Learning, Understanding, and New Friends Through the AW2 Symposium Experience

By Victoria Nail, AW2 Teenager

Operation Purple® camp teenagers participated in their own AW2 Symposium focus group on Army issues affecting them.

Hello everyone, my name is Victoria Nail, and I was blessed to be a part of Operation Purple® camp during the 2011 AW2 Symposium. During the week, we participated in a variety of activities to not only enjoy, but to help us build trust, respect, and communications skills throughout our Families and each other.

We went tubing, rock climbing, zip lining, and were able to go to Universal Orlando® Resort. This experience has been fantastic. Making friends that I can relate to, I learned to communicate with not only my parents and Family, but with people who don’t quite understand what being an Army Brat means.

I am able to understand more about my father, who has post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD, and also was injured in Iraq. I feel like communicating with my father is going to be a lot easier now that I understand why he can and can’t do certain things.

I am also able to understand more about my mother, who I am so much like, that I sometimes don’t get along with her. Along with my siblings, who without, I wouldn’t be able to make it through the day.

I will never forget the amazing staff, volunteers, the yummy breakfast and lunches, or the bug bites from Camp Wewa.

Talking with other teens that have been in the same position, or gone through the same things I have, has been wonderful. Keeping in touch with my new friends is going to be fun. I hope that they feel like they can come to me with any Family related issues. I now have a support system of friends that I have never had before.

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.

S-O-L-D-I-E-R-S. Soldiers We Are.

By Alan Morales, WTC Stratcom

AW2 kids participated in Operation Purple® during the 2011 AW2 Symposium.

Last night, 37 AW2 children marched across the main stage of the 2011 Army Wounded Warrior Program (AW2) Symposium. Some smiled at their parents in the audience, while most stomped their feet, looked straight forward, and yelled chants just like their parents did, or still do, as Soldiers in the Army.

These children participated in Operation Purple® at the YMCA of Central Florida’s Camp Wewa. Sponsored by the National Military Family Association, the camp coordinated outdoor and indoor activities for the children throughout the week. More importantly—Operation Purple® changed lives.

I watched photos light up as they slid across a projection screen. These photos were of AW2 kids not just having fun, but learning how to work together. A photo of a young girl, balancing herself on an elevated tightrope, stood out in my mind. In front and behind of her, were two other children—children she just met five days ago—spotting her to make sure she didn’t fall.

That photo demonstrated the type of AW2 kids at Symposium this week. And the thousands of other kids across the country who support each other, and their wounded warrior parents.

At the end of the ceremony, I walked to a poster presentation where I read notes written by the AW2 Symposium children about their parents.

  • “If he didn’t go to the Army, I wouldn’t be here.”
  • “My mom and myself don’t spend enough time together as I would like, but this week has helped.”
  • “He is better than anybody in the whole world.”
  • “He pushes me in school and has to be the best blessing in my life.”

These words, written in fluorescent permanent marker, illustrated that military kids understand their parents’ challenges. They have the amazing ability to live dual lives. One where they are normal kids having fun growing up, and another where they take on roles above their pay grade to support their parents’ unique challenges.

Later that evening, I walked through the hotel atrium and saw many of the children from the ceremony huddled together, sitting on the lobby couches. They continued to share their stories, laugh, and smile. It was clear to me that these relationships were far from superficial, they were real.

I walked onto the elevator to head back to my room, and reflected on the last words of the photo slideshow that read on the projection screen that afternoon. “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.”

Note: At the 2011 AW2 Symposium, delegate children identified the top issues that face them as the children of wounded warriors. These issues will be presented to Army and Veterans Affairs leadership along with the issues and recommendations presented by their parents.

Seventh AW2 Symposium Brought More People Together to Globally Impact Lives

By Tania Meireles, WTC Stratcom

This year the AW2 Symposium had more female Soldiers and Family members than ever before.

