The Hot Blue Flame

By Emily Oehler, WTC Stratcom

A former COAD Soldier retired GEN Fredrick Franks (right) discusses ways to improve the Army COAD/COAR process with AW2 Director COL Greg Gadson (left) and AW2 Sergeant Major SGM Robert Gallagher (center).

For most of the AW2 Continue on Active Duty/Continue on Active Reserve (COAD/COAR) Forum delegates, their determination to find ways to improve how the Army manages those who are unfit for duty post injury but who remain in the Army is about “those that will follow.” It’s a responsibility they take very seriously. In fact, SGT Molly Holub, a Military Police dog handler, ended her pre-deployment leave three days early to attend and support the Army’s efforts to update the COAD/COAR system.

This morning during a breakfast session, the delegates heard from a decorated Soldier who paved the way for them—and still does. GEN Frederick Franks, a retired general and COAD Soldier, spoke to the delegates about what he described as the “hot blue flame of passion and drive to continue to serve.”

“All the males in my Family and community served in WWII [World War II],” Franks shared. “I was taken by their selflessness and pride in what they’d done—their willingness to serve. I wanted to earn the right to lead people like that, so I attended West Point.”

An injury, while serving in Cambodia in 1970, resulted in the amputation of Franks’ left leg below the knee. He went through the Medical Evaluation Board (MEB) in July 1971 and knew immediately that he wanted to COAD. “It’s my life. I love being a Soldier,” added Franks.  

Regulation AR 635-40 was in place back then, and Franks said, “It’s pretty much the same process, MEB, PEB [Physical Evaluation Board], and COAR that exists today.” He added, “After 10 years at war, it’s time for the Army to take it to the next level with the appropriate resources. I have great admiration for the establishment of AW2, but now they need to bump it up a notch.”

After meeting and talking with several of the current COAD Soldiers, Franks commented, “I am honored to be in their presence and admire their resiliency—to get up and go on. I am inspired by their continuation to serve.”

Franks charged commanders, “Look at the COAD/COAR Soldiers’ abilities and utilize them accordingly. Don’t artificially constrain or put limitations on them. Ask them. Engage them. Talk to them. Learn where they can best serve and whether or not their talents are being served or whether they could be better utilized somewhere else. They have an enormous amount to give—but we have to give them the opportunity.”

“I know for me, being able to continue to serve after my left foot was amputated, is one of my life’s greatest privileges.”

A Force To Be Reckoned With

By Emily Oehler, WTC Stratcom

SFC Jarrett Jongema is one of the 30 AW2 COAD/COAR Forum delegates who despite his numerous critical combat injuries, decided to continue to serve post injury and inspire others to do the same.

“This is not a program you run out and want to join like Boy Scouts. You just end up here,” SFC Jarrett Jongema explained. “We all have one thing in common—we’ve been through hell and back.”

Jongema was severely wounded in Iraq. Blasted 50 feet from his Humvee’s (High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle) turret, Jongema had his face ripped off by a razor wire, his leg shattered, his lung collapsed, his body impaled by a fence, and his heart bruised. He was shot, proclaimed dead seven times, and sustained a traumatic brain injury. This was “the hell” and “the back” was his work to recover.

“There is a stigma out there and anyone who denies it is full of crap. Anyone with a profile is viewed as being broken and busted with limitations. I know I used to think that,” Jongema explained. “But, being in a challenging job that exercised my mind and speech really helped my recovery. It’s been a great job at HRC [Army Human Resources Command], and I’m not ready to quit. I love to wear the uniform.”

Jongema, the Senior Enlisted Career Advisor for the Air Defense and Public Affairs Career Management Field, is going through the Medical Evaluation Board (MEB) process and plans to Continue on Active Duty rather than medically retire. “I want to be actively engaged and help Soldiers—to have the greatest amount of visibility so that I have the greatest level of impact on wounded warriors.” Jongema added, “My goals include promotion to MSG [master sergeant] and possibly working at a Warrior Transition Unit.” He’s also working on his degree because he knows there is life after the uniform and says, “Everything I do in uniform prepares me for that.”

This week, Jongema is working as one of 30 delegates at the AW2 Continue on Active Duty/Continue on Active Reserve (COAD/COAR) Forum to update the Army’s regulations that manage Soldiers found unfit for duty but continue to serve. “With all the subject matter experts here, our experiences, and leadership’s support—I know something good will come out of this week.”

As for life after “hell and back,” Jongema replied, “We’ve all had our challenges being wounded and continuing to serve. These guys, they all have so much heart and drive doing what they love and cannot be written off. I know I’m still a force to be reckoned with.”

