Face of Defense: Family Liaison Duty Changes Airman’s Life
By Air Force Tech. Sgt. Chyenne A. Adams
BOLLING AIR FORCE BASE, D.C., June 16, 2010 When an airman is seriously injured, multiple agencies are ready to provide help. But if the servicemember is unable to actively engage those resources, 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 the family liaison officer for Senior Airman Michael Malarsie's family. Malarsie was injured Jan. 3 in a roadside-bomb 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.
Greenberg had no idea the day the call went out for family liaison officer 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 he first arrived at the hospital, Greenberg said, he was told 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."
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," 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."
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 family liaison officer is there to be a single point of contact for anything and everything -- the “go-to person” for issues large and small, he said.
The volume of visitors was tremendous, he said, and included representatives from the Veterans Affairs Department and the Blinded Veterans Association; members of Congress, tactical air control party members; 4th Infantry Division soldiers from Fort Carson, Colo.; and the Air Force chief of staff and the chief master sergeant of the Air Force.
The widow and baby daughter of Malarsie's tactical air control party partner who was killed in the attack also visited, Greenberg added.
As the family liaison officer, Greenberg was responsible for daily updates to the injured airman's chain of command, ranging from the squadron commander to senior Air Force officials. 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, Greenberg said, he waited anxiously alongside the family for the results.
Throughout the days and nights spent at Walter Reed, Greenberg said he forged a special bond with Malarsie's family, including his sisters and his parents, Jim and Roxanne Malarsie.
"To Mike's credit, he is extremely strong," 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., Greenberg helped the family with logistics and contacted their new family liaison officer 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," 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 OK and feel like you're doing something to help," he continued. "Seeing these wounded veterans like Mike at Walter Reed 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."
Greenberg said the experience has had a long-term effect on his own life, and 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," 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."
Greenberg said the gravity of the situation hit home with him when Jim 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," 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 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."
Greenberg said he was not the least bit upset by this news.