By Kristin Molinaro, The BayonetAugust 13, 2009
FORT BENNING GA - Five months ago, SGT Mathew Harvey couldn't walk, let alone drive. But today, he can go for a walk or take his car for a spin with the same ease he enjoyed years ago, before the repeated injuries in Iraq took their toll on his back and left him with painful, herniated discs.
"When (the discs) popped, I table-topped. I couldn't stand up straight and I was dragging my left leg because it was almost paralyzed," Harvey recalled.
Harvey's difficult journey back from a wheelchair took 18 months and several major back surgeries.
"It's not easy to get back on your feet," said the Infantryman.
Regaining his driver's license in April was a pivotal moment in Harvey's road to recovery, as it now meant he had the strength and balance to once again operate a vehicle. And though Harvey said he prepared himself for returning to the road, he hopes to take advantage of the medical driving evaluation and simulator at Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation in Warm Springs, Ga., to further develop his skills.
U.S. Congressman Ike Skelton said he hopes to see a partnership develop between the institute and Fort Benning's Warrior Transition Battalion to help more troops.
Skelton, chairman of the Armed Services committee and author of the Wounded Warrior Transition Act of 2007, spoke of the importance of helping wounded military service members at a dedication held in his honor Aug. 3 at the institute where he used to be a patient in the late 1940's after contracting polio his first year at West Point.
"I finished here as a full time patient this month 61 years ago," Skelton said. "Everybody has defining moments. The defining moment in my life was the Warm Springs experience. Coming here as a patient from the St. Luke's hospital in Kansas City, I was bewildered, unhappy, uncooperative but I was able to dispel all of that and receive the finest polio treatment in the world."
Addressing U.S. Congressman Lynn Westmoreland, U.S. Congressman Dr. Phil Gingrey, and approximately two dozen federal, state, local and military VIPs in attendance, Skelton said the rehabilitation institute in Warm Springs has a lot to offer wounded warriors.
"No one left (Warm Springs) feeling sorry for himself or herself. There was a spirit here that was indescribable and it caused us to leave with a can-do attitude," said Skelton of his experience. "My initial hope and prayer is that those who come through the doors of Warm Springs today will leave here with the same attitude or spirit that we enjoyed. It is a wonderful institution."
Skelton said WTBs must continue to work toward finding new ways to help wounded service members and hoped Fort Benning would be able to expand their efforts to include the institute.
The rehabilitation center is a state-run facility that accepts Tricare referrals for Soldiers needing treatment, said LTC Sean Mulcahey, commander of the WTB, who attended the dedication.
The center offers Soldiers vocational training and medical driving evaluations, and is one of only a few places in the area with a driving simulator to help gauge a person's ability to operate a vehicle, he said.
Despite the distance from Fort Benning, approximately 60 miles to the north, the institute is enticing to the WTB because of its relaxing environment, said Jarnetta Fowler, occupational therapist for the WTB.
Out of the nearly 360 Soldiers in the WTB, the WTB commander said so far only a handful have taken advantage of services offered at the facility.
A partnership with the institute is one of many ideas Fort Benning's WTB is exploring to increase its level of care to troops, Mulcahey said.
As WTBs Armywide continue to raise the bar in wounded warrior care, BG Gary Cheek, the assistant surgeon general of warrior care and transition and a guest speaker at the event, said Fort Benning's WTB commander is leading the way.
"Mulcahey is leading the Army in developing a comprehensive transition plan," he said.
The transition plan will be automated and standardized across the Army so WTB Soldiers can easily track their progress, set goals for their treatment and transition, and take that plan with them if they transfer to another WTB, Cheek said.
"We are very excited about that. We want to change the paradigm and get Soldiers away from that culture that thinks about what's wrong, and (instead) think about what's right. Focus on their abilities, not their disabilities," Cheek said. "We would welcome the opportunity to bring our Soldiers to Warm Springs and help them focus ... on their abilities to make them better, stronger and to have a rich, rewarding future."
Skelton said key leaders including Westmoreland and Gingrey are working to help the partnership become possible.
"I think there is a good chance for (a partnership)," Skelton said. "If you've been to Walter Reed, and visited the troops that are wounded, you want the best for them and you also want the best for their families."
For Harvey, something as simple as driving has lifted his spirits and he hopes that others in his shoes will be able to take advantage of a future partnership that would help them regain their independence.
"My attitude changed so much when I could drive again. It gave me my independence back," he said.