“Team Leader for the God Squad” Shares Prayer at COAD Forum

By Emily Oehler, WTC Stratcom

Chaplain LTC Mark Nordstrom (left) speaks with forum delegate SPC Bryan Camacho (right), one of the 30 delegates Nordstrom challenged to create a better Army for tomorrow’s force.

As a PK (preachers kid), I have heard a lot of prayers.  And when my brother followed in my dad’s footsteps, I heard even more.  So when Chaplain LTC Mark Nordstrom was introduced at the AW2 Continue on Active Duty/Continue on Active Reserve (COAD/COAR) Forum as the “team leader for the God squad,” in a biography written by AW2 Sergeant Major SGM Robert Gallagher, my interest was piqued.

The chaplain stood before 30 delegates who were eager to give the Army advice on how to update regulations that govern severely wounded Soldiers who chose to COAD/COAR post injury. With an opportunity to inspire the delegates, Nordstrom stated, “We’re an Army Family— it’s in my blood.  Many in my Family have served.  I am counting on you to create a better Army where my son will serve.”

He then blessed the delegates:

Almighty Father, our Strength and Shield: we give you thanks for the devotion and courage of all those who have offered military service for this country.

For the those who have fought for freedom; for those who laid down their lives for others; for those who have borne suffering of mind and body; for those who have brought their best gifts to times of need.  Lord, have mercy.

Lift up by Your mighty presence those who are now at war; encourage and heal those in hospitals or mending their wounds at home; guard those in any need or trouble; hold safely in your hands all our families; and bring the returning troops to joyful reunion and tranquil life at home.

Give to us, Your people, grateful hearts and a united will to honor these men and women through our work here this week and hold them always in our love and our prayers; until Your world is perfected in peace.  Amen.

This prayer struck a chord with me—especially while listening to 15 severely wounded Soldiers share their personal stories with me today. These stories described the devastation of losing members of their Army Family in combat; personally dying 7 times during treatment but healed due to outstanding physician assistants (PAs), emergency medical technicians (EMTs), physicians, and nurses; the stress of their injury on their children; and being a “walking miracle.”

For all the prayers I’ve heard—this will be one of the few that will be kept and repeated; and of course, shared with my dad (a Vietnam Veteran) and my brother.  It will be nice to give them an earful for a change.

Wounded Soldiers Work Hard and Play Hard at COAD/COAR Forum

By Emily Oehler, WTC Stratcom

AW2 COAD/COAR delegate, SFC Juanita Wilson is one of 30 wounded warriors who attended the COAD/COAR Forum night out at the Washington Wizards/Denver Nuggets NBA basketball game in Washington, DC, coordinated by various organizations including the American Red Cross.

I think most Americans think of the Red Cross during times of national disasters.  What they might not realize is that they also support wounded warriors. 

This week, the American Red Cross united several other wounded warrior supporters to provide a night out for the 30 delegates at the AW2 Continue on Active Duty/Continue on Active Reserve (COAD/COAR) Forum.  In coordination with the USO, Verizon Center/Qwest, and Washington Wizards, the delegates saw the Wizards take on the Denver Nuggets.

These Forum delegates are severely wounded and chose to continue to serve post injury.  They are in DC this week to work on updating some of the Army’s regulations that oversee warrior care.  As delegate SFC Juanita Wilson, a severely wounded active reservist, explained, “I’m here to pay it forward for the others who will follow behind me.”

A specific program of the Red Cross, the American Red Cross Service to the Armed Forces at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, provides items of comfort to support the morale of wounded warriors and their Families while they recover at Walter Reed.  These items are contributed by the American public in monetary contributions or in-kind donations.  In fact, many of their corporate and community partners organize annual drives for items that are needed to support the program.  At Walter Reed, the American Red Cross Station provides referral services both on the base and in the community.  Plus, they work directly with hospital clinics to provide dependable volunteers. 

Recently the American Red Cross Station provided Legos to support the FORCE: mTBI program and worked with the Assistive Technology Specialist to provide an array of items, from computer speakers for a triple amputee taking classes online to Nintendo DS gaming systems with Brain Age software for wounded warriors working with therapists in the traumatic brain injury clinics.  Additional programs include: pet therapy, adaptive scuba diving, taxi vouchers, haircut and shave vouchers, and computer loaner programs.  Their goal is to provide support to the Walter Reed Medical Center community whenever they can. 

