By Kirstin Grace-Simons (Madigan Army Medical Center)July 17, 2019
MADIGAN ARMY MEDICAL CENTER, Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash. -- When illness and injury strike a loved one, there is nothing like having a personal champion through the challenges that arise. That is the role Master Sgt. Jimmie Overstreet plays for families whose active duty service member needs to take advantage of the Department of Veterans Affairs Polytrauma System of Care.
Take Spc. Aukuso Kiliona Atanoa Jr., for example. When he got sick during his deployment to Afghanistan in 2017, his doctor performed a scan and found a mass in his brain. He was sent to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., for surgery. Then, on to the VA in Palo Alto, Calif., for rehabilitation.
Atanoa and his father, who is now his main caregiver, were flown by medevac, but his stepmother and sister arrived at Moffett Federal Airfield just southeast of Palo Alto by commercial air. That's where they met their liaison.
"Overstreet was there with everybody, all the gang, to pick us up," said stepmom Hana Atanoa of that first meeting.
"We try to show a united front because if they see someone in uniform, the family feels comfortable, the patient feels comfortable," said Overstreet of the practice he and his cohorts in the other service branches maintain of meeting families at the airfield.
As the care team at the VA began their evaluations and treatment with her son, Atanoa leaned on and learned from Overstreet.
"Overstreet was so wonderful. He took us to our hotel and got us settled in; then he picked us up the next morning to go to the hospital to be with my son," she said.
The family was instantly dealing with a variety of systems and programs that were completely new to them. From the VA to the Army to the mainland United States, they needed a guide on many fronts.
The VA PSC partners with the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center to meet a congressional mandate for collaboration between the Department of Defense and VA to provide treatment, rehabilitation and long-term care to service members and veterans with traumatic brain injury and trauma to multiple organs.
The PSC's network embraces all service branches and veterans with care in five intensive rehabilitation centers, 23 long-term rehab facilities and a multitude of programs to provide wraparound care across the country.
"It's so tremendous what the military and the VA offers to the family," said Atanoa. Overstreet shined a light on the benefits, resources and programs available to the family through a range of VA, military and charitable options. These included a van equipped for a wheelchair and a non-medical attendant stipend for the caregiver.
Just passing 30 years in uniform as a Reservist with about 10 of those on active duty assignments, to include a deployment to Iraq, Overstreet is a Madigan asset. He works closely with the Warrior Transition Battalion and its Community Care Unit as his patients step down from the VA inpatient facility and either return to duty or process out of the military, based on their healthcare condition.
His office is at the Palo Alto VA, but he does most of his work wherever his patients and their families are or need to be, making extensive use of his VA van and his cell phone.
In his civilian life, he's been a middle school teacher for the last 17 years in New York City. "If you can survive middle school, you've got to be good with people," he said. Everywhere he goes -- this position or his civilian life -- he's dealing with people who are going through some real changes. "You have to have a lot of compassion," he said.
His sincere concern for his patients is readily apparent when he speaks of Spc. Atanoa's words to him before leaving the Palo Alto facility for a home in the area and continued outpatient therapy through a community care unit. After an extended period of unconsciousness, Overstreet was excited to walk into Atanoa's room to see him sitting up and talking.
Overstreet recalled, "He kept saying, 'Thank you, sergeant; thank you, sergeant! I could see what you were doing, but I just want to say thank you for taking care of my family. Every time you came in that room, I just saw how they lit up.'"
Overstreet has assisted the family with all manner of paperwork and logistics to include helping them get paperwork started to help the dad gain U.S. citizenship.
His goal is to ensure that he leaves a positive impression.
"I want to make sure that everyone who leaves there has a good word about the Army," he said.
The response from those he's helped makes it clear he's surpassing that aspiration.
"I think we wouldn't be where we're at now without his help," said Atanoa.