New USO PSA Shows “Portraits” of Real Servicemembers with Invisible Wounds

By Susan Thomas, USO Vice President of Warrior and Family Care, Guest Blogger
Editor’s Note: USO is a member of the AW2 Community Support Network.

Susan Thomas and her husband share their story of dealing with invisible wounds in a new USO public service announcement.

It’s impossible to come back from war, regardless of your exposure to direct combat, and not come back changed. This was not something I widely recognized when my husband, then boyfriend, first deployed to Iraq back in 2003. While he was away, I prayed every night for his return, and return he did, to only deploy again a few months later. He was a communications officer, he would be fine. I kept telling myself that.

He was fine, at least on the outside. Little fights were normal, a lack of focus on our conversation to drift into a memory, that too was normal. Locking the doors, checking the window latches, that became just routine—some would say this hyper-vigilance is just part of serving your nation in the military. As a spouse, you sign up to stand by your servicemember and to support their decision to join the military—whether it was your decision or not. You love your servicemember as a military spouse, boyfriend, girlfriend, parent, or best friend.  What is essential to recognize is that you are not alone, and that by connecting with others who have had similar experiences you can see yourself in them, and through their stories and courage you can yourself heal.

When I joined the USO, as the Vice President of USO Warrior and Family Care, I knew I was becoming part of an amazing organization that would not just develop programs and partnerships, but would help build hope and confidence along the recovery journey for wounded, ill and injured troops, their Families and caregivers. Little did I know when I began this journey, that I would build my own hope and confidence and help my husband to regain his own.

Post traumatic stress has been coined as a signature wound of these conflicts over the last decade, and more and more Families are being impacted. Post-traumatic stress does not impact only an individual; it impacts all their loved ones. Seeking assistance whether it is through formal or informal channels is important. My husband and I realized this was an issue, and because of that, we are in an even better position today. This would not be the case if it weren’t for acknowledging his behavior was not normal, and there is nothing wrong with that acknowledgement.

It is for that reason my husband and I participated in the USO Invisible Wounds PSA campaign entitled “Portraits”.   I encourage you to check out the PSA at preview the videos that offer a more in-depth look into the lives of those living with invisible wounds, as well as caregivers like myself.

Tough Love and the Battle Back Home

By Alan Morales, WTC Stratcom

AW2 Symposium delegate and spouse Crystal Ransom and her husband retired SPC Matthew Ransom with their two children.

It wasn’t until about 30 minutes into my conversation with AW2 Symposium delegate Crystal Ransom that something colorful caught my eye. I turned and noticed neon pink embroidery pop-up off her Army green camouflage purse. I gestured to the purse and asked her, “Does that say what, I think it does?” She grinned, plopped the purse in front of me, and proudly replied, “Yes. U.S. Army Retired Wife.”

Crystal reminded me of that kind of Southern woman who would scold you for not finishing dinner, serve you another helping, and walk out of the room with a smile. She’s a friendly soul, and follows a set of beliefs that are shaped by her life experiences. I realized that of all her challenges, living with her husband’s injuries has tested her the most as a woman, a mother, and an Army wife.

Retired SPC Matthew Ransom, Crystal’s husband, wasn’t injured by an explosion or a training exercise. Like so many of his fellow Soldiers, his injury was silent. It slowly penetrated his mind and body to manifest itself into a behavioral injury that took over his life and his Family’s. Nevertheless, Crystal was not a bystander in her marriage. She could tell the difference in her husband’s personality between his first and second deployment and was not going to let any injury continue harm him—or their Family.

“You have two choices. You either admit you have PTSD, admit you are an alcoholic, and seek help. Or I’ll leave you,” Crystal told Matthew a few years ago.

Her words struck me by surprise at first. In fact, I took a pause after she said it. But when she saw the expression on my face she explained, “Oh don’t you worry, I wasn’t going to divorce him. This is just the way we work. It got him to get the help he needed. And I can prove it. He’s two and a half years sober.”

In addition to Matthew’s post-traumatic stress disorder, he sustained degenerative disc disease (DDD) in his spine as a result of wearing heavy combat medic gear. Because the illness deteriorates the cartilage in his spine, Matthew decreased in height from six foot five to six foot two in a matter of years. To this day, he sleeps upright on his couch at home because laying on his back is too painful.

Nevertheless, Crystal faced her husband’s DDD just like she faced the other obstacles in her life. Head on.

Today, Crystal works hard to make sure that her children grow-up understanding how to accommodate their father’s injuries. From teaching them the consequences of waking “daddy” off the couch too early, to letting them know when he’s trying to get through an episode, Crystal prepares them now to avoid challenges later.

