Learning How to Speak Again

By Alan Morales, WTC Stratcom

AW2 Soldier SGT Ian Ralston at an awards ceremony at the Minneapolis Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

When you say good night to a loved one or say thank you to a stranger, you use an ability that most of us take for granted—speech. After my interview with AW2 Soldier SGT Ian Ralston, I asked myself, how exactly do I speak? Do I first think about speaking? Do I tense my muscles and ligaments to form words? The reality is that for the vast majority of us, we don’t think about how we speak, we just speak. For Ralston, this was an ability he thought he had lost forever.

Ralston has very few recollections from the event that changed his life in Taji, Iraq. It was July 2010 when his vehicle was attacked by an improvised explosive device (IED) hanging from the ceiling of a concrete overpass. Ralston describes, “It was like the movies. Everything turned to slow motion, my hearing was muffled, and all I could hear were the voices of other Soldiers crying out to me, asking if I was okay. Then, it all turned to black.”

A few weeks later in Landstuhl, Germany, a physician informed Ralston about his injury. Heavily sedated at the time, however, he doesn’t remember talking to a doctor and it wasn’t until he was at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC, when he truly understood his injuries. His first clear memory since the attack in Iraq, he awoke, stared at his Family, and tried to speak. That’s when he knew and thought to himself, “I will never speak again.”

The IED attack paralyzed him from the neck down, preventing him from speaking or eating. He eventually had a tracheotomy tube placed in his throat to help him breathe; however, after a few days, started to choke. The doctors quickly removed the tube from his throat and realized he was trying to mouth words. This was the first day of his journey to learn how to speak once again.

Ralston spent weeks working with speech therapists to relearn how to speak and eat. Because certain parts of his throat did not completely regain the ability to move, he had to learn alternative ways to shape syllables and vowels. He walked a tightrope, balancing positive and negative emotions that often left him spiritually drained. He described, “I was scared. I spent a month in bed doing nothing. Now, I was trying to speak, working so hard and not getting very far. I felt exhausted. I often thought to myself, this is just a waste of my time.”

Nevertheless, inspiration came from another source. Ralston was accompanied by his Family members who took turns driving the 12 hours from their hometown in Iowa to Walter Reed every week to be with him. The dedication of his Family shed light on his opportunity to regain what he thought he had lost. As Ralston explained to me, it wasn’t just the chance to speak again, it was the chance to say, “I love you” to his girlfriend or even simply tell a joke. He became inspired and chose not to look at each day’s progress, but the overall journey. He quickly became determined to make his dream a reality if not for him, for his Family and loved ones.

“I am very self-driven and don’t try to let obstacles get in my path and trip me up,” shared Ralston. “I stay positive. I stay motivated for my Family. Back then, I knew that if I pushed myself, then I could improve my life and improve theirs.” It took him approximately four weeks to relearn how to enunciate words and be able to digest more than a few ice chips. On the phone, I remarked at his ability to speak. I realized that for each word, he had to learn how to recalibrate his brain so his throat muscles could correctly mouth and vocalize words. I realized that speaking is no longer intuitive for him.

Before ending the telephone interview, I asked Ralston about the future. He shared with me that he intends to attend college and earn a bachelor’s degree in history to pursue a teaching career. When asked why teaching, he responded, “As a former trainer in the Army, it’s a good feeling when you realize what you are saying is getting through to your students. You get to see their eyes light up.” I ventured to say that the feeling must be similar to what he felt when he first spoke to his Family and girlfriend. It was a spark that inspired them and inspired Ralston to continue driving forward.

I’m Just Competitive as Hell

By Alan Morales, WTC Stratcom

AW2 Veteran Joe Beimfohr channeled his competitiveness to earn an overall second place in the handcycling division at the 2011 Boston Marathon.

Competition. It’s a fundamental aspect of athleticism that for some pushes them to achieve higher levels of excellence. For retired AW2 Veteran and handcyclist Joe Beimfohr, it was his electric, adrenaline-fueled, competitiveness that pushed him towards the finish line at Monday’s 2011 Boston Marathon in Boston, MA. Beimfohr’s performance landed him second place overall in the handcycling division and a personal best record, completing the 26.2 miles in 1 hour and 34 minutes. When asked what pushed him across the finish line, Beimfohr responded, “I’m just competitive as hell.”