“The AW2 Symposium is a venue for wounded, ill, and injured Soldiers, Veterans, and their Family members to have a voice,” said LTC Debra Cisney, AW2 Symposium Operations Officer. “The AW2 Symposium is a formal process that allows them to identify and resolve wounded warrior care and transition issues.”

Cisney has been involved in six of the seven AW2 Symposiums. So I asked, “What is different this year, than in previous years?”

This year the AW2 Symposium expanded to also include non-AW2 Soldiers and Families who receive care at Warrior Transition Units (WTUs) across the country. WTU Soldiers are participating in two new focus groups discussing WTU and WTU medical issues.

“It isn’t just the AW2 voice, but the global Army wounded, ill, and injured voice,” Cisney said.

There is also a different dynamic this year with more female Soldiers and Family members than ever before.

“It will be interesting to see if having more females involved in the Symposium will result in different types of issues,” she said.

The Warrior Transition Command staff subject matter experts, many of them having previously served at WTUs, provided additional support to Symposium delegates during focus group discussions. This ensured a positive, holistic experience for the delegates.

More children participated in this year’s Operation Purple® camp activities as well. Teens will have their own focus group discussion and present their issues to the Army and Veterans Affairs leadership. “I hope the teens will be candid about their challenges and give leadership insight,” she said.

“One thing is the same every year at the Symposium,” said Cisney. “The impact of the AW2 Symposium is life-altering.”

Look for updates on the 2011 AW2 Symposium issues by checking-out the AW2 blog, AW2 Facebook page, and WTC Twitter page.

Camp Wewa Welcomes AW2 Director and the 2011 Symposium’s Operation Purple®

By Jim Wenzel, WTC Stratcom

AW2 Director COL Gregory D. Gadson shows photos from the explosion that injured him during deployment in Iraq to children attending Operation Purple® camp.

Although Camp Wewa can accommodate about 2,000 campers a year, the Central Florida YMCA facility whose name means “many waters” had a very special group of visitors this week as 37 teens and pre-teens from the Army Wounded Warrior Program (AW2) Symposium took part in Operation Purple®.

Operation Purple® was developed by the National Military Family Association in 2004 to help service members stay connected to their children. Over the years, it expanded to multiple locations across the United States and the program will have served close to 45,000 children by the end of the year.

At Camp Wewa, Operation Purple® provided a ton of outdoor activities that include “Goliath”, a giant rock wall and zip line, a high ropes course, evening campfire, and tubing on one of its four surrounding lakes. In fact, the kids enjoyed a visit from AW2 Director COL Gregory D. Gadson just after they came off the lake.

First to meet Gadson were Morgan, Brianna, and Justin. Initially shy when they first walked up, they quickly built a rapport with Gadson when they asked him to share his personal story about the improvised explosive device (IED) that severely wounded him and blew him out of his vehicle.

The pictures of the burned out Humvee on his iPhone made an instant connection between him and the sons and daughters of Soldiers who faced similar threats in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as those who were injured stateside.

This openness allowed Gadson an opportunity for some real conversation—which anyone with a teenager knows is hard to come by. “What is the biggest thing you’ve learned as the child of a wounded warrior?” asked Gadson.

Morgan was the first to answer. “You have to grow up faster and take more responsibility.”

Her simple remark reflected the collective experience of most children of severely wounded, ill, and injured Soldiers. As “Army brats”, most Soldiers’ children deal with the reality of multiple moves, frequent deployments, and living within the means of a military paycheck. The children of severely wounded Soldiers and Veterans share the additional burdens and responsibilities of being assistant caregivers to parents with significant medical and non-medical needs.

As a double amputee, Gadson’s response to Morgan came with a wealth of personal experience. “It’s a good thing. Something that happens in your life doesn’t have to be a bad thing,” he said. “Look at me. I wouldn’t change anything about my life and you will have an appreciation that most other kids won’t have. You can help a lot of people by sharing your perspective.”

