Written by, Stacey Pennington Steven's sister.
A short time ago my brother, SSG Steven Gregory Ochs, was alive, vibrant, living life without regret, loving without expecting anything in return, accepted all without prejudice, judged no one and gave what little possessions he owned to anyone in need or just to make one smile. Steve is best described as a lover to his wife, dedicated father to Annelise his three year old daughter, loyal son, a friend you find once in a lifetime. Steve was born to be an American soldier to the inner core of his being.
My brother, Steve, chose the military as his career serving our country for 14 years. He served 3 tours during Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom totaling 40 months. This is the life he chose with pride and honor. He did his duty no matter the cost.
We are currently at war although people tend to forget because the war is not being fought on our land. The world turns a blind eye and does not realize our soldier’s sacrifices. Steve, a brave soldier who dodged bullets, mortar attacks, road side explosions and suicide bombers. He saved many soldiers countless times while under heavy fire. Battling the enemy means far more than just firing a gun or throwing a grenade, it also entails performing what most would consider unthinkable tasks. Steve burned rotted dead bodies, gathered body parts of comrades, performed CPR and went as far as cleaning the brains off equipment that came from a fellow soldier who was sitting shot-gun in the Hummer they were driving when an IED exploded as they drove over it. The Hummer split into two. Steve’s side survived and the other side did not. Angels descended and gave the perished their own set of wings as they lay on the battlefield.
The ultimate sacrifice for a soldier, for his country is death. We assume the horrific ways a soldier dies in a combat zone. As technology changes, as strategic battle strategies change, so does a way a soldier dies fighting for his country for our freedoms.
Balad is the site of the infamous enormous burn pit that has been called by Darrin L. Curtis, Lt. Col., USAF and Bioenvironmental Engineering Flight Commander as “the worst environmental site” he had ever visited. My brother, SSG Ochs, was stationed in Balad and war as strategic as it is followed him home. Death lay dormant in his blood and waited for him to return safely home and into the arms of his loved ones. Like every silent ticking time bomb, it eventually exploded.
On September 28, 2007, just months after Steve’s return home from his third tour, he was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia, also known as AML. He spent the next 10 months as a patient, more like a resident, at Duke University Hospital. Doctors at Duke said his aggressive form of AML was definitely chemically induced. Steve agreed and insisted it was due to the exposures he experienced while in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, the doctor’s at Duke refused to go on record citing the reason that they could not prove it. Steve, like so many others, was diagnosed with AML during what I refer to as the “first wave” of victims. In the fall of 2007 there was no information regarding burn pits the troops were being exposed to in addition to the contaminated water. No websites, no research, no acknowledgement of the academic we were about to discover.
The aggressive AML that Steve endured was similar to bullets ricocheting in the body causing torturous pain. The graphic images embedded in my mind are of Steve’s last screams for air as he was rushed into ICU. Steve waved goodbye to my husband and with a whisper said, “I love you sis.” Our Mom kissed his forehead and told him we would see him as soon as they made him comfortable. Steve mustered a grin, as always. Five minutes later our lives as we knew it would change forever.
A nurse entered the ICU waiting room to inform us that Steve went into cardiac arrest and doctors were working on trying to revive him. My mom busted in the doors to ICU as the nurse tried to hold her back. My Mom turned to me, fell to her knees and said to me, “My son is dying.” Screams filled the air as we begged God to keep Steve alive. We know Steve heard us as tears were in his eyes. Doctors and nurses continued to pump on Steve’s chest for 45 minutes keeping him alive, but I knew immediately he was gone. The spirit that surrounded my dear sweet brother was gone. Steve was declared dead by an ICU doctor on July 12, 2008 at 4:41 EST.
My Mom looked upon my brother’s face and wiped away the tears puddle in his eyes. I alone stayed with my brother for hours lying on his chest without the courage to let him go or say goodbye. It was Steve’s turn to receive his angel wings just as he witnessed others receiving theirs on the battlefield.
During his deployments in Iraq Steve complained of ailments ranging from chronic colds, major fatigue, headaches, sinus problems and respiratory issues. If that was not enough he suffered hearing loss and contracted TB while in Afghanistan due to exposures to masses of dead bodies. My brother had a large strong stature, standing over six feet tall, weighing over 200 pounds, handsome, and was the perfect image of an Army strong soldier. Steve was brave and served his country courageously. He was committed to Americas efforts abroad and believed in he was making a difference, he loved his role, his men and he loved his Army. He was a soldier, hundred percent confident of he was and his mission.
Grief, eternal sadness and depression have engulfed my entire family. We hurt and we miss him Steve’s wife is unstable. Annelise is left fatherless. My mom is emotionally unstable and my fat may sound her is constantly wondering. My youngest brother, Brian, left with regret and I lost. I lost my best friend. I lost the one who encouraged me to live my life without regrets and dare me to live life to the fullest. Crude as this may sound, as he would say, “F-it sis, just do it, just live. Stop being afraid and just do what makes you happy. What is the worst that could happen? Remember you are NOT in control.”
Sadly, what Steve endured would repeat itself a thousand times over. Laura Bumpus, whose step-son suffered the exact same fate just two weeks after Steve died, and I spent countless hours researching, reaching out to other victims, consoling victims and their families, reaching out to organizations, legislators, doctors, reporters, military families past and present educating all who will listen.
We have been successful in our endeavors in such a short period of time. We have passed three legislative bills, prompted several federal level investigations and started a class-action lawsuit. Military personnel are now being educated on the dangers of burn pits and contaminated water. Those that have fallen ill by law should receive medical care and treatments that are appropriate to their diseases. We have equipped legislators, doctors and other organizations with valuable information to enable them to make informed decisions. We still have a lot more educational outreach and legislation that must pass in order to make this wrong a right.
My family proudly displays our Gold Star pin presented to each of us by Steve’s Commander at his funeral. We are full of pride to be a military family, honoring our fallen brother and standing by my brother who currently serves our country today. We know Steve was willing to sacrifice himself in order to save his men. He sacrificed himself and it is our duty to make sure Steve’s death was not in vain, but instead serve as a greater purpose. The purpose of his death was to expose a major injustice. Now it is up to us to make it right
We will continue to live with the emotional battle scars caused by the terminal injuries our loved one suffered as a result of the exposures of the burn pits. I assure you it is a heavy cross to bear. Collectively we have the power to save our courageous heroes who serve our country and who protect me and who protect you.