She lives and breathes her role as an Army wife. She married an active duty Soldier, and takes pride in the ability to help other Army wives adapt their marriage to military culture. “I’ve always been an Army wife. I don’t know what it’s like to be a civilian wife,” said Crystal.

Just yesterday, I witnessed her calm another spouse who was taking an emotional break from the AW2 Symposium focus groups. “You’ve got to be bigger than this. It’s about the greater goal. You’ve got to do this for all the other women out there,” Crystal said to the delegate. She proved to me once again how she motivates others to lead them to their own successes.

Crystal is a mover and a shaker. She understands the nuances of what drives people, and more importantly, what drives her Family. In that hallway yesterday, I saw determination in her eyes and saw her inspire another individual to affect change. And she did it all while letting the world know with four neon pink embroidered words who she is—a U.S. Army Retired Wife.


By Diana Hume, AW2 Reserve Spouse

Diana Hume analyzes boundaries in her life to ensure they are adjusted to help her live a better life.

Editor’s Note: Diana Hume is a feature blogger for AW2 and shares her experiences as the wife of a severely wounded reservist. The expressed comments and views of guest bloggers do not reflect the views of WTC or the United States Army.

Boundaries are an interesting topic, especially for wounded warrior Families. As we are well aware, many times war begins because of boundary disputes. Once on the battlefield, warriors do not see boundaries, they do what is necessary in order to survive and protect. However, once war is over and the dust settles, the wounds of war dramatically begin to change our once familiar boundaries.

The pain of war’s wounds so easily takes away the familiar which is not a huge news flash for those who live with them every day. In a blink of an eye, our boundaries begin to morph into something foreign right under our noses. Our world becomes smaller and everyday normal things change and often disappear. As each day begins in this new place, all that is in our thoughts is to get through it, just make it to the next day. The unknown about what life will be the next day is many times fueled by fear and over time, reality sets in and confirms that our new boundaries stopped the healing.

As I write this, I am learning what I need to do with my new foreign boundaries. First, I need to dig inside and hope I uncover anything that reminds me of the freedom without boundaries. What it was like before the pain became part of daily life—life before the wounds. I am realizing that mine were broad, open, and a guide to live, as opposed to what they were after the wounds—concrete road blocks.

I am learning the importance of understanding how I decide to redefine and re-open my boundaries. I am beginning to accept that this is necessary and is what I need to help me grow and heal. My priorities are to do all that is in my power to help my Family thrive. There are no excuses to stop living because the new boundaries slowly become comfortable or—to state bluntly—become a protective shell. Unfortunately, when I look in the mirror my shell is very visible, but I am beginning to believe that it will be broken with hope and trust.

We seem to think that boundaries define us. I disagree. I am learning that they can guide us, strengthen us and give us hope. Our boundaries can be molded like clay as we grow and become more of an expression of ourselves and not a blunt definition. Remember, it is o.k. to continuously re-evaluate or even erase some of your defined personal boundaries. I found that when you do, you are suddenly out of your comfort zone and you push yourself to improve and heal. It is an awakening when you accept that boundaries from war do not always protect, but hinder us from living.

It all goes back to choice. As a wounded warrior spouse it took me a lot of time to realize that I need to evaluate my boundaries every single day. Taking time for just me is good because it allows me to breathe. So, I encourage spouses and caregivers to take the time to write down what your boundaries are as you see them today. Think about what you just put on paper and how they were created. Are they closed, hard, or comfortable? Do you think they will protect you from hurting again? Were they created for you or by you? Do they allow you to live or just survive? Are any of them inclusive of a something you admire in yourself? If any of them keep you afraid to live and feel again, it is time to find the strength to soften them so you can breathe, feel, and take care of yourself. Remember, you are worth it!


Helping Hollywood Tell the Wounded Warrior Story

By Kathreyn Harris, AW2 Advocate and Spouse

AW2 Advocate Kathreyn Harris and her husband, AW2 Veteran Shilo Harris at the Joining Forces panel discussion in Los Angeles, CA.

Editor’s Note: AW2 Advocate Kathreyn Harris and her husband, AW2 Veteran Shilo Harris participated in a panel discussion as part of first lady Michelle Obama’s Joining Forces campaign to inform the Hollywood community on ways it can help communicate to US citizens the experiences of military Families during and after war.

I never thought my voice would represent so many amazing people. I have the opportunity daily to help on a one-on-one basis. This trip to Los Angeles for the first lady’s Joining Forces campaign event, however, gave my husband Shilo and me a chance to show our country what our wounded warrior population is made of.