Speaking to one of the camp counselors as the kids were loading back onto the bus, Gadson touched on the important role Operation Purple® plays at the AW2 Symposium every year. He told the kids that the camp was an opportunity for a “collective experience”—a chance to talk about their similar circumstances and the uniqueness of living with a wounded warrior.  As a group, almost all of the kids thought the best part of Operation Purple® camp was Camp Wewa, especially tubing on the lake.

The camp counselors were just as impressed with the campers. Their ability to get along and their desire to get involved and try new things simply blew them away.

All of the participants at Symposium, both delegates and staff, realize the importance of Operation Purple® and having the kids with them in Orlando, FL. They’ve had a lot of fun at camp, but they’ve also demonstrated an ethos shared by those who support the men and women who were wounded and injured in the defense of our nation.

Turning to a member of his staff, Gadson summed up the character of the teens attending AW2 Symposium’s Operation Purple® camp by saying, “They don’t even know how resilient they are.”

One Eye, Five Kids, and Endless Possibilities

By Tania Meireles, WTC Stratcom

AW2 Veteran Ice Murry (right) with her mother and daughter at the 2011 AW2 Symposium.

The best part of supporting the Army Wounded Warrior Program (AW2) for the last three years has been meeting AW2 Soldiers, Veterans, and Families and listening to their stories. This week at the AW2 Symposium I will meet the most amazing people on Earth and be a better person for it.

One such person is 2011 AW2 Veteran and Symposium delegate Ice Murry. Murry lost her vision in one eye due to a retinal detachment while deployed in Germany, and her other eye may do the same. Doctors told her she was one in a million who experience this type of vision loss. She also suffers from foot and knee issues and had a gastric bypass, which all cause additional medical challenges. Nevertheless, she is not letting it lessen her resolve or slow her pace.

“I don’t have time to pout,” said Murry. “I think about those Soldiers who didn’t come back, I think about God, and I think about being with my kids. I focus on the present. I see my kids—blessings that others may not get.”

She doesn’t waste a second thinking about complete vision loss, She doesn’t think about the pain and medical complications she has day in and day out. She is keenly aware of what could have been and is thankful of what is—she can make a difference.

Murry is a mother of five, a full-time Air Force civilian employee, and an online graduate student. One of her children has special needs and three children suffer from severe asthmatic attacks. She took her job in a different state than her husband and mother for a better quality of life for her children. Every night, after helping her children with their homework, she works on her online courses to finish her master’s in human resource management. She plans to continue her education and complete a doctorate program.

“I hold my children to the same standards I hold myself to,” she said. “I let my children see my grades and expect them to work hard. My mother and the Army gave me the values and dedication to do what I do now. I sacrifice for my kids so they don’t have to.”

I kept asking myself, “When does she sleep?” Any parent is a master of juggling a billion things at a time—something I find amazing and admirable. Murry handles it all in stride with a big smile on her face. Her children require frequent doctor’s visits and hospital stays. Yet she still finds the time to instill in them the importance of education by ensuring they succeed, while maintaining a 4.0 grade point average to boot.

On top of all she does on a regular basis for her Family, here she is with her mother this week to support the AW2 Symposium to help make things better for the Soldiers, Veterans, and Families that follow.

“A lot of people are in my situation or worse,” said Murry. “I am happy I signed up for the Symposium to voice my opinions and make a change—it’s priceless. Whether or not these changes help me, I put others before myself. I know these changes are going to impact lives and that has true meaning for me.”

Each story is unique, with ups and downs that could make anyone crumble if faced with the same challenges. But for those who outdare what they have been dealt, with love and support from their Families, they can embrace the future of endless possibilities. In the hearts of Soldiers and Veterans rests the everlasting value to enrich the lives of so many.

Speaking Out and Gaining Hope—A Guardsman Spouse’s Story

By Alan Morales, WTC Stratcom

AW2 spouse Danielle Barber and her husband AW2 Veteran Rob Barber at the 2011 AW2 Symposium.

Danielle Barber was sitting across the table from me at lunch when I first met her at the 2011 AW2 Symposium. She had a big smile on her face and an infectious laugh that spread around the table.

