Army’s Wounded Give Marching Orders for Five Areas of Improvement

Alexandria, VA—Sixty-five severely wounded Soldiers, Veterans, and their Family members prioritized the top issues facing the Army’s wounded warriors. This year, the delegates at the annual Army Wounded Warrior Program (AW2) Symposium selected five items to be addressed:

  1. Medically retired servicemember’s eligibility for Concurrent Receipt of Disability Pay (CRDP)
  2. Post 9/11 GI Bill transferability to dependents for all medically retired servicemembers
  3. Mandatory post-traumatic stress disorder/traumatic brain injury (PTSD/TBI) training for Veterans Affairs (VA) healthcare staff
  4. Transfer option from Temporary Disability Retired List (TDRL) to Permanent Disability Retired (PDR) for wounded warriors
  5. Benefits and entitlements information to wounded warrior primary caregivers

“The AW2 Symposium is about listening to those who have been through it and learning firsthand about ways we can continue to improve how we care for our most severely wounded, injured, and ill Soldiers, Veterans, and their Families—then take action,” said AW2 Director COL Jim Rice. “These delegates were the voice of the Army’s 7,000 severely wounded Soldiers, and we listen very closely to what they say.”

Issues raised at previous symposiums that have been resolved include expanded facilities to treat TBIs and a stipend for primary caregivers of severely wounded servicemembers to the creation of the AW2 Community Support Network and a $10,000 increase in VA housing benefits.

The final issues were announced at the conclusion of the AW2 Symposium, which took place from June 21-25 in San Antonio, TX. The top issues were chosen from more than 80 topics that were discussed in five focus groups: medical, careers, Family, Soldier support, and VA.

AW2 Symposium delegate and Veteran, Matt Staton, stated, “I can leave this event knowing that my voice, and the voices of the Soldiers I represent, will be heard. The AW2 Symposium is an excellent process for the Army to listen and to improve warrior care. All the delegates leave with the knowledge that a lot of people in the Army are striving to improve the care we wounded warriors receive.”

For the last six years, AW2 has served the most severely wounded, injured, and ill Soldiers, Veterans, and their Families. AW2 assists and advocates for the most severely wounded Soldiers, Veterans, and their Families, wherever they are located, regardless of their military status, for as long as it takes. AW2 is part of the Warrior Transition Command (WTC)—a new one-star command under the U.S. Army Medical Command that serves as the central comprehensive source for warrior care support across the Army. To learn more about AW2, visit www.AW2.army.mil or call 800-237-1336.

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Operation Purple® Camp Helps AW2 Kids Be Kids

By Patty Sands, WTC Stratcom

AW2 kids prove they are Army Strong at Operation Purple® Camp, hosted by NMFA.

I thought I saw a familiar face in the crowd of kids at Operation Purple® Camp—but I paused. It took me a second to recognize that it was my friend’s child! I befriended her mom at the start of the Symposium, and it seemed from the start we were kindred spirits for sure. Why didn’t I recognize this beautiful teenager? She was smiling! The only time I had seen her before she had a serious and mature gaze that was way beyond her years. Her face was beaming today. She and her new friends were giggling about bug bites and music. It was regular stuff for a kid—laser tag, Xbox and eating pizza. But rare for her Family.

Life changed for everyone in her Family when her cousin was injured five years ago. Her mom has stretched her time, money and talents to make all things work. Without a doubt there is great love there, but there is also a profound tiredness from the sacrifice. Just like all the kids here, they have served in their own way and with their own lives as their loved ones recover.

But this week was different—it was all about new friends and connections. The camp is relaxed and fun with friendships and connections weaving through the laughter. They know that while they have fun their parents are here to help the Army make changes to better their lives and the lives of others. It is exciting to know that this group of kids will one day be in leadership positions. They already know about love, duty and sacrifice, and now they are seeing how to work within the system to make changes. The results of this Symposium will be a wonderful legacy for them.

Stories Offer a Glimpse into Life Post Injury

Retired CW3 James Hume talks about life with PTSD.