We brought awareness to a larger population. We, as Families of wounded warriors, experienced the stares and snickers. Hopefully by talking to members from the Hollywood guilds we were able to open the door to awareness about what we went through.

We talked about the firsthand adversity we face and how we overcome it. We talked about many of our friends that face these challenges as well. We shared some of our personal experiences—and explained how they are not always pretty, but are necessary. We spoke about the heartache that the public seldom sees.

We talked about our children and how they had to grow up. One of the speakers spoke about how there are so many kids in our country that have no idea what their freedom costs another child. I could see as we talked about our kids and their pain, how so many people in the audience could never dream of it.

The fact that so many Families are ripped apart emotionally is something few know about. These Families may still live in the same home and carry on day to day, but they are separated because of so many reasons. This is something we as wounded warrior Families know about—maybe not firsthand, but through a friend.

With the help of the Joining Forces campaign, I hope the appreciation and awareness we feel in the city of San Antonio, will be felt throughout the nation. I know the Hollywood guilds will be able to bring this awareness into the homes of so many who might not otherwise ever gain an understanding. I also know I talked about the heartbreak and heartache, but that there are so many stories of excitement and happiness to share also.

There is amazing strength and resilience that not only the warriors express, but their spouses and children as well. Our stories need to be told, so that others will know why they are able to carry on with their lives without interruption.


Giving a Voice to Post-Traumatic Stress on Capitol Hill

By Gina Hill, AW2 Spouse

Vice Chief of Staff of the Army GEN Peter Chiarelli and AW2 spouse Gina Hill speak to Capitol Hill on the behavioral health needs facing the military community

The last time I boarded a plane to Washington, DC, I was alone, scared, and on my way to see my husband who’d been medevaced out of his second deployment in Iraq. I was on my way to Walter Reed. All of that came flooding back yesterday as I made that trip again—it was my own unexpected emotional flashback. This time, however, I was returning with a greater understanding and a clear purpose: to take a stand on behalf of my husband, retired SSG Allen Hill, and the thousands of other Veterans and Army Families who struggle daily with PTSD. I was going to brief Capitol Hill at the Mental Illness Awareness Caucus.

As I looked at the panel, I was a bit overwhelmed. COL Gregory Gadson, AW2’s Director, spoke about his struggle with PTSD and TBI and how his Family got individual and Family counseling. SGM Robert Gallagher of AW2 spoke about his “wounds above the shoulders” and about his realization that there was no silver bullet to fix his brain injury—that he just had to learn and apply the tools that were provided and work in partnership with his medical providers. Army wife, Sherri Hall, told of the night she looked at her husband and said, “I might clean up your beer bottle in the front yard as you cope, but I’ll be dammed if I’m going to clean up your brains off the wall—I will not tell our kids you didn’t take advantage of the help that was available for PTSD” and how he now trains resiliency at Ft. Riley to help other Soldiers.

And then, next to me, sat the Vice Chief of Staff of the Army GEN Peter Chiarelli. I was excited and a bit surprised by his passion for and candor about PTS and TBI injuries. He pointed out that, “The science of the brain is not as advanced as the rest of the body and we need to learn as much about the brain as we do the rest of the mechanical issues.” He stated we needed a larger discussion in society about mental illness and we all need to take on the stigmas that surround it in a larger conversation, adding, “I believe it’s a national crisis.” He talked about new technology such as tele-behavioral health medicine and the TBI bio-marker and stated, “we’ve done a lot for PTS, but we’re not where we need to be.” He urged everyone to help with expanding the science of the brain and reducing the stigmas connected to those with mental illness. It meant a lot to me that he got it, I mean really got it.

I don’t share our story publically for sympathy. I share it because it’s my way to ensure people better understand that PTSD is real and to reduce the stigma associated with it. Many people fear what they do not understand. The more we know, the more we understand, the more we can help. Allen is a hard worker, a patriot, a Veteran, a father, a husband—and should not be defined or limited by his mental illness. My older son Makale bluntly put it in a blog this way, “Just because he is different now than before—he’s not crazy!”

Allen and I know that if we want things to change, we have to lead it. We hope that by sharing our personal struggles and accomplishments, we will shed some light on things that need fixed and share the blessings we have received that others may not know about. And more importantly, we can hopefully make things better for those that will follow.

As my 8 year old son said last summer at an Army event, “My dad fought in the war to save the world,” and to that I add, it’s our turn to fight for him and the thousands like him with various mental illnesses.

While the majority of his physical, or visible, wounds have healed, our Family still struggles daily with the psychological wounds. Often times, these are called the invisible wounds, but I have a hard time calling them that, for they are very visible to anyone who spends any amount of time with him.

