you just move forward.
My birthday was back on March 9th.
My grandkids gave me a pair of socks for my birthday.
(all laughing) Everybody got a great - Nub-warmers.
- Everybody got a great laugh about it.
And I laughed too.
But they've grown up around me kidding them.
Like "Go find my tennis shoes so we can go for a walk."
- Oh my.
- Keep it normal.
Stacy- So we know each other really well, Tommy and I have no problem walking up to my brothers and sisters, no matter who they look like or where they come from, but for somebody who's outside and you say you're always the one that has to initiate the conversation, what can somebody use as a conversation starter with you?
Tommy- The only dumb question's a question not asked.
That's how you break the ice.
What happened to you?
Now, little kids, God, the world should be like little kids.
- They're going to ask you any question - No filter.
- that comes to mind.
- Nothing but the truth.
- "How you go to the bathroom?"
Well, I ask the parents if I can answer.
I mean, seriously.
I've raised my son and daughter I hope the right way and my grandkids, everybody out there looks different, but we're all human.
Jeffrey- We all bleed red.
- We treat everybody with respect, okay.
Doesn't matter what they look like, who they are.
The reason I'm happy is because I've got friends that can't do what I can do from Vietnam.
Chad is a C2 quadriplegic from a sniper bullet, still alive at 73, paints picture with his teeth that he sells.
And I look at him and I think I couldn't be paralyzed.
I couldn't be blind.
I mean, you know, we've all, everybody, somebody's always got it worse than we got it.
The bottom line.
Stacy- What inspired me when I met you, Tommy, was your lust for life and your positive energy.
And what really got me off the couch was turning that switch and thinking, you know, if the Tommy Clacks of the world are taking every opportunity to enjoy life, then why wouldn't I be?
Tommy- Well, see we four and those in our network are blessed in that our wounds are visible.
Our wounds are visible.
Your wounds are not visible so society doesn't know.
And society needs to be educated it isn't all physical.
There is a, Bobby- I share that with people all the time.
They'll tell me, "Oh, I haven't been through what you've been through.
Mine's not as bad as yours."
- I'm like, look, "If it's the worst thing you've been through, it's the same as me."
Forget the physical part.
It's the mental battle that's the toughest.
If you don't know any better, then your injury's just as bad as my injury 'cause you don't know.
You haven't been tested to that so it's the same.
Don't downplay any other injury 'cause you don't see it.
Stacy- Well, I think that's with any trauma, right?
- Exactly any trauma, not just military, any kind of trauma.
- If losing your parent was the most traumatic thing in your life - Yes.
- and that was devastating, then that is devastating for you.
- It's on that same level.
- You can't compare.
- one to the other.
It took me forever to realize that.
So when I was sort of trying to figure out what was gonna be best for me and I think, let me circle back a little bit because I was in such denial about my new normal that I didn't want to give up driving.
I didn't want to give up my horses.
I didn't want to give up my independence.
And it really rocked me when I had to ask for help 'cause H E L P was never in my vernacular and I don't like being coddled.
I don't like being doddled over.
I don't want to be the Pet the Vet moment.
That's not what I'm about.
And that really did me a disservice for a number of reasons.
I was so reluctant to ask for any help from anybody that I was pushing myself too hard.
And the one thing that I do for me is I work myself to death because the minute things get quiet, that's when I get inside my own head.
And that's when the creepy crawlies start getting in those dark places.
Bobby- You gotta keep busy.
- So I keep busy.
Now I'm on this hamster wheel though.
I'm on a hamster wheel that I've created for myself and I'm not asking for help and I'm wearing myself thin.
And the next thing I know, I'm driving in a car with my husband, I had just got off the road from an assignment and we get down the road and I'm like, "I don't feel very good.
Can you pull over?"
And I thought I was gonna be sick.
I opened the door.
The last thing I remember was opening the door to vomit and I wake up in the ambulance on a gurney facing the car I was just in with my husband behind the wheel with eyes that were super big.
I had a grand mal seizure.
I had no idea.
Jeffrey- Holy (censored).
