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Happy Birthday Anyone?

By February 8, 2012North Dakota
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I remember May 4, 2008, as if it were yesterday. Why? Because that day I was not in a good mood. Actually, all I could think of that morning was me, myself, and I. Kids were off to school, my beloved off to spring work on the farm, and I was grumpy – really grumpy. I remember it well.

You know why I remember it? It was my birthday, as it obviously is every May 4th. And, somehow, no one had remembered to say “Happy Birthday” that day, which by the way happens a lot when you are born in the spring and end up living on a farm. Some of you read this and feel my “pain” right? So, yep, I was in a selfish mood, because no one had “remembered” me.

Somewhere outside Bagdad, Iraq, that same morning, a mortar attack was occurring and someone got hurt – really hurt. That someone was Russell “Rusty” Ouart, a North Dakota husband and dad who had volunteered at the age of 41 to serve in the North Dakota National Guard. He had waited a long time after 9/11 to serve, as he was, of course, too “old” to join. Rusty knew he wanted to join the Guard as soon as he watched footage of the 9/11 attacks. He enlisted when the rules were finally changed and the age limit for joining was raised to 42. He was 41 and had lost more than 60 pounds to meet the Guard’s fitness requirements. In training, he broke a toe, and when the call came for his unit to deploy to Iraq, Rusty knew he would not be able to go with a broken toe, so he had it amputated in order to assure his deployment.

Then, on May 4, 2008, he was wounded. This started a journey too long to describe here, but suffice it to say, Rusty went through the following years being misdiagnosed by various professionals in the medical and military community. He and his family were told the handicapping headaches, short-term memory loss, vertigo, and constant fatigue were all just “in his head.” He was just one of those guys that couldn’t handle it and went nuts. Period. But Rusty, his wife Marilyn, and their family and many friends refused to go along with the diagnosis. Rusty ended up receiving treatment in New Orleans, along with other brain-injured veterans. The treatment was hyperbaric therapy; most commonly used for divers with “the bends,” this therapy has shown promising results. For Rusty, it has indeed caused huge strides in the healing process.

Yesterday, I was honored to be at the ceremony where this dear friend and hero finally received a Purple Heart, a distinction given to warriors who are wounded or lose their lives in combat against an enemy. The Purple Heart comes directly from the order of General and President George Washington himself and, thus, preserves a great and honored tradition in America. It took Rusty three long years and lots of heartache and suffering to get the Purple Heart. He was wrongfully diagnosed with a mental condition when, in fact, it has now been proven that he has a debilitating brain injury due to the mortar blast. His case was so instructive, his brain scan images have now been presented at hearings on Capitol Hill in order to shine scientific light on the wounds of our courageous warriors who serve to protect our freedoms. I came to know Rusty during these past tough years at Tea Parties across North Dakota and Minnesota, at pro-life events, and at rallies where Sarah Palin and others have spoken. He has become a brother in arms in the fight for “We the People” and the commonsense constitutional foundations many are working so hard to restore in America, and he is a brother in Christ.

It was a deeply touching ceremony, one in which no eye was left dry. But one of the greatest moments for me was a short conversation with – and a hug from – Marilyn, Rusty’s wife, after the event. I told her she is my hero, as she has stood strong “through sickness and health” as a mom of three young children and a faithful spouse to her wounded warrior. We need more women like her to attest to the beauty and strength of marriage! She then said what was more precious than gold to me. She told me that, during his toughest times, Rusty told her that he knew God had chosen him for this injury so that he could fight for all those who are unable to fight for themselves as they come home wounded and sadly misunderstood. Many of them are very young and do not yet have the anchors of family and maturity that Rusty has.

Somehow, my birthdays will all be a bit different in the future – actually a lot different. I have been reminded, once again, of the sacrifices our men and women in the military make every day; these sacrifices can continue for years after their service. They make these sacrifices so that all of us can have a birthday. May the grace of God Almighty shine upon them. Thank you to all the Rustys and Marilyns for saying “Happy Birthday” to me on May 4, 2008. I’m only sorry it took me so long to hear it.

Janne Myrdal serves as state director for Concerned Women for America of North Dakota.