These psychological wounds greatly affect not only the Soldier, but the entire Family. My husband’s triggers are now triggers for myself as well as our 2 children Dreyson who is 8 and Makale who is 14. In the rare times we are away from my husband, we are constantly on high alert for his triggers. It is next to impossible for us to turn that off.

The impact of my husband’s PTSD on our Family was immediate. When we left Walter Reed, Dreyson was 4 and in pre-school. We’d been home a couple of months and it was one of our first trips to the VA and Dreyson joined us. Allen, my husband and a retried Staff Sergeant, has problems in new locations and especially long hallways. A few steps into the VA, my 4 year-old son saw the physical changes in Allen, grabbed his hand, and began to lead him down the hallway saying, “don’t worry dad – he’s just a doctor, don’t worry dad – that’s just a door slamming.” I cannot hide my husband’s illness. I don’t have to explain it – my children live it every day. Since the age of 4 my son has been a caregiver to his father. In an AW2 blog, my son offered this advice to other kids of wounded Soldiers, “If your dad or mom has flashbacks, do not be afraid. It will be okay.”

My children are caregivers first, and kids second. They are well rehearsed in PTSD, calling 9-1-1, and explaining why their dad has a service dog, why he isn’t at many of their events, and why he sometimes acts really weird. They also have to understand that plans are NEVER set in stone and are always contingent on their dad’s current mental state. Even things they have their heart set on, sometimes doesn’t happen when they expect or want it to. Any friends they want to have over to our house also have to know the deal with their dad and that sometimes things quickly get very chaotic at our house. They never really know what to expect next and have to be very flexible with their needs and desires. These aren’t things most kids have to worry about.

When people thank my husband for his service, I just wish they’d stop and recognize the sacrifice of our children. They have given a lot. They served, and continue to, every day.

Although I used to teach full time, I now am a full-time caregiver for my husband. One of our biggest fears is that my Soldier will not be considered “injured” enough to qualify for the benefits of the newly passed “caregiver’s bill.” While my husband is physically capable of dressing, transferring, toileting, and bathing independently, he still requires supervision and reminders to perform these daily tasks. Without these reminders and assistance, most of these tasks are left undone. Due to the severity of his dissociations, my husband is unable to drive or to be left alone. Even within our own home there are many external, environmental triggers that can send him running to the middle of the street completely unresponsive to anything outside of his head, or ducked in a corner taking cover for hours. Many, many of these instances have ended with me having to call 9-1-1 for assistance, 15 times in a span of two years to be exact. Yet, he is not injured severely enough to qualify for much of the assistance available to the more physically injured warriors. We do not qualify for housing assistance that would allow us to move away from the rock quarry a mile from our house that blasts everyday and makes him think there are incoming mortars or the railroad tracks 100 meters from our house that cause a lot of loud noise and vibrations that he interprets as some type of danger. Recently, we got a contract on our house – and while I’m excited to find a new home that offers less triggers and turbulence for my Family, we are unsure where we’ll go. We simply put our faith in God and that He’ll provide. Currently, we also do not qualify for any type of respite care that would allow me to leave the house for errands or a job. All of these things we get denied for because they can’t see his wounds and this just fuels his PTSD and the depression and self harm feelings that go along with it.

Time and time again, we have come to realize that the whole system doesn’t know what to do with these guys. I’ve been told by someone in the system who is there to “help” that most Soldiers with PTSD like my husband’s just end up in jail, homeless, or dead. This is not an acceptable attitude.

Last summer, my husband attempted suicide. We went to the Kansas City VA, where he was admitted for a week. They directed us to the Topeka VA which has a PTSD program. Tricare would not cover this treatment because it’s the VA’s responsibility. As I was sorting out the paperwork, and how to get my husband into a local program, each day he struggled to hold it together saying, “I don’t think I can handle another day.” Each day, I feared for his life. He needed help. He wanted help. He sought help. But, he was denied help.

Finally, on my own, I found an inpatient treatment facility called The Pathway Home in California. We flew across the country in September to admit him. He’s been there now for 7 months, and recently graduated from the PTSD program but will remain there until we get settled into a new home. They are also still trying to figure out if he has been completely diagnosed and are searching for somewhere that can accurately diagnose everything that is going on with him. Three and a half years post injury, there are still many unknowns regarding my husband’s injuries.

Struggles I face specifically as a spouse of a warrior suffering with PTSD are many. It is difficult watching the person you love fighting to get back to the person they were before war because they do remember what they used to be like, they just can’t figure out how to get back to that person. We have worked very hard to focus on the best he can be now, not who he was. Every part of him is different and when I say every, I mean every. With that being said, it is extremely difficult being married to someone who is completely different than when you married him. There are times that I see glimpses of the man I married, but they are few and far between. I’m not sure whether these glimpses are a blessing or a curse!