- Yeah, it was really then that I knew I had to make a change.
Bobby- You gotta take some time out and I been trying to do that the last couple years.
COVID actually helped me realize that when I had to stop.
2019, I was on the road.
I was home eight days a month.
Whether I was speaking in school, doing a comedy show, an event, I just kept busy.
And I was serving others hoping that it helps me to serve others, helps me just be out there talking and sharing the stories and getting out there.
But we forget to take time for ourselves.
And we gotta do that.
I'm learning that now.
I'm trying to work on that this year.
It's one of my new goals.
Stacy- But you don't want to feel like, I think you, I think one thing for me, and this is one of the main reasons why I applied for a service dog was I didn't want to ask others for help.
And I didn't want to feel obligated to do that, but I still knew I needed help and I needed a change.
And part of that meant I needed to find a solution and every person's solution's gonna look different.
So I know you've got a daughter and her name's Emerson.
- She's absolutely gorgeous.
And she's your world.
You want to tell me a little bit about what she does for you?
Jeffrey- She's my everything.
We tried for so long to have a kid and then we did IVF and just to hold her now and just see her smile just relaxes me.
I don't care about anything in the world.
If I'm holding my daughter, I'm the king of the world, right.
And I mean, and just to see her smile, even when she's crying, it's like, I don't care 'cause it's all about her.
And she helps me take my mind off of all the negative stuff.
'Cause I want her to grow up and be a change to the negative.
So one of the things when we were talking about having a kid, my wife was like, "Are you sure we want bring her up in the environment in this world that we have?"
And I thought, "What if she's the one that infects change that we need?"
So, you know, that's how I'm gonna raise her.
I want her to have that mentality.
- To be strong.
Bobby- It helps you think of your reactions to stuff.
Until, as she gets older and starts catching on to you.
To me, my kids are already older, but my fiance now, she had to have a talk with me 'cause I thought I was doing good 'cause I wasn't punching a hole in the wall.
I was just slamming my hand down, angry over something so little that I shouldn't be that angry over, not at her, but just, they'll be doing something else.
I'll get frustrated with the one hand or something won't work right.
And I'll gotta slam something.
Angry arms, I call 'em and I'll slam something.
And then that tends to, I didn't realize what it was doing to her.
She didn't feel threatened like I'm doing anything to her.
But just that, she didn't know what I'd might do to myself or something else to break something.
Just, it put her own edge.
She says, she sat me down and said, "Listen, if this is gonna work, we gotta figure out what else you can do when you get angry."
And I thought this was mild to me.
I didn't realize how it was.
So that really opened my eyes to how I react to stuff now.
And then you're like, you know, you step back and you take a look at it from the outside.
You're like, "Oh man, I was being a (censored)."
- I looked crazy then.
I'd be afraid of me too right now.
Stacy- My husband would always be like, "So what are you really mad about?
What should we talk about that?
Let's let's get to the root of the problem 'cause it certainly isn't what's happening in this moment."
- Having been a VSO and still helping veterans with the VA, there's one common thread among every veteran, male, female, Black, white, Hispanic, and it's anger.
The anger is, and I tell every young veteran that's getting outta the service coming to the VA in my office for the first time.
There's no discipline in society.
There's no Mission Accomplished in society.
Get ready for failure.
They're not gonna perform at your level.
You're gonna get angry.
You need to learn how to get over that anger 'cause that's just the way it is in society.
Every veteran I've ever been around helped.
I see that.
Bobby- I think that's why you see a lot more veteran owned businesses now because we're all realize we need to do something on our own 'cause we can't handle having that boss if they don't do things a certain way.
You know how you want something done.
You know what the customer's expectations are.
So you just do it.
Tommy- Well, see, that's one of the things I think every Chamber of Commerce could do in every city and county is publish a directory of businesses owned by veterans so that we can go to them 'cause we know we're gonna get a good job done 99% of the time, okay?
- But there's no, there's no such avenue for that.
And I think that's a lost cause in society.
- And so I know Bobby that you're doing really great things and you founded Forging Forward.
