Care for wounded warriors is year-round commitment
November 17, 2011
FORT HOOD, Texas - With the Civil War and its death toll weighing heavy on his soul, President Abraham Lincoln would often find solace visiting wounded Soldiers at Washington-area military hospitals. During one of these visits, Lincoln witnessed an amputation procedure on one of his Soldiers. Shocked at the surgeons' enthusiasm with their knife skills and indifference to their patient, a troubled Lincoln asked them a poignant question: "But what about the Soldier?"
Ten years of non-stop war has revolutionized the way the Army is treating its wounded, ill or injured Soldiers. Gone are the days when the Army would tell them "good-bye and good luck" as they handed them their discharge papers.
Today, thanks to a sea change in cultural and organizational philosophy, the Army of the 21st century is going "New Age" in healing the mind, body and spirits of its hurting and ill. In a nutshell, Army leadership is telling the Soldier, "It's OK if you're hurt. We're going to let you heal and take care of you and your Family until you do."
To recognize the invaluable sacrifices of our wounded, ill and injured Soldiers and their Families, the Army annually dedicates November as Warrior Care Month to celebrate their unlimited potential and to raise awareness and support for the many programs and initiatives designed to help them heal and transition.
For the Soldiers, cadre and civilians of the Fort Hood Warrior Transition Brigade warrior care is a year-round challenge, defined by its creed: Soldiers First; Soldiers Always.
"Soldier care is the center of our foundation," said Maj. Jason Good, commander, Company F, on the WTB's commitment to helping Soldiers heal and transition back to either soldiering or as a civilian member of the community. An Army Reservist who was a military analyst for the Center for Army Lessons Learned in his civilian vocation, Good said warrior care to him is about relationship building as both a teacher and a mentor.
"To be good at what we do, we have to be life coaches," he said. "All we're doing here is using a common sense approach in the overall care of the warrior. Our Soldiers are no different than 'line' warriors. They just have serious medical issues."
An abundance of outdoor activities such as exotic game hunts and fly-fishing trips are helping wounded warriors redirect their energies miles outside the Fort Hood gates to South Texas or Lake Texoma, courtesy of nonprofits like the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and Project Healing Waters, among several organizations with close ties to the WTB.
Adapative sports such as Ride2Recovery bike rides are challenging a Soldier's endurance level while the Department of Defense-sponsored Warrior Games are demonstrating athleticism is not about disability, but about ability. More importantly, for the Soldier who will soon be trading Army Combat Uniforms for a two-piece suit, Operation Warfighter's job internship program is arming Soldiers with the tools to confidentially walk down the path of success, and, more often than not, a job with a federal agency.
Doing what's right and makes sense, said Capt. Lavetta Springer, officer-in-charge of the brigade's medical team and former nurse case manager for WTB's Company B, wouldn't be possible without a great leadership team.
"It's always been about collaboration," Springer said about WTB leadership, most of who come to the WTB from line units. "We're not stifled. I've never heard 'do it my way, or no way.'"
This professional autonomy, she said, not only boosts morale, but provides her nursing team the freedom to think outside the box, take risks and try new things. The results, she added, are incorporated into a Soldier's Comprehensive Transition Plan, which combines the Soldiers' physical pain, mental state, and emotional attitude into a holistic approach to healing, not just the part that hurts, but the heart and soul as well.
Moreover, according to Peggy Thomas, Company B nurse case manager, these risks sometimes promote healing that can only be called a miracle.
"I had a Soldier who had severe TBI (traumatic brain injury), so we sent him to a specialized clinic," she said. "Four months later, I didn't even recognize him. He was standing up straight, didn't use a cane, didn't stutter. All I could say was, 'Oh my God, it's a miracle.'"
Innovative therapies, such as massage and acupuncture to relieve stress and manage pain, are also popular alternative therapies as are four-legged creatures, whether it's a horse in the Horses for Heroes program or mutts in Divine Canines, who are unknowingly helping Soldiers "reconnect" with their softer side simply by touch.
For Sgt. Able Duran, the twice-monthly Comfort for America's Uniformed Services-sponsored massage sessions, when synched with his acupuncture and chiropractic treatments, knock out his pain so much that his snoring will often wake him up from his treatments. Hesitant to try anything "different," Duran said, chronic pain was his catalyst to try anything the Army offered.
"I'm now a believer," he said.
There's a very profound benefit to touch, according to Viola Crowder, who coordinates the CAUSE-sponsored massage and reiki sessions for warriors and their caregivers.
"The results can't be denied," the licensed massage therapist said, adding that she commends the military for opening itself up to try alternative therapies in their search to care for its Soldiers and Families in absolutely the best way they can.
Factoring in the Family
But it's not just about healing the Soldier.
"You case manage the whole Family," Thomas said. "Soldiers don't come here alone; they come with a Family."
In addition, according to Springer, Family involvement adds a second set of eyes to the healing equation, a critical link otherwise not available to the Soldier's triad of care: the squad leader, nurse case manager and physician.
"It's so important that we get to know the Family because they help us paint a better picture of the Soldier, because they'll tell us things the Soldier might not want to share with us," she said.
No one knows that better than Roberta Lathrop, whose husband was injured in Afghanistan and is now assigned to Company D. In the beginning, she was accompanying her husband to every medical appointment, which the WTB encourages spouses to do. Now, she said, he's confident enough to go it alone to his medical appointments.
"You have to let them know that all they need to worry about is healing," she said.
In fact, she is so grateful to the WTB for welcoming Family involvement in the healing and transitioning process, she volunteers Tuesday through Saturday to pour ceramic molds for WTB Soldiers and Family members to paint during the Soldier Family Assistance Center's twice-weekly expressive arts classes.
Estimating that she has poured more than 1,000 molds this year, she said it has allowed her a way to give back to those who have helped in her husband's healing and transitioning, in addition to witnessing a Soldier's recovery process.
"I'll sit there and watch them use heavy colors in the beginning, and in time, see them begin to use brighter colors. It's very rewarding for me to see that," she said, emphasizing that projects like ceramics help Soldiers think about something besides their injuries, relax and meet other people. "If you sit there and worry all the time, you're not going to heal. "
Visiting with Family members also allows squad leaders and platoon sergeants like Sgt. 1st Class Thomas Cherry of Co. F to bond with Family members, to see how they live and to see if the spouses need any help.
"We also educate them on the numerous SFAC services available to them as a spouse," he said, adding that WTB spouses are entitled to free child care, marriage counseling, and stress management classes, as well as one-on-one financial counseling sessions with SFAC's financial advisor to help improve or repair credit scores.
Over time, caring for a loved one can overwhelm a Family, which is extremely detrimental to a Soldier's recovery.
"Family members get burned out," Thomas said, adding that sometimes it might be as simple as the spouse just needing someone to talk to, while other times it might require respite care to provide short-term relief to the overstressed caregiver. "If a Family member isn't doing well, it affects the Soldier."
For Heidi Fuller, whose husband is in Co. B, the Wounded Warrior Project's sponsorship of the monthly WTB Spouses Day Out gives her permission to take a day off.
Besides enjoying the VIP treatment at local spas, sharing her thoughts and feelings with other spouses have provided her with an emotional release because it has validated some of the guilt she was feeling after her husband came home from war a different person.
"When your husband gets home, you think he's going to be normal, but it's not like that," she said. "Then you get angry at yourself and then start feeling guilty about being angry. By sharing your thoughts with the other spouses, you realize you're not the only one feeling that way."