Little did I know that behind that upstate New York smile was a woman who fights daily for something she believes in—her marriage. Danielle is the spouse of an Army Guardsman and lives a life that is different than that of her fellow wounded warrior active duty wives. She didn’t have the benefit of living on post. She was not welcomed by a Family Readiness Group at her doorstep. All she had was the love for her husband to keep driving her forward. And to this day—it still does.

I learned from Danielle that her husband, Rob, sustained a traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in 2006. As a gunner, Rob’s job kept him in the midst of battle, and his daily routine continuously exposed him to the rawness of war. Danielle doesn’t know exactly what happened to her husband downrange, but as she explained to me, “I don’t need to know. I need to let him deal with the reality of his own experience.” However, she was aware of one thing. War changed him into a different man.

Danielle described her relationship with Rob pre-deployment as a romantic one. She looked away from me as she attempted to envision their relationship years ago. “He used to call me cupcake and hold my hand when we walked down the street,” she explained, as she wiped a tear away from her cheek. Rob’s experiences had a lasting effect on him, one he tried to change, but was out of his control.

Danielle explained, “I could handle the lead up to the war, I could handle the war itself, but it was the life immediately after the war that I couldn’t handle.”

Through the years, the Barbers have gone to doctors, therapy sessions, and rehabilitation. All have helped to some degree, but it seems that communication was the catalyst for change. “He has a voice, and I can see that he’s happy. It’s changed him,” said Danielle about Rob’s Symposium experience.

I realized that Rob was looking for an opportunity to share his perspective, experiences, and opinions. The AW2 Symposium enabled him to do just that, not only for himself, but also for those that will follow after him. Although I didn’t hear what he said in the focus groups that day, one thing was sure. He was heard by his fellow wounded warriors.

That evening was date night at the AW2 Symposium, a time for delegate couples to spend time together and reconnect. “I’m nervous. Rob’s been talking so much more since we got here,” Danielle laughed. “We actually had a conversation last night! Who knows what will happen tonight.” I could sense the anxiety in her voice, but also a glimmer of excitement in her demeanor. She leaned in, gripped her hands together, and didn’t say a single word. She just smiled.

The next morning at breakfast, I caught Danielle and Rob before they headed to their focus group session. “So how was the date last night?” I pried. Danielle’s face beamed, and she described everything from the lobster dinner they shared to the walk they had after dinner.

More importantly, she leaned in, and this time told me the three words that explained it all, “We held hands.”

Danielle’s story demonstrated to me that love motivates her and her husband to keep working towards improving their lives as they live with Rob’s injuries. This week, the Barbers are around others like them who face similar situations. This opportunity gives them the ability to see what progress looks like and what their future could possibly look like in the years to come.

Although Danielle is well aware of the challenges that will come down the road, she walked out of breakfast that morning with something much greater than memories of her lobster dinner from the night before. She left with hope.

Identify Your Pooh Bear

By Alan Morales, WTC Stratcom

AW2 Symposium delegates and caregivers (left to right) Michelle Ash and Jamie Anderson participated in the caregiver resiliency training.

Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind.
“Pooh!” he whispered.
“Yes, Piglet?”
“Nothing,” said Piglet, taking Pooh’s paw.
“I just wanted to be sure of you.”—Winnie the Pooh, A.A. Milne

I was sitting in the back of the room when this quote was shared with Family member and caregiver delegates at the 2011 AW2 Symposium caregiver resiliency training on Sunday. After reading the quote on the projection screen, I grinned and reflected on the warm feeling I got when I read Winnie the Pooh as a child. Around the room, many caregivers also smiled while others looked puzzled as if they asked themselves, “What does Winnie the Pooh have to do with resiliency?”

The training, taken from the Comprehensive Soldier Fitness Program, mentioned this quote to illustrate an important aspect of resiliency—trust. Resiliency trainer and AW2 staff member Venus Bradley explained that everyone’s life is based on relationships. More importantly, people’s lives are strengthened by those people they trust the most. Whether that person is a Soldier, mother, friend, or coworker, there is someone in each person’s life that they trust.