Returning to DC this week has been amazing. My memories of fear and helplessness have been replaced with empowerment and advocacy. My uncertainty replaced with a purpose – to educate others about post-traumatic stress through an open dialogue. If you want to join me (and the Vice) in the conversation and affect change come chat at The Invisible Wounded Blog.

A Wounded Warrior’s Pixie Dust

By Emily Oehler, WTC Stratcom

Throughout my life there have been key people, that when I met them, I knew it was something special. I’m not talking about celebrities or those with political power. I’m talking about someone who centers you, makes you realize there are greater things in this life, and makes you a better person for knowing them.  Really special people. When I have met these rare people, I was instantly struck to my core—an indelible mark I would forever carry. I would say it was like a lightening strike, but for me, it’s been more like a feeling of being sprinkled with the joy of pixie dust. Magical.

Two years ago I met one such person and his wife—they both gave me a dash of pixie dust—retired SSG Shilo and Kathreyn Harris. On the flight home after meeting them at a work conference, I wrote Shilo and told him he was one of the most beautiful people I had met and that his strength, humor, compassion, and faith were inspiring. Since meeting the Harrises, I’ve had the honor of interviewing them a few times for work with the Warrior Transition Command (WTC) and the Army Wounded Warrior Program (AW2).  During my last visit, they each sat down with me for separate three hour interviews to share the nooks and crannies of their life since Shilo was severely injured in Iraq. They shared their story in hopes of helping others cope with similar life-changing events. The newly finished 30-minute video is a compelling look at service, marriage, compassion, fortitude, faith, loss, hope and love. 

Warriors in Transition:  A Story of Resiliency demonstrates true strength of character:   

  • On February, 19, 2007, during his second deployment to Iraq, the vehicle SSG Harris was traveling in was struck by an improvised explosive device (IED), killing three Soldiers, wounding the driver, and leaving SSG Harris with third degree burns on 35% of his body. Due to the severity of his burns, SSG Harris lost his ears, tip of his nose, three fingers, and he sustained fractures to his left collar bone and C-7 vertebrae. Shilo told me, “You know when I’m talking to Soldiers I try to tell them you have to look at everything that God gives you as a gift. It may not always be the gift that you want, but you have to take what you get sometimes and turn it into something else. And that’s kind of what I’ve done.” Since retiring, Shilo has become an Outreach Coordinator for the Wounded Warrior Project. 
  • So that Shilo could recover at home, Kathreyn became his primary caregiver spending up to six hours a day on his wound care.  Additionally, she was mom to their daughter and stepmom to his three sons (and now a newborn baby!).  During his recovery, she became an Advocate for the Army Wounded Warrior Program (AW2) to support other wounded warriors at Brooke Army Medical Center.  Kathreyn shared with me that, “The situation that we’ve been put in, it would have been just as easy to let it guide our life into a negative  and into turmoil—and all the negative things that you can imagine but we’ve taken what happened to Shilo and we’ve turned it into a very positive thing.”

I don’t want to share too much and spoil watching the video, but I do hope you take time to watch them share their story—it’s not unlike many of the stories I’ve heard over the past four years shared by some of the 8,000 severely wounded Soldiers and Veterans I have had the honor of meeting. The Harrises’ story will feed your soul, inspire your heart, and captivate your mind. 

And, watch out for their pixie dust!

AW2 Veterans and Families Soldier on While Helping Those That Follow

By Tania Meireles, WTC Stratcom

I felt like a nervous kid who was about to meet a room full of celebrities. For me, AW2 Soldiers, Veterans, and their Families are celebrated people—they are my heroes. I see their pictures and hear their stories and when I have an opportunity to meet them in person—it is a rare and unforgettable privilege.

Last week eight AW2 Veterans and Family members, who participated in the 2010 AW2 Symposium , participated in the Army Family Action Plan (AFAP) Worldwide Conference. At the AFAP Worldwide Conference, delegates voted on issues presented at previous conferences to be selected for presentation to Army leadership.

Matthew Staton

To my left was Matthew Staton, AW2 Veteran and direct advisor and staff assistant to the Secretary of the Army on wounded Soldier matters. Staton has learned to capitalize on assistive technology—such as smartphones—to keep organized and combat memory issues. He advocates for the Department of Defense Computer/Electronic Accommodations Program, or CAP, that provides technologies to assist those with disabilities throughout the Defense Department and other federal agencies. He is optimistic about an upcoming surgery to alleviate some pain he is experiencing. “It will improve my quality of life,” he said. “Even though I won’t be too mobile for a while, I have the capabilities to work and be productive from home.”  