Emily Oehler, WTC Stratcom

This morning, I had the honor of listening to three people tell their personal story. While each story was unique, heartfelt and powerful—they all showed the full impact of a life with a severe injury, and the impact on the Family. I was in awe as retired Chief Warrant Officer James Hume, Army spouse Gina Hill and retired Sergeant Scott Stephenson shared their stories at the Army Wounded Warrior Program’s (AW2) Symposium.

As I watched James speak, he looked like corporate America—dark suit, clean cut, distinguished. Actually, he looked a lot like actor Bill Pullman who played the president in Will Smith’s Independence Day. Watching him, it was hard to connect what he was saying to his calm, poised demeanor. James suffers from PTSD and mild TBI. Although he received treatment at the combat stress unit in Balad, Iraq, cognitive behavior training at Walter Reed, and coping skills therapy through the Veterans Administration, it wasn’t until he returned home that it all really hit him.

“I returned home, my Family and I were hit hard with the symptoms of PTSD. My condition got worse in my new environment and over the following six months my situation deteriorated to a crisis mode. As a result, I was admitted to the Dallas VA for two weeks to stabilize my condition with medications. About three months later, I was admitted to a seven week inpatient PTSD program at the Waco, Texas VA. It was there, for once, I finally received what I call a well rounded education on PTSD. I was able to process my traumas, recognize triggers, and attempt to alter my behavior. This awareness does not cure PTSD but is intended to improve the quality of life for the Veteran and that also translates to the Family. My wife Diana and I feel awareness, education, and treatment should be extended to the Family members for they are an integral part of the Family dynamics and in many cases Family is all you have left.”

A Marine and Army reservist for nearly 30 years, James served in the Persian Gulf War and volunteered to deploy to Iraq with an ordinance unit. In Iraq he went on missions for route clearance and foot patrols throughout the villages which exposed him to multiple IEDs, mortar and rocket fire and resulted in life-altering injuries.

“This is not the person I use to be. I even avoid people that knew me before so they do not know me now. I try to protect a reputation that is now masked behind incompetence. As a reserve Soldier, this impacted not only my military career but also my civilian career and almost cost me my Family. I have worked hard with coping mechanisms but they also have limits. I can’t respectfully articulate what it is like to live with PTSD. The closest I can come is to imagine your mind is no longer your mind, your life is no longer your life, your dreams are no longer your dreams, you’re not the husband your wife deserves, you’re not the father your children deserve, you’re not the friend your friends deserve, you’re not a contributor to society but rather you view yourself as a burden. To simplify, imagine a life with a broken spirit. This may seem extreme to a normal person but it is normal for a person with PTSD.”

SGT Allen Hill’s wife Gina added that, “While the majority of Allen’s physical, or visible, wounds have healed, our Family still struggles daily with the psychological wounds. Often times, these are called the invisible wounds, but I have a hard time calling them that, for they are very visible to anyone who spends any amount of time with him.”

Gina then spoke about the impact of her husband’s TBI and PTSD on their Family. “These psychological wounds greatly affect not only the Soldier, but the entire Family. My husband’s triggers are now triggers for myself as well as our children. In the rare times we are away from my husband, we are constantly on high alert for his triggers. It is next to impossible for us to turn that off. Our kids have had to become caregiver’s for their dad instead of just being kids. They are well rehearsed in PTSD, calling 911, and explaining why their dad has a service dog, why he isn’t at many of their events, and why he sometimes acts really weird. They also have to understand that plans are never set in stone and are always contingent on their dad’s current mental state.”

She added that, “The struggles I face specifically as a spouse of a warrior suffering with PTSD are many as well. It is difficult watching the person you love fighting to get back to the person they were before war because they do remember what they used to be like, they just can’t figure out how to get back to that person. We have worked very hard to focus on the best he can be now, not who he was. Every part of him is different and when I say every, I mean every. With that being said, it is extremely difficult being married to someone who is completely different than when you married him. There are times that I see glimpses of the man I married, but they are few and far between.”

Her husband commented, “I wish I could get back to the old me for my Family’s sake, my wife’s sake. I know they long for the person I used to be.”

