SOLANA BEACH —Growing up near Monterey Bay, Air Force Maj. Linda Stanley remembers people honking their horns to let surfers know an inside set was coming so they could paddle out and avoid getting caught in the whitewater.
“I am here today honking my horn in a very different way,” Stanley said during the annual Veterans Day ceremony Nov. 11 at La Colonia Park. “There is a wave of veterans coming home to this country. Many of them need our help as a nation to reintegrate back into society.”
As the guest speaker for this year’s event, Stanley focused on what she calls the “invisible wounds of war.”
As a nurse, Stanley deployed to Iraq in 2006 to a combat hospital in tents during a time of increased hostilities.
“We were mortared and shot at every day,” she said. “I saw men and women lose their arms, their legs, their brains and their lives to serve this country.”
Stanley said the medical part of her deployment never upset her. In fact, it was the highlight of her career, she said
“It was the human side of war — the pain, the grief and the loss I saw on people’s faces that bothered me the most,” she said. “It’s the father who I was with when they told him his wife didn’t make it out of surgery.
“It’s watching the last breaths leave a young Marine. … It’s sitting with the lone survivor of an ambush and listening to his story and telling him his buddy who is in the OR didn’t make it.
“It’s the hundreds of phone calls I listened to, from soldiers to their parents, as their voice cracked and their eyes filled with tears when they told them they were hit by an (improvised explosive device),” she said. “It’s the trail of blood that I cleaned from ER to OR of the soldier who didn’t make it. Those were the things that haunted me.”
When Stanley returned home, she said she was happy just to have a toilet and good food. But then she noticed things weren’t the same. For example, her body acted strangely to the sound of a helicopter, a noise that in combat meant wounded soldiers were being brought to her.
Stanley said she eventually sought help, which wasn’t an easy thing to do. She said she also decided to serve again, but this time in a different way. She now helps those who are still living with the war inside.
“My job now is to give them hope,” she said. Stanley works as a psychiatric nurse practitioner helping those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.
“My hope is that we can help these young veterans go on to have a productive full life,” she said.
Stanley said good things do happen in combat. “You learn who your friends are and what’s important in life.
“I always say a part of me died in Iraq, but a part of me was born,” she said. “I realize what’s important are family, friends, health, veterans and service to one another.”
The event, co-hosted by the city and the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 5431, also included a presentation of the colors by the Camp Pendleton Young Marines, military music by the Santa Fe Christian Schools band and a welcome message by Mayor Mike Nichols.
“On this special day we honor our nation’s true and beloved heroes — our veterans,” Nichols said.
“This elite group of individuals has faced tremendous obstacles, made significant and remarkable sacrifices and endured countless struggles, both physically and emotionally,” he said. “Today and every day let us be reminded of your service, your commitment and your dedication to our freedom.
“But let us also be reminded of the heroes you are to us off the battlefield,” Nichols added. “You lead by example. You are our mentors and role models. You teach us about discipline, dedication and service. Whether you realize it or not, we all look up to you.”
Nichols also recognized those who are currently serving. “Our hearts and prayers go out to these brave men and women on active duty,” he said. “It is also important to remember and thank their families.
“They, too, endure long times away from their loved ones,” he said. “They experience fear and anxiety … and continue to make sacrifices at home on behalf of our nation.”
The ceremony concluded with the release of white doves, a symbol of peace.