Wednesday, December 9, 2015

The eternal war

The bridge in Breberen where Jack was killed driving over a landmine.
Photos Courtesy Brendan Gibbons
SCOTIA, N.Y. – Jack Hemstreet was killed in the assault on Breberen, Germany in 1944, but he still haunts the lives of people he never met.

“He was kept alive and real to us in a very gentle way,” recalled Mary Hemstreet, Jack’s niece, born just a few years after his death. “It was normal to say, ‘Oh, would Jack have wanted to eat this?’ or ‘What would Jack have done today?’”

Jack enlisted within days of the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Imperial Japanese Navy because he refused to be drafted to fight for a cause that he believed in.

“We were all patriotic,” explained Richard “Dick” Gibbons, Jack’s cousin and best friend. “We had a war to fight and it’s better to fight it over there than to fight it here.”

Jack had already shipped out with the field artillery by the time Dick turned 17 and enlisted in the aviation cadets.

“We were supposed to get together in Europe. In fact, he even had young ladies that he said we could date over there,” Dick chuckled. But the last letter he received had a more somber tone.

Jack wrote his final letter to Dick three days before the Breberen attack. “Kid, use your head and stay near home,” he penned, “I think we can win this without you.”

As far as the Gibbons-Hemstreet family knows, Jack was sent to England in 1943, and began preparing for the Normandy invasion shortly thereafter. He landed early on D-Day in the second wave, surviving some of the bloodiest campaigns of the entire European theater. On October 17, 1944, however, Jack was killed taking a bridge that was a decoy attack for a larger assault where he drove over a landmine with a war Jeep.

Dick’s grandson, Brendan Gibbons, is in the process of restoring his third World War II Jeep. “Each one is painted in honor of somebody,” he described. “The first one I got is painted with my grandfather’s markings, the second one for Jack Hemstreet’s, the third one for a friend of ours, John Moehle.”

Jack’s parents received a letter indicating that he was missing in action. Even after his death was confirmed, they never stopped hoping that he would find his way home.

“My grandmother was awakened from sleep,” Mary dictated. “She thought she heard something in the front hallway, and she went down the hall and she saw Jack walking down the stairs, and he paused when he got to the bottom and he said to her, ‘I’ll be fine,’ and she reached out to touch him and he was gone.”

Though Dick was relieved to hear the mystery of Jack’s whereabouts had more or less been solved, he was shocked to learn that he would never be reunited with his best friend.

“Everyday, the paper was filled with names of people that were either missing or found or were killed in action. But that’s the way we had to live,” Dick remembered. “[Jack’s] mother always left the door open—wouldn’t lock the door so if he came back, the door was open.”

Mary lost friends in the Vietnam War, which also left its mark on her, just about 20 years after the Second World War. “It makes me so aware of how fragile life is and the support that people need to get through that,” she sympathized. “They died tragically and had very serious injuries with no remains, and at that point, I got the full impact of what the family members would’ve felt as far as Jack’s situation went.”

Brendan fell in love with the history of World War II at a young age after watching the Band of Brothers series and receiving an original helmet from his grandfather’s brother, a veteran paratrooper. “It was neat being able to hold something that he went through so much in, and as a kid, I ran around with it on my head all the time and woke up Christmas morning with it on and everything,” he smiled.

And that’s why Brendan’s passion for the memory of fallen soldiers became a living reality that people can touch and see in use, as opposed to behind the glass case of a museum. It did not take long for Brendan and his Jeeps to become easily recognizable.

“I got an email from this guy who I had no idea who it was,” Brendan elaborated, and he was asking me if I had information. My grandfather was very taken aback that somebody was interested because for the years since 1945, we thought the grave was gone. We didn’t know what happened to it, that anyone was taking care of it.”

But Louis Hensgens in the Netherlands was. Jack’s final resting place is on American soil, but it’s not on this continent. As Brendan soon learned, it is commonplace for overseas citizens, many of whom still feel indebted to American soldiers who fought there, to adopt the graves of those who allowed them to live freely on their native territory.

“Hemstreet is a Dutch name,” Brendan revealed, “so when Louis found out about Hemstreet, he thought it was a very interesting coincidence that this man who came from Dutch heritage was back over and died fighting for present-day Holland.”

The memory of those soldiers who gave their lives to protect freedoms is very much alive over 70 years later. Consequently, Dick is adamant that war is a necessary evil.

“Either you fight it over there, or you hide under a rock until they show up here, and then you fight the war. If you’ve seen what war does and the results of it, you don’t want it to happen here,” Dick relived. “You don’t want your hometown to be strafed or bombed. You don’t want to see shells come in, you don’t want to see women and children killed.”

And that’s exactly was Jack did. He fought and died in a war in Europe to protect the human rights that had been stricken, hoping that people would never forget his sacrifice.

“Every morning I get up and I go out: there he is. So I see him all the time,” Dick memorialized. “And then you put it away. You figure, you say hi and that’s it. But you don’t forget.”


