In honor of Veterans Day, we would like to share the brave story of LYP Bakery’s very own Captain Doug Whitehead, United States Air Force. We are sharing out story in order to shed light on some of the many challenges facing our country’s veterans. The pain and suffering faced by the brave men and women of our armed forces can often times be very close to home. In his words, Doug shares his story:
“The 1970s were a time of great turbulence and massive change. During the 60’s people became aware of the atrocities of the Vietnam War, and the need for soldiers was at an all-time high. In 1970 I turned 18, and was registered for the draft. If you were a medically and mentally fit male, you were entered into the draft “lottery system,” as the US government had ended all student deferments. If your number was low, you likely would go to war.
I chose a delayed enlistment program in order to go to school and prepare for duty. I wanted to fly. I spent two years in Miami for flight school. Then I headed to Colorado Springs to complete OCS (Officer Candidate School) receive my commission, and start my flyboy days. I entered PA (Physician’s Assistant) school in 1972, but I really loved flying. During my time in PA school I was able to continue to hone my flying skills, practicing “sorties,” “blowouts” and other military flying protocols.
My first TDY (Temporary Duty) found me stationed in Saigon and I was assigned to various bombing missions, “sorties,” and flew covers. Once completing my first TDY, I received a top secret clearance and returned to Florida where I was assigned to President Nixon’s “Southern Whitehouse” support team until ‘75. Those were some wild times, and I was able to experience it all from the right seat. Once the war was over it was finally time to bring our troops home. I had the privilege and honor to assist in bringing our POWs home, a job that still holds a very special place in my heart. Although my time in the service was coming to a close, I had no idea that the times ahead would be war all over again.
After leaving the service I began my career as a Physician’s Assistant and derived more joy from my job than I could possibly express. I wanted nothing more than to help others, and I felt I had found my calling. I decided during this time that I wanted to finish my degree in Business. I paid for this by providing private pilot services for people, eventually graduating and getting a job flying for Pan American Airlines from ’78-’83.
After leaving Pan America , I launched several successful businesses, and everything seemed to be “coming up Doug”. It was during this time that the nightmare began. On the outside I appeared to have it all together, but on the inside it was constant struggle. Every day seemed to be slipping from me, forcing me to fall further and further into darkness. As with so many others before me, I took to drink and drugs to try and numb the pain and horror of the war that was scarred into my mind.
It was in the midst of this battle that I met an angel, my wife Valarie in 2003. She helped me through some of the worst days of my life. From the death of my father and my favorite dog Fraz in one single week, to the loss of our baby Andrew at 10 days old, Valarie stood close through everything. After the death of our child my entire world felt as though it was collapsing around me. The only escape seemed to be at the bottom of a bottle, and my drinking only worsened day by day. I was apathetic and numb, Valarie and I were fighting more than not, and the hardest was yet to come.
On March 16, 2012 I fell down the stairs of my home. At approximately 12:30 AM, my wife Valarie awoke with a sense of dread when she found our dog, Apollo, keeping diligent watch over her. All of the lights in the house were on, and I had not come to bed. It was been a particularly heavy drinking night for me, and she quickly became concerned to not see me lying next to her. Apollo walked Valarie to the landing on the stairs where she saw me lying at the bottom, unresponsive. Valarie remained calm, comforting both me and our dogs while awaiting for the emergency personnel. Although the ER told her to pack an overnight bag, Valarie knew in her heart that I was in more trouble than what would just require only an “overnight” bag. By the time emergency services had arrived, my blood had a congealed and I was unresponsive. If Apollo and Valarie had not found me when they did, I don’t know what would have happened. We are forever grateful to Apollo, our Newfoundland for his heroic actions. He saved my life. Through personal connections and the stars aligning, Valarie was able to be by my side in the operating room for a majority of the time. Only going home to take care of the house and the dogs, Valarie stood vigilant by my side every moment she could during that long hospital stay.
This felt like the end. I couldn’t feel anything anymore. In fact, I can’t remember that night at all. I was life flighted to a local hospital and placed into a 10 day medically induce coma. I had suffered subdural, arachnoid and thymal bleeds, occipital and sub-orbital fractures, hearing loss and a TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury), as well as a broken elbow and a torn ACL. It was recommended that I be transported to a surgical center where I would be kept in a vegetative state. But my wife and the VA doctor had a different plan for me. They fought and never gave up, eventually admitting me into the “Brain Center of Excellence” in Palo Alto, California, where my journey to recovery could begin.
I can only describe this time as being “crazy” to say the least. Every day seemed like an uphill battle. I had lost my short term memory capabilities, repeating the same things over and over again, and at times I was delusional, and was unable to differentiate from reality. I had lost my ability to walk, write, read, shower and dress myself. I barely spoke, and all of my mental reasoning was gone. But we did not give up. I say “we” because without the help and love from those around me, I may not have been considered a “success story”.
I had arrived at the facility in April of 2012. I began to progress rapidly, and was given a release date of November 2012. Either they wanted to get rid of me, or I was a poster child for success ;)
I returned home in August and continued the fight. We were thankful to be together and I began to heal rapidly. Shortly after my fall I was diagnosed with skin cancer. This cancer progressed and spread into six other types of cancers that began to eat away at my mind and body. Between the chemotherapy, radiation and the PTSD, and recovering from my fall, I started to slip away again. Old habits die hard, and I took to the bottle to help ease the pain the best way I knew how.
My life began to spiral out of control. My drinking consumed me, causing me to have accident after accident, sending me right back to the hospital. I needed help. It was time to take control of my mental and physical health. With the support of my family, I admitted myself to drug and alcohol rehab, and was released upon successfully completing the program. I am proud to report I’m two years clean and sober, with many more years to look forward to.
Recently, I was diagnosed with tumors on my adrenals. Getting this news was terrifying and I was scared. But presently I have a clean bill of health and have taken the necessary steps to assuring the tumors do not spread. Sobriety has allowed me to take control of my life and helps me cope with the day to day challenges that come with this battle to be healthy.”
The challenges for our veterans does not stay on the battle field. For many others like Captain Doug Whitehead, the horrors of war are scars that they have to live with every day. The brave men and women like Doug risk their lives and sacrifice their futures to ensure that our freedoms are protected and honored. This Veterans Day we invite you to celebrate our military service people, and remember that their war does not end when the battle shots cease fire. The men and women are our spouse, siblings, children and friends, and we would like to say Thank You for your service and sacrifice. From our home to yours, Happy Veterans Day. We wish you love and healing energy.
~ Doug, Valarie, Jonah, Leuca and Dreamer