WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Jan. 25, 2007) - Staff Sgt. Johnathan Holsey was certain his military career had ended on Nov. 10, 2004. That day, just outside Ramadi, Iraq, a roadside bomb exploded near his convoy, so severely injuring his left leg that it had to be amputated just below the knee.
But now, more than two years later, Holsey is still on active duty and looking forward to a long and successful military career. That his time as a Soldier didn't end the day he lost his leg he credits to two things - the excellent medical care he received, and the Army Wounded Warrior Program, or AW2.
In late October, Holsey, now stationed at MacDill Air Force base, Fla., journeyed to Arlington, Va., to participate in the second AW2 symposium. Like the other 54 delegates - drawn from the ranks of wounded Soldiers and from their families - Holsey was there to share his insights on how the program might better serve its constituents.
Organized by AW2 director Col. Mary Carstensen and her staff, the five-day symposium brought the delegates together with some 30 subject-matter experts from AW2, U.S. Army Human Resources Command, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Labor and representatives from various veterans groups.
The whole point of the event, said HRC commander Maj. Gen. Sean Byrne, was to "better fulfill a pledge that all Soldiers in our Army make to one another - 'I will never leave a fallen comrade.' The phrase isn't just part of our warrior ethos, it's what AW2 stands for. This program was established to ensure that our Army would never leave a fallen comrade behind - not on the battlefield, and not during the long, hard days of recovery."
<b>Navigating the Maze</b>
Established in April 2004 as the Disabled Soldier Support System, AW2 assumed its current name in November 2005. The change did not alter the organization's mission, though, Carstensen said.
"To be injured or wounded in combat changes a Soldier's life forever, and the nation helps relieve the burdens of a life-altering injury or wound by providing a range of benefits," she said. "But to navigate the maze of programs and agencies is challenging, especially when Soldiers and their families are focused on recovery and rehabilitation. Our task is to help them navigate that maze, so they can gain the greatest benefit from the variety of available assistance and benefit programs."
One way AW2 helps participants navigate the maze is by assigning them a "soldier-family management specialist," Carstensen said.
"The SFMSs are the experts on the entire array of benefits, and they're sort of the personal assistants for our Soldiers and families," she said. "Every Soldier in the AW2 program has an assigned SFMS, and it's that specialist's task to help the Soldier and family through the program."
A Soldier's progress through the AW2 program begins with a determination of eligibility, Carstensen said.
"An AW2 Soldier is essentially one who has been severely wounded or injured since 9/11 - either in or outside a combat theater - and has received or will receive a medical retirement from the Army," she said. "AW2 participants suffer from such things as loss of limb; loss of sight; partial or total paralysis; brain or spinal-cord damage; traumatic brain injury; post-traumatic stress disorder; severe burns; disfigurement; and multiple gunshot wounds."
All are life-altering conditions, Carstensen said, and each Soldier and family receives the assistance and advice needed to ensure the individual is as prepared as possible to live with the results of combat wounds or injury.
<b>A Personal Journey</b>
While AW2 staffers are dedicated to helping Soldiers and their families cope with life-changing wounds or injuries, program participants say that the essential first step on the long road back to wellness is a very personal one.
"I think it's always hard for a Soldier to come to grips with the effects of a serious injury, since we always try to stay in the best shape possible and are used to pushing ourselves physically," Holsey said. "I know it was very hard for me at first, because when I lost my leg I was suddenly faced with the fact that I would never again be able to do things the way I had before. There was also a lot of pain, and that can sap your strength and your will in a way you never imagined."
The only way for seriously injured or wounded Soldiers to move forward, Holsey believes, is to accept the new realities imposed by the disability.
"You really have to come to grips with the pain and the physical changes, and then you have to move forward and get on with your life," he said.
That's a sentiment echoed by another AW2 participant, 1st Lt. David Folkerts, whose left arm was permanently damaged by the detonation of an IED near Taji, Iraq, in April 2005.
"The first few months after you get hit can be the hardest of your life, because you go from being young and fit to being an invalid who has to depend on other peoples' help to do almost everything," Folkerts said. "But you eventually reach a point where you have to make up your mind to do whatever it takes to get on with the best life possible."
For Holsey, Folkerts and many other AW2 participants, "getting on with life" has meant multiple surgeries, long periods of physical rehabilitation and, in Holsey's case, learning to use several types of high-tech prosthetic legs. He and many other amputees have become so adept with the artificial limbs, in fact, that they have been able to pass the Army Physical Fitness Test, a key achievement for AW2 participants who want to remain on active duty.
Ensuring that seriously wounded and injured Soldiers and their families have access to all the information and assistance they'll need to guarantee the best quality of life is one of the main reasons for the October AW2 symposium, Carstensen said.
"While our Army is committed to this program, and while we don't have any issues in terms of resources or support, there are challenges," Carstensen said. "The biggest one, I think, is that we're bringing together a whole range of organizations and programs and looking at the entire continuum of care and support available to these Soldiers and their families. There is a lot of information, and to do the best job we can requires a lot of coordination. That inevitably means there are rough spots."
Symposium participants are helping the Army iron out those rough spots, Byrne said.
"In the weeks leading up to this event, Soldiers, family members and care givers identified obstacles and stumbling blocks that they experienced on the wounded Soldiers' journeys to recovery," he said. "The symposium allows us to use the input of all participants to prioritize the issues and make recommendations for dealing with them. Those recommendations are then to be passed on to the Army's senior leaders."
"The process of identifying and eliminating those obstacles won't be easy, " Byrne said. "But in the long run, it will help strengthen the AW2 program and the Army."
And that effort has the full support of AW2 participants, Folkerts said.
"This symposium is a great idea, since Soldiers who've been wounded and who have gone through the entire military medical process can attend and share their concerns and needs," he said. "We have a lot of issues to discuss, and this is a great opportunity for us and our families to talk directly to the people from the agencies that make the policies."
Nor will this be the last such symposium, Carstensen said.
"We'll have conferences like this at least a few more times to make sure we have a good handle on the issues," she said, "and so we can develop the response mechanisms that will help us solve all the outstanding issues.
"This is important work, and everyone here is dedicated to making AW2 the best program it can be," Carstensen added. "This program exemplifies what it means to take care of a fellow Soldier, because saying that we will never leave a fallen comrade behind is a sacred trust, and it is one of the foundations of our Army and its success. Caring for our wounded warriors and helping them transition into the rest of their lives is the ultimate expression of that trust."
Among the continuing issues discussed at the October symposium were:
The need to improve dissemination of AW2 information to AW2 Soldiers, family members, units and medical facilities.
AW2 Soldiers need to be identified and actively managed.
Family members who serve as an AW2 Soldier's caregiver need more education and support.
AW2 Soldiers should be informed of the opportunity for Continuation on Active Duty or Continuation on Active Reserve so they may make informed decision about their futures.
AW2 Soldiers with spinal cord injuries or traumatic brain injuries should reach optimum care prior to the initiation of Medical Evaluation Boards and Physical Evaluation Boards.