James Howard and Anne Hall

James Howard and his wife Anne Hall believe the AW2 Symposium and AFAP conference have a good process to focus on topicsand be productive. “I loved the AW2 Symposium,” said Hall. “I am proud of the AW2 issues and it is rewarding to see the AFAP process firsthand.” They have been extremely busy volunteering with several organizations that support Soldiers, Veterans, and Families. “We’ve been seeking out Veterans in our area to mentor too,” said Howard. “Helping others is very rewarding.” 

Delano and Melissa Smith, who are notorious for their amazing clothes, were dressed to the nines and with personalities even more remarkable. “I am a passionate person,” he said about participating in AFAP. “I put myself in the shoes of the Soldiers coming behind us.” His wife agreed, “We want to make it easier for the next ones,” she said. They are “settling into life” post injury. He is currently

Delano and Melissa Smith

attending college courses and said it was an “uphill but rewarding battle” because of his memory issues. At the AW2 Symposium last year, they met an AW2 Family with a service dog who helps the AW2 Soldier with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They are currently working with an organization to receive a service dog of their own and are very excited about this new member of their Family.

The Smiths gave me a big hug before they went back to their focus group discussions, and I was honored to spend a few minutes speaking to the delegates and sharing in their strength.

To learn more about the AFAP conference, visit the WTC Blog.

Ready for Christmas

By Kathreyn Harris, AW2 Spouse

For Kathreyn Harris, her Family (pictured here) is the joy of the season.

As we come to Christmas, I wonder if I will be able to get all of my shopping done. You know the drill—everyone asks are you ready for Christmas and like most people who have not finished shopping yet, I say “No, I still have a few things to finish.” (If you know me—even a little—you probably know I am the world’s best at procrastination!) I was thinking about the statement “No, I still have a few things to finish.”

It really bothered me that I thought I was not ready for Christmas. It is true that I have not completed any of my shopping—food or gifts, but that’s not the big part. I am ready for Christmas—I have my Family. I have my husband Shilo, with all the scars and things that are forever changed, I have him. I have our two beautiful children—Elizabeth and Glen. Those two people are Shilo and I melted together—both are the best and worst parts of us. I have Shilo’s boys—all three of them and a daughter-in-law. The list could go on and on of the Family that I have.

I also have several really close friends that are like Family and I know I can count on them for anything as well as a long list of very good friends. Shilo and I are blessed to have friends all over the world. That is something the military gave us. We have had so many wonderful experiences with the military, both while he was active duty and after he was injured. I know everyone says the Christmas season is a time of joy and wonder and I sometimes think this concept is misunderstood.

As we decorated our tree last night for the first time with Shilo’s two youngest boys, I looked at the joy and wonder in my husband’s eyes. As we decorated pine cones to put on the mantel piece I saw the excitement in the eyes of the ones I hold most dear. At that time I realized that I am ready for Christmas because I have so many people to be thankful for in my life.

I hope everyone has a wonderful holiday—don’t let the glitz of the season take away from what it is all about. Sit back and look at everything around you—clear your head. You will be able to see something you never noticed before, or at least I did.

Merry Christmas and may 2011 be an awesome year for everyone!

A Blessing in EMMA®

By Regina Hill, AW2 spouse

AW2 Family the Hills, pictured here during the 2009 AW2 Symposium, believe EMMA® is a blessing in managing prescriptions.

I am the wife of a severely injured Soldier. We began this journey on November 21, 2007, when my husband’s truck was hit by an improvised explosive device (IED). I often talk about blessings we have received since his injury. Trust me, we have received plenty. I am so thankful to be able to see the good in such a time of turmoil and tragedy. Some days it is difficult, but most of the time, the good shines brightly on our lives.

One of the blessings we received came in the form of a machine called EMMA®. EMMA® is an Electronic Medication Management Assistant, lovingly referred to in our house as the pill automated teller machine (ATM). EMMA® helps my husband, Allen, manage his medications independently and safely. We have two of these units which each hold 10 medications. They sit on our kitchen counter and do an incredible job!

EMMA® is amazing. “She” does so many things and can really be individualized for each patient. Allen takes medications four times a day and she can be programmed for up to five times a day. When it is time for him to take his meds, an alarm sounds. He then enters a code on the machine’s touch screen. The machine then drops the medications that are due at that time. It gives him a little bit of time to take his meds, then alerts again for him to confirm that he has taken them. (This is very helpful in that he can’t walk away and forget them.) If he forgets to take his meds or happens to be outside and misses them, I get a phone call on my cell phone. EMMA® calls me as the caregiver to tell me that my spouse has not taken his medications.

