AW2 Symposium: Soldiers, families stitch lives back together
October 28, 2006
WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Oct. 27, 2006) - Some wounds are still healing. Some losses, like limbs, will never be replaced. At the Army's Wounded Warrior Symposium in Arlington this week, 55 severely injured Soldiers and their families opened up about the most painful, trying events of their lives.
They can empathize with the Soldiers who may find themselves on a gurney with a bloody stump or wake up in a hospital bed with a breathing tube shoved down their throat. There isn't bitterness or anger, just ideas on how a difficult road could be made a little smoother.
The AW2 Program helps severely wounded Soldiers and their families resolve problems and overcome obstacles they may encounter.
The intent of this symposium - the second one in the last six months - is to understand and prioritize these issues as families navigate the maze of benefits throughout hospitalization, recovery, rehabilitation and transition back into the Army or their civilian community.
The two year old program started with only five employees and has grown to more than 60 employees, with Soldier family management specialists at major military installations, military treatment facilities and Veterans Administration medical centers. More than 1,400 wounded warriors and their families are served.
Staff Sgt. Johnathan Holsey, who lost part of a leg in Iraq, criticized the program for not being proactive about alerting Soldiers of services.
"You've got younger Soldiers who don't really know about much. And they don't really care because they just want to get out," Holsey said.
AW2 Program director Col. Mary Carstensen acknowledged the young program is transitioning from a reactive to a proactive unit. Families are now assigned Soldier family management specialists, essentially personal assistants who help manage the many services government agencies offer.
Holsey spoke warmly of his time at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. "Everything you could have ever needed, anything you thought you needed, they made sure it was there for you."
Like many Soldiers with new prosthetics, he wondered how active and athletic he could be, with his left leg amputated below the knee.
Before the injury Holsey could run two miles in 13 minutes. At Walter Reed, he decided he would run two miles in 14 minutes. Three days a week at the hospital's track, a therapist would run behind him, shouting suggestions on how Holsey could sharpen his new stride.
For motivation, Holsey, 32, set his sites on a 23-year-old who was running within four months of his own injury. Holsey still keeps in touch with the younger Soldier who now serves at Fort Stewart.
Holsey isn't looking to leave the Army. In fact, a second tour in Iraq wouldn't bother him.
He recently reported to the basic non-commissioned officer course. At weigh-in Holsey noticed his peers eyeing his leg. The stares didn't bother him. "I made people comfortable, I would say stuff like, 'I'm gonna put my other leg on later,"' Holsey said.
He has four legs, each with a specialty: swimming, running, walking or high-impact. The high-impact leg is his favorite. "You walk on it, play ball on it, tennis, it's an everyday leg," Holsey said. He said he's as active now as before the injury.
Dressed in a suit and tie, 1st Lt. David Folkerts talked openly about his journey back from the IED that blew him 20 feet into the air then left him in a pool of his own blood. "I was squirting out like a sprinkler," Folkerts said.
Medical care implanted a vein from his leg to save his left arm, but nerve damage to his left hand remained.
"I'm used to being the athlete. I'm used to doing the harder stuff in the Army," said the Ranger School graduate. "I want to be that leader who leads from the front," Folkerts said.
He was told he might never have use of his hand again. "I told them, 'No, no I'm gonna keep fighting,'" Folkerts said. The lieutenant painfully sat in Walter Reed, hearing updates from his buddies still in Iraq. He felt guilty for not being there. Slowly, he regained some feeling in his hand.
For a time, he dodged the situation. "I kind of refused and almost denied that I had problems last year because I didn't want to talk to anybody about it," said Folkerts, who moved into an apartment on Fort Riley after leaving Walter Reed.
But he grew tired of feeling down about himself. So he visited family on weekends. Slowly, he began to accept and be comfortable with his disabled left arm.
"Just to be back in my unit and back in uniform and actually contributing really helped me out because I felt like I was part of the team again," Folkerts said. Also helpful was sharing an apartment with two officers who returned from Iraq.
His on-going journey brought him to the symposium to raise issues affecting injured Soldiers.
He's heard from Soldiers with internal injuries that aren't covered through Traumatic Service Group Life Insurance.
He also mentioned that injured Soldiers are awarded $25,000 every 30 days that they fail to perform daily living activities. They can receive up to $100,000. While the program has value, this quirk in the system can lead to abuse, he said.
Some milk the system and keep waiting and waiting, Folkerts said.
Nearby, Spc. Venasio Sele walked through the symposium, curious of the services available to him.
It's the latest Army program to catch his eye. Sele joined the Army to learn technologies he didn't know as a trade school instructor. Sometimes he would get calls from an old friend at work, asking about a new technology. "We've already tested it," a proud Sele would say.
In Iraq his engineering unit patched damaged roads and chauffeured convoys out of Mosul. The convoys included two fuel tankers, which were needed to refuel the vehicles during the nine-hour missions. He rode as the gunner on the last Humvee.
An hour into the trip, Sele heard an IED detonate under the fuel tankers. The commander ordered him to guard the tankers as engineers determined whether the tankers could still be driven.
Then, from his perch atop the Humvee Sele spotted a small car approaching. "Hey, I got a suicide bomber coming in," Sele shouted.
He was ordered to shoot.
Sele's fire killed the driver, flattened the tires and silenced the engine. But the momentum of the vehicle continued towards the fuel tankers.
As Sele fought to get out of his harness, he heard the beeping sound of a detonator.
The explosion of both fuel tankers launched him a half mile. "Till now I still hear that beeping sound," Sele said.
The Humvee's spare tire shielded him, saving his life. And he was lucky to land on the forgiving sand. But flames from the burning rubber licked the left side of his unconscious body.
At the symposium, Sele sat with Staff Sgt. John Noel. Both are visiting from the Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston, Texas.
Each Soldier at the convention has a story, perhaps none more difficult than Noel's. Although in some ways, Noel was very lucky.
Four days after the 4th of July, he rode with another unit on an ant-eater mission, essentially identifying IEDs in a vehicle with a V-shaped hull, which is designed to deflect anti-tank charges.
It was near midnight, and the four-man team peered outside the vehicle, looking for suspicious packages with wires attached. Then a 250-pound IED went off.
"Two hundred fifty pounds of explosives isn't going to be deflected," Noel said.
He remembers waking up in a fog and hearing people scream "Get him out! Get him out!" He tried to move his arms and legs but couldn't. Then he blacked out. His next memory was rolling out on a gurney from a tent hospital.
The IED had broken two of his ribs, one femur, both ankles, his scapula, cut his spleen and collapsed a lung. Everyone else died.
Following surgery to install a titanium support in his backbone, he should be able to leave the wheelchair behind. Noel hopes to return to Texas with his son, who is currently living with his grandmother in Washington state.
He's gained an appreciation for those who will never walk again. "Even going to a restroom in some places can be difficult in a wheelchair," Noel said. He's encouraged parents to make their home more handicapped accessible so it will be livable for a greater part of the population.
Noel reported no problems with the Army's services for injured Soldiers but has heard stories of guys who have. "I hope to come away from this with enough knowledge to help somebody else out," Noel said.
Later this year the Army will release the ideas developed out of the symposium to help treat future wounded warriors.
The success of the symposium depends on the Army's ability to listen to and make changes based upon Soldiers' input. That will require the active participation of many organizations and agencies, including the Army's Human Resources Command, the G-1, Office of the Surgeon General, MEDCOM, and the Veteran's Administration.