Monday, December 7, 2015

Turf: the latest possible carcinogen

SCHENECTADY, N.Y. - Confidants of former and current athletes are reconsidering their declarations that turf is far superior to grass now that the former has been linked to cancer.

The faux grass surfaces made national headlines again earlier this month after former University of Miami goalkeeper Austen Everett was listed as one of four goalies who had fallen ill with non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 2008.  Now, her mourning mother is questioning if those ubiquitous black pellets are the culprits.

“It’s a lot of them and they’re always on you,” Marist College tight end Kyle Hamrick grumbled.  “Those pellets will come up—they’ll get stuck in your eye, they’ll get stuck in your mouth.  It’ll be all over you, and sticking to your arm and sticking to your legs—just about anywhere that’s exposed.”

The potential threat is especially high for soccer goalkeepers who spend a great deal of their time on the ground. 

“Goalies have a difficult job,” Marist College Assistant Sports Information Director Kevin McCall affirmed, “and a lot of times they are diving in different directions, you know, they are pretty close to the ground when they’re making saves and when they’re out there on the field.”

University of Washington women’s soccer associate head coach Amy Griffin visited two goalies who had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 2009.  When the nurse made a comment about the number of goalies who had been considered at-risk in that week, Griffin took the initiative to compile a list of 38 American soccer players in 2014 who had been diagnosed with cancer.  Thirty four of them were goalies.

“For a long time, they’ve been trying to prove one way or the other: are they safe?” oncologist Dr. Howard Schlossberg said.  “Mechanically, they’re pretty sure.  But there’s still some debate over the chemicals and cancer situation.”

He attributes the dispute to the small sample sizes of studies conducted, such as Griffin’s.

Scientists in academia and government agencies have conducted minor studies, almost all of which have produced results that lead researchers to conclude that turf exposure is harmless, according to Beth Mole of Science News.  But the pattern of lymphoma in former or current goalies is puzzling.

“A lot of the goalies that have been looked at, whether formally or not, it seems to be lymphomas, which is a particular kind of white blood cell cancer,” Schlossberg explained.  “Some of the chemicals associated with tires—benzene, aromatic hydrocarbons—are linked to blood cancers, and so it’s certainly possible that there’s a link.”

Decades worth of exposures are only just being analyzed.  Coaches and players have praised the synthetic textile because it enables a higher speed of play and guarantees a consistent surface.  But it’s possible that they are all getting more than what they bargained for.

“I can think of plenty of athletes that are older,” Hamrick revealed, “that have cancer that were ex-athletes.”

The Auburn Enlarged City School District in Auburn, N.Y. alleges to be conducting extensive research on artificial turf prior to the commencement of construction on the district’s new stadium.  The district has little choice in which type of synthetic turf infill it opts for, with a committee of community members acting as investigators and a limited budget.

The challenge lies in deciphering which forms of turf are harmful, if any. And that is not a question researchers will have the answer to any time soon.

“These particular fields are second and third generation,” Schlossberg articulated.  “We know from prior cancer studies it can take many years, decades even, of exposures to lead to problems.  They can’t conclusively prove danger and they can’t conclusively prove safety either, which does give people room for concern.”

The U.S. women’s soccer team launched a campaign against turf leading up to the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada.  The Synthetic Turf Council claims that evidence shows that artificial turf is safe, despite outcries from some of the most prominent women’s soccer players in the world.  Not only do the women worry about the long-term health effects of turf, but also they are apprehensive about the vicious physical effects of “plastic pitches” on their bodies, according to 2013 FIFA Women’s World Player of the Year recipient Abby Wambach.

“It’s great that people are asking the question now,” Schlossberg asserted.  “If there’s any doubt, it’s worth altering what we do, whether it’s we use the fields or we use different protection while on them, because we might not know the answer to this for another 10 years.”


Sunday, December 6, 2015

Heroin is the biggest problem we didn't know we had

The stunning blonde writhed on the floor like a butterfly trying to escape from the seemingly impenetrable walls of its cocoon. She put up a respectable fight, until the cocoon of heroin consumed her, completely cutting off her oxygen.

That was just days before Good Friday 2014, the holiest day in the Christian faith, and the last day Jayme Lynn Campbell spent alive.

“The date of that changes every year, so it’s almost like her death almost has two anniversaries,” Jayme’s cousin McKenzie Cloutier smiled. “My aunt says, like she goes, ‘I don’t think it’s a coincidence that she passed on the holiest day of the year.’”

The somewhat responsive 27-year-old left doctors hopeful after her first days in the hospital that the brain damage was reversible. It was not.

Thus is the case for so many Americans—over 8,000 in 2013 alone. From 2001 to 2013, there was a five-fold increase in the number of heroin deaths, as tracked by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

This opioid drug made from morphine is a natural substance extract, but there is nothing natural about the human body’s reaction to injection, smoking, or snorting of the matter. The drug user may immediately experience warm flushing of skin, clouded thinking, and heavy feeling in the hands and feet. Continued use leads to collapsed veins, abscesses, and infection of the lining and valves in the heart, the National Institute on Drug Abuse warned.

