A Veteran Who Led by Example

Steve Robinson was a veterans advocate in Washington, D.C., working tirelessly for years, speaking out for those who had no voice, pushing on the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs to do more and do better.
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On July 29, I attended a memorial service for Steve Robinson at the Memorial Chapel at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall in Arlington, Virginia. As many familiar with the military and veteran community know, this is the chapel where services are held for military personnel and veterans who are then laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery. Sadly, I have been to more than one service at this chapel over the last decade.

Steve Robinson was a veterans advocate in Washington, D.C., working tirelessly for years, speaking out for those who had no voice, pushing on the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs to do more and do better for those who fight our wars. He didn't really care what others thought of his opinions or his approach. As many have written about Steve, he was quite a character. He was a force of nature.

Steve retired from the military in 2001 after 20 years of service in conventional and Special Operations assignments, ending his military career with the Office of the Secretary of Defense as a briefer and analyst on the health effects that arose out of the 1991 Persian Gulf war. He first made national headlines when he worked with soldiers at Fort Carson, Colorado, who had been pushed out of the military with "personality disorders" instead of receiving a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. A personality discharge is administrative and means a soldier receives no health benefits. Steve fought to ensure that those in need received the care they deserved.

After retiring from the Army, Steve held several positions in three separate nonprofits, where he monitored the programs and policies of the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs. He served on the Department of Veterans Affairs Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Illnesses and was a Special Adviser on chemical and biological weapons exposures to Vietnam and Gulf War veterans. As a subject matter expert, Steve testified numerous times before the House and Senate on matters pertaining to suicide, post-traumatic stress, mental health, and the resiliency of the force. He led Congressional hearings on veterans care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Fort Carson, Fort Stewart, Georgia, and other military bases.

Many of us from governmental agencies and nonprofit organizations that provide support and care to service personnel, veterans, and their families turned out to honor the man who was both intimidating and approachable. Steve could be quick with a harsh word when he deemed it appropriate but equally quick with a huge hug for those who were hurting. Several of those closest to Steve read lovely passages or gave heartfelt tributes at his service. Colonel Steve Parker, the Executive Director of Joining Forces, read a letter of condolence to Steve's wife, Patti, from the President of the United States. Steve's older brother, Ken, a former Ranger himself, shared family history and told poignant stories about the challenges their family faced and the joy of growing up as Steve's big brother. Their father was a Marine who served in WWII and Korea and did multiple tours in Vietnam. An older brother also served in Vietnam -- and both father and brother returned home with the invisible injuries of war. The Robinson family moved every 18 months or so, a typical experience for families who serve our nation. Steve decided to join the Army when he was a teenager after Ken gave him a taste of life as a Ranger -- reportedly by throwing Steve out of a helicopter during an unauthorized "training" flight.

Steve died on June 12 at the age of 51, doing the work that he loved, fighting the good fight, and creating opportunities for veterans and military families. At the time of his death he held the position of Vice President for External Veteran Affairs for Prudential Financial. Steve was proud of his work but unsatisfied with our nation's response to the needs of the men and women who serve. Like others who work in this arena, Steve didn't want a handout for veterans; he wanted a fair shake for those looking for work and appropriate care for those in need.

There are many others who knew Steve better than I did. But in addition to sharing a mission, we shared a bond -- my father also served in WWII. My father also came home with undiagnosed combat stress. Steve and I had many conversations about how best to prevent and treat the wounds of war. We didn't always agree, but there was mutual respect and gratitude.

We all experience loss and recognize accomplishment through our own unique filters. From my perspective one of Steve's greatest gifts to his generation of veterans -- and those veterans just now returning home from over a decade of war -- was his willingness to talk openly about his own mental health struggles and his steadfast belief that suffering from post-traumatic stress does not mean that you are weak. He knew that you can't always prevent, avoid, or resolve the development of devastating symptoms simply by sucking it up.

Steve Robinson was a bear of a man. He was irreverent, he was blunt, and although I am sure there were things that he feared, he certainly didn't share those fears with many. No one would have ever accused Steve Robinson of being weak or cowardly. Not only did he fight for his fellow brothers and sisters in arms, he provided an example for them to follow. He provided an example of how even the toughest can suffer from the wounds of war. And he demonstrated that you can be tough even while you heal. Finally, he made it absolutely clear that it takes grit and strength of character to accept the help that one may need to face the demons that can haunt even the bravest soldier.

As Steve knew, much remains to be done to ensure that those who come home from war, those who serve, and their families have the care and support they need and deserve. Like Steve and many others, I am hopeful that we can get there. We are a great and generous nation. We seem to genuinely want to demonstrate our commitment to and respect for our service members and our veterans. We have the resources. We must continue to connect the dots and, like Steve, we must continue to lead by example.

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