On the phone, Beimfohr made his journey to competitive handcycling sound easy, casually explaining to me about the events that led to his achievement on Monday. I soon learned that Beimfohr spent years training, learning how to handcycle, building his endurance, and strengthening his body and mind to compete. Beimfohr’s first exposure to handcycling occurred in 2005 while recovering at the Malone House at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, DC. After looking out of his window one afternoon, Beimfohr noticed several individuals on handcycles. Curiosity sparked Beimfohr’s interest. Achilles International, an organization Beimfohr currently races with, periodically visits the Malone House to share with Warriors in Transition various adaptive sports, including handcycling. During one of these visits, Beimfohr got bit by the bug. Handcycling soon became a way for Beimfohr to tap the competitive drive that was bottled-up during the initial stages of his recovery.

Competition doesn’t just manifest itself on the road, for Beimfohr it also manifested itself during recovery. As a single man with most of his Family in Tennessee, Beimfohr spent the majority of his time at Walter Reed alone. This set of circumstances drove Beimfohr to push himself to work through his recovery as a double amputee more quickly. As Beimfohr explained, “A lot of times at Walter Reed, I’d see loved ones do everything for their Soldiers, often when they were capable of doing a certain task themselves. I’d think to myself—why don’t you let them push their own wheelchair?” Recovery became a chance for Beimfohr to compete against himself. He viewed his therapy and medical treatments as ways to beat himself. Each of these personal competitions offered a high pay-off for Beimfohr—one step closer towards being a more independent individual.

Inspiration was another ingredient for Beimfohr’s success. When I asked him what advice he had for other Warriors in Transition who may be just beginning their road to recovery, he responded, “The best advice was given to me years ago. Take the time to figure out what you always wanted to do. This is a second chance to start over. If you have drive, there are people out there who will support you and make that dream come true. You just have to figure it out.” This advice led him to pursue numerous goals, including his intent to organize a handcycling team for the Army Ten-Miler in Washington, DC in October.

Handcycling is an adaptive sport that enables individuals and athletes to ride a bicycle only using their upper-bodies. According to the U.S. Handcycling Federation, it is one of the newest competitions at the Paralympic Games and was included in the Paralympic Games in Athens, Greece in 2004. Handcycling is also one of the many ways athletes participate in the Warrior Games cycling competition. First held in 2010, the Warrior Games will be held in May and is a competition of wounded, ill, and injured Service Members and Veterans from all military services. Competitions such as the Boston Marathon are one of the many ways Warriors in Transition can prepare to become a Warrior Games athlete.

AW2 Advocates—Determined, Energized, and Passionate

By Alan Morales, WTC Stratcom

AW2 Advocates are charged with the mission to provide individualized support for AW2 Soldiers, Veterans, and their Families.

It’s only been six months since I first started working with AW2. During that time, I’ve had phone calls, e-mail exchanges, and even text message conversations with dozens of individuals who AW2 Soldiers, Veterans, and Families interact with everyday—Advocates.

In that time, it’s been easy to note the determination of this team. However, this week, my perspective reached a new level of understanding. Interacting with AW2 Advocates has demonstrated to me more than just their determination.  It has helped me understand their pure energy and passion.

Just a few hours ago, I sat at lunch with several AW2 Advocates.  Over the course of the hour, I later found out I had interacted with these individuals quite a bit, but never face-to-face. One conversation after another, I sensed the energy in their tone and facial expressions. Whether it was a discussion about day-to-day challenges or ways they overcame those challenges, there was a compassion in their demeanor that was contagious.

One conversation in particular resonated with me.  AW2 Advocate Tim Battle from Walter Reed Army Medical Center shared his experiences in the past three years. Battle started his AW2 career as an Advocate, then as a supervisor, and now—an Advocate once again. The young go-getter in me was confused about his progression. He seemed to be promoted, yet returned to his original position as an Advocate.