Another great feature of EMMA® is a vacation drop. If we are going to be out of town for a few days, or a single day, we can do a vacation drop. We enter the day we are leaving and the day we are returning. EMMA® then drops each dose scheduled for those days individually and tells me to put each dose in a zip-close bag and label it. It then continues for each dose for the length of our vacation. Later, when we are away, EMMA® calls my cell phone when it is time for Allen to take his medications, just like the alarm does when we are at home.

There are also capabilities for doing a single drop and those for as needed medications. It will not let medications be dropped too close together. For example, Allen takes medications for migraines on an as needed basis. If he can take them every six hours, it will not let any drop before the six hour time frame has passed. It will tell you on the screen the next drop time available.

EMMA® is set up with a monitoring system, much like that of a home security system. That is how this all works. EMMA® communicates regularly, through wireless Internet or cell phones. Because of this monitoring, medical professionals can see many things about their patient. The doctor can make medication changes remotely and also check on the patient’s compliance with taking their medications. The possibilities are really endless with what can be done with this wonderful machine.

As a full time caregiver, EMMA® definitely makes my life easier as well. Before receiving EMMA® last February, medication management was my job. Allen takes 17 different meds and I was responsible for dispensing them all. It was quite a job and took a lot of time each day. If I was going to be gone, I had a huge task in making sure whoever was going to fill in for me and knew exactly what to do in regards to the meds. This usually was my mom or sister and it put a lot of added stress and responsibility on them. EMMA® takes all of this away. She does this part of the caretaking for me. It is a huge relief when I am away to know that Allen’s meds are all safely administered.

On a personal note, EMMA® actually saved my husband’s life. A few months ago, Allen unloaded a card of pills and took most of them, and then put the card back in. (We have now set the machine so that he does not have the codes to load/unload the machine so this can’t happen again.) I knew something was wrong but wasn’t sure what. I called EMMA® support to check everything out and they could tell me everything that had been done to the machine. They were able to tell me he had taken out a card, at what time, how many were in it when he took it out, and how many were in it when he put it back in. Without EMMA®, I would have had no idea what was wrong for who knows how long. Instead, I was able to get him to the ER for medical treatment. Everything worked out, but I am glad I did not have to see what would have happened without EMMA®.

Editor’s Note: EMMA® is an Electronic Medication Management Assistant especially for outpatients suffering from cognitive impairments such as traumatic brain injury (TBI), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and those patients needing assistance with poly-pharmacy drug therapy (4 or more medications) or with a history of non-adherence. EMMA is a piece of durable medical equipment (DME) and a TRICARE benefit for all active duty servicemembers that is prescribed by the physician. This system is being used at several Warrior Transition Units and multiple Community Based Warrior Transition Units. It is remotely programmed by the TRICARE pharmacy, insuring that the patient’s medications are delivered according to the physician’s prescribed dosing instructions. It holds up to 10 medication administration cartridges (can be added with an additional EMMA unit to hold up to and deliver twenty medications, uses a standard 115 volt home outlet, and requires no programming by the patient or caregiver. It helps manage medications and provides reminders. To learn more about EMMA® go to or

The appearance of external hyperlinks does not constitute endorsement by the United States Department of Defense of the linked Web sites or the information, products, or services contained therein. For other than authorized activities such as military exchanges and Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) sites, the United States Department of Defense does not exercise any editorial control over the information you may find at these locations.

The expressed comments and views of guest bloggers do not reflect the views of WTC or the United States Army.

Navigation 101: Surviving the Impossible

By Diana Hume, AW2 Reserve Spouse

Through hard work and preserverance, Diana Hume was able to find answers to her questions about her husband's treatment and recovery

Editor’s Note: Diana Hume is a feature blogger for AW2. She’ll be sharing her experiences as the wife of a severely wounded reservist.

Surviving what seems to be the impossible is possible. We may not realize it, but spouses have been preparing for overcoming the impossible all along. Because of our Soldier’s absence, our strength grows over time. However, after we receive the call that our Soldier has been injured, we experience the fall out where, at least for me, the fog of loneliness I constantly pushed aside rolled in full force. I had to figure out how to manage the home front while simultaneously caring for my Soldier. 

As a result of my Soldier‘s med-evac out of Iraq, he was closer to home and just 1,224 miles away from Texas. He was at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Also, keep in mind that this was back in April 2007, when many Soldiers were sent to Walter Reed to be treated, resulting in an over-flow of wounded warriors at the medical center. It was a time when the Army was working hard to hire more medical staff and develop new programs to handle the influx. 

