This Memorial Day, May 29, Americans will remember U.S. service members who died while serving their country.
Retired Army Sgt. 1st Class Debra Kay Mooney said that on this upcoming Memorial Day, and every other day of the year, she remembers the fallen she served with in the Oklahoma Army National Guard.
As a combat engineer, Mooney served in both the first and second battles of Fallujah, Iraq, that occurred in 2004.
Remembering Fallen Comrades
She said she often thinks of Army Spc. Kyle Adam Brinlee, a fellow soldier and dear friend from her unit, the 120th Engineers. When Mooney contracted pneumonia just before deployment to Iraq, she said, it was Brinlee who was the first person to visit her in the hospital. Shortly after, on May 11, 2004, Brinlee was killed by an improvised explosive device in Asad, Iraq. He was 21 years old.
Before leaving Iraq, Mooney and her fellow Army engineers constructed a prisoner-of-war camp to house the prisoners taken during the fighting for Fallujah. Mooney served another tour in Iraq in 2008.
Later in her career, which lasted from 1991 to 2015, Mooney was stationed at Camp Gruber, Oklahoma, where she trained other soldiers on what to expect and how to react during combat using realistic simulations.
Mooney said that although she's the first woman in her family to serve in the military, she doesn't dwell on that much. In fact, even in Fallujah, she didn't think at all about being a woman among mostly male soldiers and Marines, she said.
‘We Were All Just Soldiers’
"We were all just soldiers," she added.
Today, Mooney lives in the same house where she was born, in Idabel, Oklahoma, near the Arkansas and Texas state lines.
Mooney, a native Choctaw Indian, keeps busy as a housekeeper for the Choctaw Nation Clinic in Idabel. She works in the evenings after the clinic closes, sanitizing the facility. She said she needs to keep working at least until she's 60, because that's when she can begin drawing her Army retirement.
In addition to working at the clinic, Mooney is a volunteer with the National Museum of the American Indian. She is one of a select number of representatives from Indian nations on the advisory board that will select the winning entries for a monument for Native American veterans that will be erected on the museum grounds in 2020. Also, she's involved in activities such as speaking engagements in local communities.
Besides working at the clinic, she is also a patient at the clinic, receiving counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder. She said it wasn't any particular incident that triggered her PTSD. It was just being in the thick of things and not knowing if she'd live another day that caused the anxiety that triggered PTSD, she explained.
Mooney said that besides remembering those who were killed in combat, Americans should also remember wounded service members on Memorial Day, as well as those who got PTSD or traumatic brain injury as a result of combat -- some of whom later committed suicide.
A soldier from her unit was one such person who just this month took his own life, she said.
"It weighs heavy on my heart," Mooney said.
Veterans who need medical care or help with PTSD can call the Veterans Affairs confidential and toll-free crisis line at 800-273-8255. They also can chat online with crisis line representatives or send a text message to 838255 to receive confidential support 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Support for deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals also is available.
Soldiers on active duty or in the reserve components can use the VA's toll-free number or website. They also can see one of the 450 providers in 62 embedded behavioral health teams that support every operational unit in the Army, said Lt. Col. (Dr.) Chris Ivany, chief of behavioral health in the Army's Office of the Surgeon General.
Terrence Hayes, a VA spokesman, said taking care of those who served in the U.S. military remains the top concern for his agency.
"The health and welfare of our veterans remains our No. 1 priority," he said. "When veterans are faced with challenges, we want them to know we are here for them. We encourage our veterans to seek our assistance no matter the situation."
Hayes said that veterans and their families who need assistance can also reach the VA through the ebenefits.va.gov or myhealth.va.gov websites, and also can contact local VA medical centers or clinics directly, as well as veterans employment centers or national cemeteries.
(Follow David Vergun on Twitter: @vergunARNEWS)