It began with Campbell’s decision to attend nursing school in San Diego. “She wanted to become a respiratory nurse,” Cloutier recalled. “She suffered from the most serious chronic asthma ever. Like she nearly died so many times. My aunt would find her blue in the face because she’d have such bad asthma attacks.”

Campbell’s love for her new home distanced her both physically and emotional from her family back in Pennsylvania. When her brother got married, Campbell was not in attendance.

“It starts to get in the way of relationships,” Cloutier explained. “It starts to affect the way you’re relating to your friends and your family. If you’re abusing it, it becomes the most important thing, even if you don’t want it to be. Some people try it once, and that’s all it takes.”

That’s all Campbell needed to become hooked. She was at a party trying what she allegedly thought was “hash” or hashish, a form of marijuana. Unbeknownst to her, it was laced with heroin.

Clouiter remembers the phone call her mother received from Campbell’s mother as they realized the danger Campbell was in.

“It was like a bad movie,” Cloutier illustrated. “They had to track her. They found her in a random hotel. At that point, she wasn’t living anywhere—she was just living on the streets or she was just getting by in hotel rooms with this guy.

Once Campbell’s mother and aunt were successful in tracking her, she began the arduous path of rehabilitation, bouncing in and out of treatment facilities for numerous months. She faced several complications in her rehabilitation, which is typical in the United States, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Carla Freedman. “We don’t have enough rehab facilities. Doctors need to be alerted,” she warned. “But the reality is people are dying and you’re maybe sort of putting your finger in the dyke, but to the extent that I can take a drug seller off the street, that’s however many packs of heroin are not making it out there. And all it takes is one.”

By the time spring rolled around, Campbell was back at home living with her father. Her parents were separated.

Then Cloutier received the phone call. “I just felt frozen and I was aware that everyone was moving, but I couldn’t, I felt like I couldn’t really see anyone.”

Campbell had overdosed. The brain damage came as a result of the significant time in which Campbell was cut off from oxygen. When the ambulance arrived, the dealer—the boyfriend of a friend—told the paramedics it was an asthma attack. Instead of treating her like an overdose patient from the onset, paramedics treated her as an asthma patient.

Campbell’s first days in the hospital consisted of angry reactions that eventually yielded a comatose state. According to her aunt, it would take a great deal of therapy to get her to walk or talk again, but doctors were still hopeful.

But when things went from bad to worse, Cloutier had to find out for herself on social media. “[My mom knew that] I had a big project I needed to get done, so I was trying to focus, but, of course, like always I’m procrastinating so I jump on Facebook,” Cloutier relived the moment. “I’m just kind of scrolling through my aunt’s page and people just being ignorant and na├»ve were posting things like, ‘I’m so sorry for your loss.’”

As her family prayed for a miracle, Cloutier rushed home to visit her cousin in the hospital.

“I remember the first thing I thought when I walked in was like, ‘She’s brain dead and she’s barely here, but she’s still beautiful,’” Cloutier sighed. “She looked so cute, she looked like a little kid and, to me, she just looked like innocence and it just made me think of, like, that’s what the drug does to you.”

Doctors said that if anything was left, it could have been her ability to hear, so Cloutier and her mother and brother took the time to say goodbye.

“I just remember hoping that she knew I was there,” Cloutier revisited the hospital room in her mind. “I remember just playing with her fingers and feeling like, in that moment, extremely cheated of time. I didn’t want to stop touching her because I knew I probably never would be able to again. And just like how soft her skin was and just how beautiful she is. I didn’t want to let go, I just felt so close to her.”

Cloutier’s Aunt Lisa looked forward to spending that night with her baby girl: “I just can’t wait to sleep with her, I can’t wait to lay next to her, cuddle with her.” Holding her dear daughter, she felt the peaceful last breath of the young woman who lost her battle against addiction.

As Cloutier coped with the loss of her role model, she had the opportunity to see Campbell’s bedroom. The walls had been painted sunshine yellow, detailed with peacock feathers, a method to cope with the loss of her independence.

“It’s terrifying to feel so, like, a victim to yourself almost, and to not really know how or feel like you’re able to stop it,” Cloutier empathized. “[Peacocks represent] protection from bad or evil spirits, they represent confidence and pride, and that’s what I think of her. I think of her as just, like, kind of radiant.”

While Campbell’s legacy lives on through symbols, her family can also find solace in a federal statute that allows for the prosecution of anyone who causes the death of another person by distributing that drug.

“When you suddenly realize that you’re facing maybe 20 years, which is minimum, if that gets the message out to one guy who thinks twice about selling heroin on the corner, so be it,” Freedman asserted. “Maybe it brings some closure for the family knowing that that person can’t hurt anybody else. I don’t know how much that helps the victim’s family because nothing’s going to bring your son, your daughter, your husband, your wife, your brother, your sister back.”