I found myself alone navigating the path of finding our new normal. Daily, I called anyone at Walter Reed trying to find answers, but found little support, particularly since I was so far away. The distance and disconnect was a big change for me–and continues to be for a lot of reserve spouses. To put it bluntly, it stunk. The internet quickly became my best friend and I spent hours researching all I could to learn more about Walter Reed and the experience upon which we were about to embark.

I am confident resources are abundant, just hard to find. During this time, I prayed for some group or network to appear, but that prayer wasn’t fully answered–yet. I found that in order to be the warrior my Soldier needed, I had to make my voice be heard. So, I came up with tools to help me survive my impossible ordeal. One cherished tool was my little black book. It was in this small notebook where I would write down every name, phone number, location, unit, title or any other relevant information. In hindsight, I should have put it on a lanyard around my neck, but instead I carried it in my purse. At night, I placed it by my bed just in case a midnight thought needed to be captured.

It wasn’t until two months later in late June 2007 that I first visited my Soldier at Walter Reed. Yes, I know what you are thinking; the time it took to even just visit my Soldier was too long. The system did not see the sense of urgency because of his invisible wounds. However, once I got there it was an impressionable visit. Nevertheless, it was also a visit where my thoughts became even more complicated. Again, so many acronyms and programs, but nothing seemed to fit together. Just when I thought I had answers, 15 more questions would rear their heads!  At night, my tears got the best of me, sometimes all of me.

When tears finally dried, some clarity came. I could see a few noted valuable resources in my black book: The Soldier and Family Assistance Center, the chaplain, the Red Cross, the VA, and local charities such as the Yellow Ribbon Fund and, in Dallas, Operation Healthy Reunions. However, keep in mind that these programs and charity organizations differ by military treatment facility (MTF), so for all those who are going through their own period of transition, search for them on a local level.  Keep looking both locally and nationally for organizations and programs that meet your needs. 

I found that when I was physically at Walter Reed, things were different. It was only after I made my infrequent visits to be with my healing Soldier, that I became visible to the Army. Because of this visibility, I got help and answers to my growing list of questions. However, that did not hold true once I returned to take care of my home front. The old cliché, out of sight and out of mind became a mainstay. Remember, my Soldier was able bodied, his major injury being PTSD, so the Army assumed–without consulting me–that he was fully functional and able to manage his own care. Those who live with PTSD know that this is not the case and it is so far from reality.

Things I thought would happen and that I later asked for, such as reintegration counseling for our Family and marriage, were not being offered.  Even those at Walter Reed didn’t seem to understand the challenges reserve spouses often face. It was always assumed we were active duty and that we had access to active duty programs. This was one of the most frustrating challenges I had to navigate. 

As a result, I had to find help within my local community. However, this can be its own challenge. In a civilian environment it’s tough to find a specialist that understands the challenges faced by reserve spouses and Families who are adjusting to injuries and our new normal. I spent my time at home working to find a connection on my local level and within the Army so that our Family would be included in the healing process. 

One of these connections appeared near the end of our recovery at Walter Reed. This connection was, Robert Lipp, our Army Wounded Warrior Program (AW2) Advocate. Upon meeting him, I asked him, “Where have you been the last two years of my life?” It was a bitter sweet meeting for me. At Walter Reed, my Soldier didn’t qualify for the program because his injuries were invisible and we had no concrete initial rating. After the MEB (medical board evaluation), we were able to qualify to be part of AW2. Ever since, I have seen the amazing support the Army and AW2 provide and how they can improve the lives of wounded warriors and their families.  

I believe that the impossible just means our focus needs to be ever-changing while we journey on our new path. We are now the warrior demonstrating strength, character, loyalty, and determination so we can defeat whatever crosses our path. Our medal will not come in the form of something tangible, but rather something deeper; a pride knowing you have withstood a moment in time that seemed impossible to overcome.

Most of you who are reading this may be aware of the AW2 program. However, we can still be lost during deployments and the early stages of our wounded warriors’ healing. I have searched for groups who specifically support spouses of our Army Reserve and National Guard Soldiers.  Unfortunately, my findings are slim.   

Too many of us are falling through the cracks, but it is important that we never stop fighting. We, as reserve spouses, are full of experiences and stories of survival. Active duty wives have a strong network, so I ask that we work to build our own support network for reserve spouses so that together, we can navigate our impossibilities. This network could possibly be the best gift we can give to each other. Let’s keep sharing our stories. 

We can start today by commenting on AW2’s blog and sharing the helpful organization you’ve found. Start making your voice be heard. We owe it to ourselves, our Families, and our Soldiers.

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