Battle quickly sensed the confusion in my face and knew before I even spoke what I was thinking. “It’s about interacting with the Soldiers,” explained Battle. For him, the reason he became an AW2 Advocate was to empower Soldiers. As a former Sergeant Major, Battle was always determined to remain on the ground with Soldiers. He further mentioned, “the desk job in Washington was important and was a chance for me to help groom the new classes of AW2 Advocates. But once that was done, I was ready to head back to what I truly love to do.”

Battle is just one of the 170+ Advocates who this “Washington D.C. brat” (yours truly, if you were confused) has had the pleasure to engage. Advocates are a different caliber of people and based on the Facebook comments I review daily, it seems that several AW2 Soldiers, Veterans, and Families would agree. Today, I thank AW2 Advocates for energizing me and offering me lessons that I am sure to bring back home.

WTC Commander Listens to Local Dallas Wounded Warriors Talk About Life Post-Injury

By Alan Morales, WTC Stratcom

(left to right) WTC Commander BG Darryl A. Williams, AW2 Director COL Greg Gadson, and AW2 Sergeant Major SGM Robert Gallagher listen to participant questions at the 2011 AW2 Annual Training Conference.

Yesterday morning, I witnessed BG Darryl A. Williams give a keynote speech to a group of Army Wounded Warrior Program (AW2) Advocates and other guests in Dallas, TX. During this speech he motivated and energized staff to continue excelling in their efforts to better serve the Army’s wounded, ill, and injured. However, it was only a few moments after his speech that I witnessed BG Williams enter a much a smaller room, take the microphone off, and take a seat at a table with seven wounded warriors from the local Dallas area. This time around, BG Williams was the one doing the listening.

The luncheon took place on day two of the 2011 AW2 Advocate Annual Training–an event where 170+ Advocates nationwide have convened to train and collaborate to better provide individualized support to the Army’s severely wounded, ill, and injured. Making a stop to address the attendees, BG Williams made it a priority to also take the opportunity to meet local wounded warriors.

During the luncheon, BG Williams, along with AW2 Director COL Greg Gadson and AW2 Sergeant Major SGM Robert Gallagher, listened to wounded warriors explain various challenges, such as Social Security benefits claims, difficulties in continuing on active duty, and the difficulties involved with civilian integration. The discussion served as a mechanism for BG Williams to better understand both new and persistent issues that face the wounded warrior population.

After hours of taking notes and posing questions to his guests, BG Williams concluded the luncheon by sharing with the table a few words that resonated with the group. BG Williams said, “I regularly speak to officials at the Department of Defense, Department of the Army, Congress, and various others in Washington. I’m here to tell you that it’s not worth a can of beans unless I connect with the Soldier to understand how what I do in Washington affects him or her.”

Feedback isn’t limited to the walls of a conference room. It continues in the virtual world. Share with us your thoughts about the Army’s warrior care programs. Whether you are in a Warrior Transition Unit, Community-Based Warrior Transition Unit, or a Veteran, share with us your thoughts by posting a comment below.

Veterans Affairs Caregiver Support Line Opens

By Alan Morales, WTC Stratcom

Day in and day out caregivers provide the support and care necessary to assist wounded warriors in achieving a successful transition post injury. However, it’s no secret that sometimes those we rely on for support are the ones that need support themselves—including those that support Army wounded warriors.

Last week the Department of Veteran Affairs opened the National Caregiver Support Line to serve as the resource and referral center for caregivers, Veterans, and others seeking caregiver information. The support line provides referrals to local VA medical center caregiver support coordinators who can provide information, education, and referrals to appropriate VA and community resources.

AW2 caregivers deserve additional support and, thanks to the Department of Veterans Affairs, there is now one more resource for them to access. The National Caregiver Support Line is open Monday through Friday 8:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. and Saturday 10:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. The National Caregiver Support Line Toll-free number is 1-855-260-3274.

What other resources do caregivers find helpful? If you have a resource in mind and would like to share this information with the Army wounded warrior community, please comment below or send your suggestions to warriorcarecommunications@conus.army.mil.

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Warriors in Transition can submit a blog by e-mailing WarriorCareCommunications [at] conus.army.mil.