“Who is your Pooh?” asked Bradley.

Many of the participants laughed in the room, myself included, when Bradley asked this question. But she hit on a point that lingered in my mind. Sometimes individuals don’t turn to their trusted loved ones when they are faced with challenges. Instead, they keep the problem close to their chest and try to solve their problems alone. This is particularly the case when the challenge is with a spouse.

The training intended to demonstrate that in times of trouble, one needs to be mindful of the “Poohs” in their lives. These trusted individuals are often the ones that can help identify the facts of the situation, find the positive, and develop a solution. Sometimes, they are a spouse and other times it might be a friend or a relative. Each situation calls for a different approach, and those you trust are often the ones who can help you figure out which approach is best.

I learned quite a bit from Bradley yesterday afternoon. I learned that self-awareness about relationships can be a powerful tool and that identifying the people you trust ahead of time can be helpful when you least expect it. I walked out of that room realizing that it’s okay to lean on someone else for help in times of trouble and I think most of the delegates did too. We weren’t meant to live life alone, and often the “Poohs” in our lives are the people who make us stronger.

AW2 Symposium—Kids Serve Too!

By Jim Wenzel, WTC Stratcom

The Labarca-Cruz Family attend the 2010 AW2 Symposium in San Antonio, TX.

April, Month of  the Military Child, is a time for the Army to recognize the character and maturity demonstrated by nearly two million military children as they experience their parents’ frequent displacement, long separation, and, at times, the visible and invisible wounds and scars of training, deployment, and conflict.

The Army Wounded Warrior Program (AW2) recognizes that military kids of Warriors in Transition accept the shared efforts to provide care and strength to their parents. This demonstrates that these kids also share in serving the Army and the nation.

As AW2 identifies delegates for this summer’s AW2 Symposium, I want to stress the role AW2 kids play in the process—and it’s not just fun and games in Orlando. As parents lend their experienced voice in sorting through major issues affecting the Army’s care and transition of Warriors in Transition, their young children will have fun in daycare while older children will find adventure at a camp organized by Operation Purple®. The teenagers will also be given the opportunity to participate in an informal focus group that will allow them to discuss and select major issues important to military children of wounded warriors.

AW2 is about halfway through the process of identifying and selecting AW2 Soldiers, Veterans, and Families to speak on behalf of Army wounded warriors. At Symposium, we anticipate the presence and active participation of our military children. We will give them opportunities for fun as well as allow their voice to be heard—we truly believe they serve too.

If you are interested in taking advantage of this opportunity for both you and your Family, please go to the AW2 Symposium homepage for more information or contact your Advocate.

AFAP Delegates Rate AW2 Among Top Army Strengths

By LTC Deb Cisney, AW2 Symposium Action Officer

AW2 Symposium Action Officer LTC Deb Cisney (right) is photographed with an AW2 spouse (left) at the 2010 Army Family Action Plan Worldwide Conference

As the AW2 Action Officer for the AW2 Symposium and Army Family Action Plan (AFAP) issues, I wanted to share an update that indicates AW2’s impact is noticed around the Army.

At the recent AFAP Worldwide Conference, delegates voted AW2 the Army’s Number 2 strength in Mobilization, Deployment, and Family.

These delegates weren’t just wounded warriors and their Families. In fact, AW2 delegates were a very small part of the group. The 110 delegates at this conference spanned the full scope of the Army population. They represented Army installations both stateside and abroad, and Families and Soldiers affected by every aspect of Army life.

By ranking AW2 among the top Army strengths, delegates acknowledged the importance of AW2’s mission: to provide personalized support to the Army’s most severely wounded, ill, and injured Soldiers, Veterans, and their Families.

AW2 is now accepting applications for the 2011 AW2 Symposium. AW2 Soldiers, Veterans, and Families interested in attending should to talk their AW2 Advocates and submit the Delegate Solicitation Form via email to AW2@conus.army.mil

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