The life-long challenges retired SGT Scott Stephenson talked about were more physical. As a SAW gunner, he experienced third and fourth degree burns over 66 percent of his body and the amputation of his left foot as a result of an IED explosion. “I was sent to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio where I received the best possible care and treatment. My treatment has been a long, hard road, and is still ongoing. Trying to describe living with burns is tough, and the best explanation I can come up with is, it’s like living with most of your body wrapped in air-tight saran wrap. I can’t feel the breeze on my skin.”

With all their challenges, each Family continues to serve and give back through nonprofits they’ve started, those they volunteer with, and through the stories they share so that other wounded Soldiers, Veterans, and Families know they are not alone.

AW2 Spouse Writes to Cope, Heal

By Tania Meireles, WTC Stratcom

AW2 Family Janis and Norris Galatas at home in Mississippi.

AW2 Family, Janis and Norris Galatas, at home in Mississippi.

AW2 Spouse Janis Galatas wrote a book, A Soldier’s Courage, about her husband Norris and the struggles they have gone through. I was able to catch up with her recently to ask her how the process of writing about her feelings and challenges has helped her and her husband and how she hopes others will use writing as an outlet during difficult times.

How did you start writing?

I must have inherited the writer’s flair from my mom. Mom wrote a moving poem about her brave hero brother who died in WWII on the “Indy Maru.” She also wrote a little book for her nieces and nephews connecting them with their Family history. My Mom and I are also great writers of letters.

How did writing down your experiences after your husband’s injury make you feel?

At first it was just documentation, but later on, as the wait got longer, staff moved to other jobs, or surgeons moved on to other hospitals, it became very cathartic. I was writing it all down as it happened to us at Walter Reed, and my pals in Georgia and California were posting it on their websites over the Internet. From April 2005 through the horrible aftermath of surgery #17 in August of 2006, it all went global. We went through some bad times at Walter Reed. But things eventually did get better. I realized I would have exploded on somebody if I hadn’t had the “blog” to vent and to have the support of “prayer warriors”—people from all over the world…literally—praying for us. Without my buddies on the Internet, I would have been totally alone at Walter Reed with no support group. Blogging is therapeutic. It was all in the book and people tell me they had no clue how badly our wounded were getting treated.

When did you decide to write a book and why?

While Norris lay in a coma at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC, I remembered advice from a friend of Norris’s who had to fight with the Army and the VA for every percentage of his disability benefit. He said to put down everything, so I was documenting Norris’s care, his medications, and his procedures. When Norris awakened nine days later, he was disoriented, deep into a drug haze, and he couldn’t even tell the doctors what hospital he was in. So, I began a daily journal to keep up with his surgeries, procedures, and adventures in the hospital so he could read them later on. After he became mobile his adventures grew. During the first 90 days I stayed with him, it was mostly documentation, but after four years of making Walter Reed his home, the book was born. He met so many wonderful supporters and we have become firm friends with so many all over the globe. I wanted to let all the Families know where to go for help and where to get stuff for their Soldiers without having to spend their own money. People need to know this. It is also a healing experience for our veterans who have read it.

How has writing the book helped you and your Family?

Everyone is happy to read it and loves it, but with sales so slow, writing, and publishing the book was more a labor of love than anything else. I am still in the hole financially and it has been rough on us. I’m just glad families have benefitted from all the information I put in. People who were not close to us and didn’t know how severe Norris’s injuries were, after reading the book are all shocked at just how wonderful he looks but how almost dead he was. Especially the medics who worked on him that day, they thought he was a “goner.”

What are your hopes for your book?

