Airman's time as family liaison officer affects lives, career|
by Tech. Sgt. Chyenne A. Adams
11th Wing Public Affairs
6/10/2010 - BOLLING AIR FORCE BASE, WASHINGTON (AFNS) -- When an Airman is seriously injured, there is a whole line-up of agencies ready to assist and provide necessary services. But, if the servicemember is not able to actively engage those there to help, then the Air Force assigns a family liaison officer to help the family deal with the emotional and physical turmoil.
Master Sgt. Robert D. Greenberg, an Air Force Honor Guard member here, recently served as FLO to Senior Airman Michael Malarsie's family.
Airman Malarsie was injured Jan. 3 in an improvised explosive device attack on his unit near Kandahar, Afghanistan, where he was one of a two-man tactical air control party embedded with an Army infantry company.
Sergeant Greenberg had no idea the day the call went out for FLO volunteers that his life would be forever changed.
"The day I received the call from Walter Reed Army Medical Center informing me that an injured Airman had arrived the night prior, I changed into my blues, went to receive training and went straight to the hospital to meet the family," he said. "For the next six weeks, I was there every day, Monday through Sunday, for eight, nine, maybe 10 hours. I ate lunch with the family, dinner sometimes too."
When Sergeant Greenberg first arrived at the hospital, he said he was told that the injured Airman had arrived the night before from Landstuhl, Germany, and "had already lost one eye, probably was going to lose his other, had severe shrapnel wounds all over his body and a very swollen face."
Sergeant Greenberg said he entered the room, introduced himself and said, "I'm here for whatever you need."
That moment marked the start of his relationship with Michael Malarsie and his family.
"It took a few days for them to really warm up to me being there and ask me for help," Sergeant Greenberg said. "After all they'd been through, they didn't know me or what I could do for them. So, I just made a point of being there. Once they realized that, things started happening naturally."
As the FLO, Sergeant Greenberg assisted the family with issues ranging from financial allowances to powers of attorney, travel logistics and emotional support.
He said the first couple of days were rough, as he worked through issues with the hospital, nursing staff, media and more. The FLO is there to be a single human point of contact for anything and everything -- the go-to person for issues small and large.
Sergeant Greenberg said the volume of visitors was tremendous and represented the Veterans Administration; the Blinded Veterans Association; congressmen; tactical air control party members; fellow unit members from the 4th Infantry Division, Ft. Carson, Colo.; the Air Force chief of staff; and the chief master sergeant of the Air Force; among other organizations.
"Brad Smith's (Airman Malarsie's TACP partner who was killed in the attack) widow and baby girl also visited," Sergeant Greenberg added.
As the FLO, Sergeant Greenberg was also responsible for daily updates to the injured Airman's chain of command, ranging from the assigned squadron commander to senior Air Force officials at Air Staff level.
He said he reported on the "dozens of surgeries" the Airman endured to repair his eyelid, remove shrapnel from his body, and address a multitude of other medical issues.
Throughout each of these surgeries, Sergeant Greenberg said he waited anxiously alongside the family for the results.
Throughout the days and nights spent at Walter Reed, Sergeant Greenberg said he forged a special bond with Airman Malarsie's family, including his sisters and his parents, Jim and Roxanne Malarsie.
"To Mike's credit, he is extremely strong," Sergeant Greenberg said. "He stayed upbeat, positive and never once blamed anybody for what happened. And his family was there the entire time with the same attitude, just thankful to have their son alive and thankful for what the military was doing to take care of him."
When it was time for the injured Airman to be released from the hospital for continued rehabilitative therapy at the Western Blind Rehabilitation Center, a special VA center for blind veterans in Palo Alto, Calif., the FLO assisted the family with logistics and contacted the new FLO assigned to the family in California to ensure a good hand-off of pertinent information.
"It's good for Mike to be able to move on with his life and go to a place where he can learn to cope with his loss of sight, a sense we all take for granted," Sergeant Greenberg said. "Mike's dad, Jim, and I had gotten pretty close. I consider him a lifelong friend, and he thanked me for everything.
"At that point, you're a part of it and you want to know they're okay and feel like you're doing something to help," he said.
"Seeing these wounded veterans like Mike at Walter Reed, and it really sheds light on why you're in the military," he said. "It reminds you why you raised your hand and swore to support and defend the Constitution of the United States of America ... with your life."
Sergeant Greenberg said the experience has not only had a long term effect on his own life, but he has pledged to stay abreast of the injured Airman's status through daily blog checks about Michael, and weekly phone calls with Jim Malarsie.
"My relationship with Jim even impacted my decision to retire and spend more time with my son," Sergeant Greenberg said. "I would not give up my years in the Air Force for anything. I've lived my career in keeping with the core values, most specifically 'service before self'. So much so, that my family often came second."
Sergeant Greenberg said the gravity of the situation hit home with him when Mr. Malarsie confessed that his only regret was that he didn't have more time with his son before Michael left for the military.
"The next time my 8-year-old son says he'd really like me to be at that Cub Scout meeting, I want to be there," Sergeant Greenberg said. "But I'll be there knowing I've done my time serving my country, humbly serving a true hero like Michael, and hopefully that'll be something to make my son proud."
When Sergeant Greenberg settled on his June 25 retirement date, his first phone call was to Jim Malarsie to ask if he would be willing to fly back to Washington, D.C., for the ceremony, and he received disappointing, yet heartwarming news.
"Michael is engaged to be married the same weekend," he said he was told. "So the Malarsies won't be able to make it, and instead we talked about a visit soon."
Sergeant Greenberg said he was not upset by this news.