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A soldier's story: His mission continues at the Soldiers Memorial

Casey McCausland sees his work on the Soldiers Memorial as a way of giving back.
Rachel Heidenry | St. Louis Beacon | 2010

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - When Casey McCausland was in second grade, he was told to draw what he wanted to be when he grew up. While most of his classmates turned in pictures of rock stars, doctors and firemen, McCausland submitted a picture of a helicopter hovering over a battlefield. The picture was very vivid. McCausland had drawn bombs exploding and a helicopter struggling to stay in the air. Amid the chaos, a soldier dangled from a rope attached to the helicopter, coming to save the day.

McCausland hoped one day to be that soldier.

Growing up, McCausland dreamed of the military life. His two grandfathers served and so did several uncles. The St. Louis native aspired to be just like them and went to what is now the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg on a ROTC scholarship.

"Being a soldier was all I ever wanted to do," McCausland said.

Once he graduated in 2003, he went on active duty as an air defense artillery officer and was deployed to Iraq in 2006 as part of the 82nd Air Force Division. While in Iraq, his unit did personal security escort missions and ran a small detention center. His platoon returned from Iraq unscathed, and McCausland was accepted into the army special forces. McCausland was thrilled.

McCausland was almost at the end of the selection course when he was dropped because of retained hardware in his pelvis. He had broken his pelvis, hip and tailbone in a skydiving training accident as a platoon leader. His medical discharge from special forces left his military career in disarray and had McCausland pondering his next move.

"Because I couldn't do special forces anymore, I was upset and not really sure of what I should do," McCausland said. "Special forces was my ultimate goal."

McCausland then volunteered to go with a reconstruction team to Afghanistan. The team included the National Guard, the reserves and even active-duty Air Force.

"It was really a hodge-podge team," McCausland said.

Once in Afghanistan, McCausland was made a team leader and worked with an infantry company on a reconstruction project. Unlike his time in Iraq, his deployment to Afghanistan was very turbulent.

On April 28, 2008, the chaos McCausland once illustrated on construction paper became all too real. While traveling in a Humvee, McCausland's vehicle was hit with an improvised explosive device. His driver died; his interpreter lost his legs. McCausland slammed into the windshield and side of the vehicle, suffering a concussion and a minor injury to the hardware in his pelvis.

"After that, everything got worse," McCausland said. "We started getting mortared and rocketed all the time."

For almost six months, McCausland's team was under constant fire. Although the violent memories lingered, McCausland tried to forget that fateful April day.

"I tried to keep putting my work in front of me because I didn't want to focus on the fact that my driver was killed and my interpreter lost his legs," McCausland said. "I didn't want to remember."

McCausland came home in September 2008, a month and half before his team. Although still in the Army, his early departure from Afghanistan left him in disarray. McCausland felt that he let his men down by returning early. A sense of inadequacy overwhelmed the soldier.

"I came to the realization that I couldn't do what I wanted to do in the Army," McCausland said. "I was lost. I felt like I wasn't a good soldier or a good officer. I didn't know what to do."

Healing, helping, honoring

After coming home from Afghanistan, McCausland needed help.

"I was in complete denial that these bad things had transpired and that they affected me," McCausland said. "I had a mentality that said 'I'm tough as nails. I'm steel-eyed. This happens to normal people, but not me.' I was just lying to myself."

Everyone who knew McCausland knew that his experience in Afghanistan and his early departure troubled him. He eventually sought help in a post-traumatic stress disorder clinic and finally came to terms with what had happened.

"Going to the clinic helped me process a lot of these things," McCausland said. "I realized that the post-traumatic stress disorder wasn't a weakness and that it was a real thing. I needed to process it in a healthy manner and use that to fuel myself."

McCausland started working in his battalion's operations shop and began the medical retirement process in March 2009. While he was coming to terms with his PTSD, McCausland had trouble retiring at such a young age.

"Getting medically retired at the age of 28 was not something I had in the cards at any point of my life," McCausland said. "I'm thankful that I got the medical retirement because it helps out and takes care of a lot of things. On the other hand, you don't feel right being 28 and saying you're retired."

McCausland found another way to serve his country. In January 2010, McCausland began volunteering with the Mission Continues, a St. Louis-based organization for wounded and disabled veterans.

"It's been very therapeutic," McCausland said. "I organize a project and then I get a bunch of volunteers and then we go out and do it. It puts me back in that leadership role that I had when I was in the military."

Founded in 2007, the Mission Continues began when disabled veteran Eric Greitens returned to Iraq and visited wounded marines. He asked the soldiers what they would like to do next, and they all said that they would like to return to service. After that experience, Greitens and two friends took their retirement money and began the organization. The Mission Continues awards fellowships to wounded and disabled veterans to serve in their communities. Although a St. Louis-based project, the Mission Continues has placed veterans in several communities throughout the country.

"They challenge the veterans," McCausland said. "A lot of organizations give veterans a hand out. Many veterans don't want a handout because that makes them feel like they are a disabled veteran."

McCausland said that many projects are small to the veterans, but big to the people being helped. Cleaning a house or painting a room may be easy for those who have experienced war firsthand, but some people can't do these tasks and appreciate the help, McCausland said.

At a veterans' homecoming event in March 2010, McCausland was briefed on his biggest task yet: the Soldiers Memorial. He met the memorial's museum superintendent, Lynnea Magnuson, and she told him that the memorial's basement floor had not been seen in years. Eager to help a building dedicated to those who had died for America, McCausland accepted the mission with enthusiasm.

"When we were at the Soldiers Memorial, we did some pretty hard work," McCausland said. "We were down there for a while and it was hot and we were sweating. When we were done, I didn't want to go home."

McCausland described cleaning and organizing the memorial as cathartic. He said that collaborating with other people and helping the memorial brought him back to his days in the army.

"It gives you a sense of purpose," he said. "I'm no longer in the army, but I'm still out there making things happen and doing good things and changing the country and my community."

While McCausland cherishes the army-feel of the work he did at the memorial, he says this project had a sentimental meaning.

"I used to come down here when I was in high school," McCausland said. "I had a grandfather who served in World War II and a grandfather who served in Korea. I had an uncle in Vietnam and another in the first Gulf War. Seeing the different eras of military connects me with them. It means a lot."

Even though Magnuson can now see the basement floor, McCausland says his work is there is not done. He plans on helping out any way he can and even donating some of his mementos.

"It's in memorial of veterans and for veterans, too," he said. "Coming down and doing work, it means a lot. I feel special working here."