Of course I would love to make a little money for my two passions—horses and Soldiers. I have rescued horses and adopted Soldiers. But if I never make a dime in royalties, I just wish military families could know it is out there. There is just so much information about how the Army can better work for you or even things you can do from the civilian side to benefit your wounded warrior. There are some things that are going to happen and one must learn how to cope with stuff and not let it ruin a marriage and destroy the kids. PTSD and TBI are difficult to diagnose and so many go untreated until they have lost everything. My book tells how our wounded can learn to “work the system” and lets families know how to recognize PTSD and even how to deal with TBI. Norris was at WRAMC for one and a half years before his “mild” TBI showed up, and it took until just last Christmas for me to realize he was suffering from PTSD and withdrawing from public places and events. We are working through it and we are going to be fine, but it is not easy to watch someone you love go through the emotional withdrawal as well as suffer the physical pain.

How do you suggest AW2 Soldiers, Veterans, and Families start writing as an outlet for what they are going through?

Just grab a notebook and start keeping a daily journal. Write down every appointment, every flashback, and every hurdle. As you write, go ahead and keep track of who does what and to whom you have to report. Go ahead and vent and get it all out of your system. Later on, should you publish, you can edit. One of the things my Soldiers said they missed was being able to talk with other Soldiers. Go to meet with other troops in homes, camp houses, VA facilities and even clubs if necessary…but get together with other troops. Talk about it. Same for spouses and kids…meet with other families and kids. Find out how they coped.

AW2 Weekly Digest January 18-29

  • AW2 Veterans and Family members attended the Army Family Action Plan Worldwide Conference in Arlington, VA, and are pictured with Secretary of the Army John McHugh in Army News. [Back row (L-R): Mario and Angelica Bracamonte, Melissa Cramblett and David Proctor, Jared and Jennifer Hatch, Ken and Brenda Kraft, and Jay Wilkerson. Front row (L-R): Vivica Stokes and Secretary of the Army John McHugh holding Stokes’ service dog, Starsky.
  • AW2 Soldier SPC Michael Brown, featured in Albany Times Union, reunited with his brother and hit the ski slopes at Windham Mountain Resort.
  • AW2 Veteran Michael Cain and AW2 Soldiers SFC Jonathan Grundy and SSG Preston Jackson were featured in MHS Profiles in an article about outdoor activities and community-supported recreational programs that provide wounded warriors with the confidence, strength, and pride required to heal both body and soul.
  • AW2 Family, the Calhouns, were featured in a The Leaf Chronicle article about receiving a free house from Homes for Our Troops, a nonprofit program.
  • AW2 Soldier CPT Ivan Castro, featured in The Fayetteville Observer, is the first blind officer to receive a diploma from the Maneuver Captains Career Course at Fort Benning, GA, and is now the operations officer for Fort Bragg’s Special Operations Recruiting Battalion.
  • BG Gary Cheek, commanding general, U.S. Army Warrior Transition Command (WTC), featured in DOD News, signed an agreement with Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) to increase opportunities for wounded warriors.
  • AW2 Soldier Melissa Cramblett is featured in Recruiter Journal (page 12) in an article about being a volunteer official spokesperson for www.StayStrongNation.org, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping servicemembers recover from post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • AW2 Veteran Robert “Bobby” Henline, featured on KENS-TV, shares his story of burn injuries in a standup comedy act to make people laugh and also raise awareness.
  • AW2 Soldier SGT Quitman “Trey” Lockley and his Family are featured on KKTV- TV in a story about his miraculous recovery from his injuries.
  • AW2 Veteran Joseph Paulk was featured on WNDU-TV in an article about Operation Mend giving Soldiers their faces back through reconstructive surgery at no charge.
  • Oregon Soldiers, featured on KVAL-TV, recounted a roadside bomb attack and how they saved AW2 Soldier SPC Jeremy Pierce’s life.
  • AW2 Veteran Matthew Staton, featured in DOD News, spoke at the 2010 Military Health System Conference about the technology-based care he received through the Computer/Electronic Accommodations Program that has enabled a successful post-military life.
  • AW2 Veteran Scott Vycital and AW2 Advocate Christine Cook were featured in The Denver Post about how AW2 support Soldiers and Veterans. Vycital, also featured in the Fort Collins Coloradoan, shared a box with the first lady at the State of the Union Address.

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AW2 Soldiers, Veterans, and Families can submit a blog for AW2 by emailing WarriorCareCommunications [at] conus.army.mil.