Can you tell me a little bit about what happened and why it happened?
What's the story behind that?
- So Forging Forward came from me 15 years of not asking for help and trying to figure it out myself.
And I learned outlets helped me.
You know, going on these wounded veteran events and stuff like that, yeah that was helpful to be around other veterans and you understand the comradery and someone else has been there, done that.
So you communicate well together, but they, a lot of them ended up just being big parties.
Well, what did you take away from that?
Make a couple new friends, which is good, but I think they need to be smaller groups.
I'm like, if I did it, I would do it this way.
And I told my fiance, "This way I would do it."
She goes, "Well don't you do it that way?"
I'm like, "Oh, teach others how I forged forward through the fire."
And that's why we called it Forging Forward.
So now we do retreats for veterans and first responders.
But you learn an outlet that weekend.
Our first one we did at Camp for Heroes in North Carolina.
The veterans, we brought in six.
We keep small groups anywhere from 4-10.
We don't any bigger than that.
Keep it close.
Everybody's tight together.
No one gets left out when you're in small groups.
So they went and we learned ax throwing, which is a good outlet.
Just get out there and just throw some axes and focus on that.
They went and the next door neighbor is a blacksmith.
So he taught us all how to forge a knife out of a railroad spike.
- And you could build a forge at your house for like $100.
And railroad spikes are like $3 and you out there.
Something doesn't cost too much that when you're having a dark time and you need to vent, you go there and bang on some metal.
Jeffrey- Hell yeah.
- So comedy helps me so we'll have a retreat where you'll learn comedy writing, songwriting, poetry.
Another thing I do all the writings, although I hate to write.
For some reason I like writing songs, poetry and comedy.
We had a beach retreat where they learned how to surf one day and then we took painting the next day.
And then again, there's always that nighttime, sit around the fire and talk.
We help each other.
And then I have remembrance tags.
I have, this is gonna be hard.
It's all about veteran suicide prevention.
I have a mixed thing on that.
I understand when they go that they're in a better.
It is so bad for them that they had to be in that better place so I'm happy that they got there, but I wish they'd thought of another way.
I wish we could have stopped them somehow.
So I will do my best to do that.
And that's, without the outlets and the remembrance tags, I have 200 veterans names that have died by suicide.
- We don't say commit.
We're teaching died by suicide because it's not a crime.
It's their mental illness that took their life.
That injury they sustained overseas, they're all combat veterans, so that injury took their life.
To me, that's the same as me dying on the operating table.
The injuries I sustained in war is what took my life.
Same thing when it comes to suicide.
They lost that battle.
So I take their names and I put it on a dog tag.
It has their name, the branch, a dash for their life, says never forgotten.
On the other tag, it says, "Forging Forward.
What's strong with you?"
That's our motto.
You focus on your strength.
So the name tag goes on a longer tag, 'cause it's closer to the heart.
The shorter tag hangs off that one so it hangs lower.
And that was where the Forging Forward is.
And so I give these tags out at events with veterans and they have to take an oath with me that they won't do the same.
So I walk 'em through an oath for them to focus on their strengths.
You know, 'cause it's what's strong with you.
Stop asking what's wrong with me?
You talked about earlier, they kept telling you this is wrong.
This is wrong with you.
What's strong with you?
Use your strengths to build your weaknesses.
Use your strengths to help others like you're doing and that we're all doing.
We're using our strengths, what we know.
My strength is comedy so I'm able to make people laugh and help them that way.
And that gets them talking to me and it opens up other conversations like this.
But in the beginning it was really hard.
Like you said, losing what we're able to do.
I felt like a burden of my family.
And that's what I really like to talk about is survivor's guilt 'cause we all go through it.
- That helps me go on.
You think about it.
If you didn't make it home, what would you want for the ones that did?
They'd want the same for us.
So when you're feeling that survivor's guilt, like I'm alive.
I mean, still 15 years later, I still some days go, "Should I be this blessed in life?"
Tommy- My faith in God allows me to wake up every day.
My first words outta my mouth each morning is, "Thank you God for another day to live."
