Digging deep to help veterans

Curation project helps our wounded warriors immeasurably

Opponents warned that Iraq could be another Vietnam for this country.

 

It wasn't.

But for Michael "Sonny" Trimble, it was worse.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers archaeologist was called upon to retrieve remains of missing-in-action U.S. servicemen for some six years after the war in Vietnam. But his three years excavating Saddam Hussein's mass civilian graves took a decidedly heavier toll on him.

For one thing, he and his crew were literally under the gun in Iraq: They did their work in the midst of battle, from 2004 to 2007, and had to be protected at all times -- as prosecutors pushed incessantly for quick evidence to bring against the Butcher of Baghdad.

That brought Trimble the added privilege of being yelled at and endlessly accosted by Saddam at trial.

Worst of all, given the overly deliberate decomposition available in the arid Iraq soil, Trimble and the others were discovering fully-clothed bodies by the hundreds, not mere bone fragments. One little girl was buried face down -- holding a ball identical to one Trimble's daughter had played with. He let someone else handle that one.

Moreover, Trimble forged a foxhole-like bond with his soldier and Marine protectors -- three of whom were killed and two wounded.

It all changed him in ways unexpected for a seasoned pro. He came back as many war veterans do -- wary, more comfortable with his back to the wall, too much appreciating the safety of "hard" buildings after being exposed to live fire in tents and the open air.

But more than anything, he wanted to give back to those who kept him alive.

So, when a friend put two-and-two together -- and suggested that he start a program providing wounded warriors with job skills -- he couldn't hang up the phone quickly enough to get going on it.

Trimble was uniquely suited to the task, being the chief of the Corps' Curation and Archives Analysis Branch -- responsible for cataloguing and preserving the agency's many artifacts from construction sites around the country, most involving reservoirs and other water-control projects from 1947 to 1985.

The artifacts needed preserving -- and so did the wounded warriors' hope, confidence and self-esteem.

It was such a perfect marriage that, in Augusta anyway, it was more of an elopement.

Trimble, armed with a fortuitous stimulus bill grant of $3.5 million, had intended to open the Veterans Curation Project in three cities -- the first two being the high-profile Washington, D.C., and his home of St. Louis. When his wife saw Augusta wounded warrior activist Laurie Ott on a network news report about the success of the Active-Duty Rehabilitation Unit at the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center here, Augusta instantly became the third.

But not for long: When Ott and Trimble were done, Augusta catapulted to No. 1 on the list -- and was the first site to go operational in October 2009.

Ott had simply tilled too much ground ahead of time, had brought too many agencies and angels together.

The curation project takes carefully screened squads of 10 or so wounded warriors at a time and trains them in cataloguing, curating, record-keeping and more -- job skills fit for many professions, especially photography and law enforcement. To date, 77 have plowed through the six-month, 20-hour-a-week program, 28 percent of whom have gone on to gainful employment.

The veterans have helped shaped the program themselves, clamoring for more of an emphasis on writing résumés and working on interview skills.

But more than anything, Trimble says, they thank the program for helping them believe in themselves again -- an inestimable gift for someone who's been badly injured in battle and unceremoniously unloaded into a largely unfamiliar dog-eat-dog civilian world.

Ott says the program does nothing less than help wounded warriors find new meaning in life, after the void left when the all-encompassing focus of surviving a war zone is lifted.

Like most stimulus funding, the curation project's runs out soon. The Corps plans stopgap funding in the coming year, but a permanent source of support is desperately needed.

No one is more mindful of the need for austerity than this newspaper. But neither do we understand why such a program as the Veterans Curation Project hasn't been around for a lot longer -- serving veterans from many more conflicts -- and we'd sure hate to see it go away now, particularly since Augusta has played such a prominent role in it.

In trying to unearth that lifeline, Trimble may be facing his toughest dig.

We wish him Godspeed.

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Sat, 07/29/2017 - 00:01

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