I think based on what I saw and did in combat and filtering through the military and in VA, He has blessed me in so many ways, okay.
And you know, if I drop, if I die in my sleep tonight, God, I've lived a great life, okay.
Bobby- I always tell people, "I can go tomorrow and I've done more of my life now since I've been injured, than I thought I would ever do."
- That's great.
- Oh yeah, for sure.
- You can't let them die in vain.
We gotta live for them and continue on.
How bad would it be if, four other men died in my Humvee, if I just wasted my life.
Oh my life sucks.
And just sat there on my couch drinking away and I didn't do anything.
- How disrespectful was that to them?
Stacy- When I watch movies or I watch television series, we're often portrayed as being these really skiddish veterans fraught with PTSD.
But I don't.
- Anger issues.
- Listen, I don't.
Yes and I don't.
- Anger and alcohol.
- Listen, I may spook at a balloon, but I have a hard time constantly being portrayed that way.
- How do you guys feel about that?
Tommy- I agree wholeheartedly.
- Thankfully, and I'm not tooting my generation's horn, but I think my generation changed that for the Desert Shield/Desert Storm guys.
- You did, you did.
- I remember organizing rallies in '90, '91 along Interstate 16, going to Savannah with the overpasses filled with people saying thank you as the armored COMs came by.
- [Bobby] Yeah, going on down to the boatyards.
- If we send out men and women off - we treat 'em as heroes.
When they come back, we treat 'em as heroes, okay?
Bobby- And that's what I tell people all the time.
Thanks to the Vietnam veterans, they made life better for us today.
- Well, and y'all making life better for the future generations.
- Exactly and it continues on.
- It's a pass it on deal.
Pay it forward.
- I think a lot of the reason that they were portrayed that way is, PTSD is actually, now it's commonplace, right?
It's been accepted.
It's not like when General Patton, and I'm sure you know this story, General Patton went to a hospital one time to visit his soldiers that were wounded in battle.
- And the soldier was in the hospital and General looked at him and couldn't see anything wrong.
He was like, "Well, son, why are you not on the battlefield?"
He's like, "I'm scared."
General Patton took his glove off and slapped him across the face with it.
That was real because you weren't allowed to be scared back then.
So there's so much that changed.
- Snap out of it.
Bobby- Well I was, I want to change it.
I just thought about this last month.
I don't know why I was sitting there thinking about it, but change that D. You know lot of people don't like the "Disorder" part.
They say PTS, they don't want the disorder.
What if it's an "I"?
Post traumatic stress injury.
Jeffrey- Oh yeah, that would be a lot better.
- It's a brain injury.
It has to do with your brain.
- What makes it a disorder?
- Put an I at the end.
Stacy- Well, yeah.
Why are we the disorder when I feel like it's normal to, it's a normal response to.
- To the things we experienced in life.
- To the things we experienced in our lives.
Tommy- See, that's where what you're doing here, and I've said this my whole life as a veteran, we veterans have got to get into the school system to share reality, not what's in the textbook or what some teacher thought they saw or did.
- And what you do for others.
All of us do for others.
That's how we get, I think a more positive image there.
You probably have more knowledge.
I'm serious about this Stacy, your pictures and this project and all the other things you've done, you probably have a more collective picture of veterans as a whole than most people could ever get.
I've been really, really lucky to have met everyone that I have and I've learned a lot.
And I think it's been a path of discovery because if I go back to that time when it was really dark and they were telling me all the things that I couldn't do, it really took one veteran to make me realize that that wasn't the truth.
Because when I was sitting in the VA hospital and I had nothing left, I felt like I had nothing left, Mickey Dorsey came and sat down next to me and inspired me to start the Veteran's Portrait Project.
And then through that journey, one veteran after another, 8,500 veterans later, everything that I felt so alone in, I wasn't.
(calm music) I just want to bring us all home and bring us all back together.
♪ There will be light.
♪ ♪ ♪ There is a road ♪ ♪ ♪ March along ♪ ♪ ♪ coming home.
♪ ♪ ♪