Assistant Station Manager Teri Ridley explained, “We, the staff and volunteers, become very attached to the patients.  I think the most important service we provide is our ‘broad shoulders.’  Some days I walk out of my office and I see staff, patients, and Families just sitting in our cramped office enjoying a cookie and cup of coffee—glad to be able to get away from the stress of watching their loved one recover.”  She added, “Usually our patient’s first outing includes a visit to the Red Cross office for Family members to introduce us to their son, daughter, or spouse.  We watch the ups and downs the Family members experience during the first few days or weeks here. Usually we share a few tears with them as well.  Best of all we share the joy with Families when their loved ones begin to recover.”

COAD Delegates Have Voice in Shaping Army’s Future

By Emily Oehler, WTC Stratcom

COL(P) Darryl Williams, Commander of the Warrior Transition Command (WTC) and COL Greg Gadson, Director of the Army Wounded Warrior Program (AW2) are eager to hear COAD Soldiers’ recommendations for updating warrior care regulations.

Of the 192 Army Wounded Warrior Program (AW2) Soldiers who continued to serve post injury, 30 were at the first AW2 Continue on Active Duty/Continue on Active Reserve (COAD/COAR) Forum opening ceremony in Washington, DC, ready to give the Army a piece of their mind on how to improve antiquated regulations that can’t keep pace with them. 

AW2 Director and COAD Soldier COL Greg Gadson told the forum delegates, “We are an elite group and the one thing that binds us is perseverance.”  He added that the Army stood up the Warrior Transition Command (WTC) out of its priority for warrior care issues and that, “It’s up to your leadership to make our Army better for those who follow.”

The event delegates are charged with identifying the top issues facing COAD/COAR Soldiers and recommending solutions.  Once prioritized, AW2, which provides personalized support for severely wounded, ill, and injured Soldiers to help foster their long-term independence, will be the lead proponent to find solutions and work to update regulations on behalf of WTC. 

COL(P) Darryl Williams, WTC commander, told the delegates, “What I bring to this is passion.  Passion for Soldiers.  It’s what keeps me going.”  He urged the Soldiers, “Help me walk with you.  Let me know how we can get movement on these issues for you, your Family, and the Soldiers who will follow.” 

“The Army is the only service that takes this on in such a structured way–you’re here to add color to it,” Williams added.  “I am part of a long line of Soldiers, and now my son serves too.  This is important work for the force and I look forward to partnering with you and being your teammate.”

The delegates then jumped into their focus groups to discuss challenges in the following categories: human resources, installation, medical, training, and Veteran affairs.  As SSG Jonathan Looney stated, “I’m glad I was chosen to be a COAD Forum delegate–to have a voice and be heard.”

A Door Kicker to a Housecat—One Wounded Soldier’s Continued Service

By Emily Oehler, WTC Stratcom

SGT Tony Wood, a Military Police Officer, encourages other wounded Soldiers to continue to serve post injury

There are many sides to SGT Tony Wood. Combat Veteran. Hawaii Chamber of Commerce Outstanding Volunteer of the Year . Military police officer. Eighth Theater Sustainment Command Volunteer of the Year. Foster parent. Reservist. But first and foremost, he’s a Soldier.

“I swore an oath to protect and defend my country,” Wood stated at the first AW2 Continue on Active Duty/Continue on Active Reserve (COAD/COAR) Forum. “It is no secret what our job is. When I swore this oath it did not mention anywhere that it would be safe and that I could pick and choose what I agreed with.”

And safe it was not. A blast in theater placed him in a coma for 45 days and damaged all of his major internal organs except for his heart. “They couldn’t close my abdomen the normal way, so they used titanium mesh.” But Wood quickly added, “I may be out of the battle but I’m not out of the fight. There are still Soldiers in harm’s way, and as long as I am able, I want to continue to contribute. These are my friends, my peers. Why should I be exempt? I took an oath when I agreed to do this job, and as long as stuff is going on, this is where I belong. I can’t be a door kicker any more but I can still do something. That’s the biggest pill to swallow, going from a door kicker to a housecat.”

While he admits the transition is not easy, he wants other wounded Soldiers to know that, “Just because your old life was shattered doesn’t mean you can’t start a new one. You are trained to never quit. If you want and are able to do something—then go for it. You’re not just getting kicked to the curb. If there’s a way that you’re physically able, the Army can find you a job. In the past if you got injured, you were gone. There were no second chances. But today you can stay.”

This week, Wood is working with 29 other delegates to help the Army update regulations that impact severely wounded Soldiers who continue to serve post injury. He hopes that his participation in the AW2 COAD/COAR Forum will make wounded, ill, and injured Soldiers’ transition back to the force easier.

“There is, as with all new programs, bugs and hiccups that need to be addressed to improve it for all,” Wood explained. “We have been given an unprecedented opportunity not offered to our predecessors. It is our obligation to make it the best it can possibly be. There are problems, but it’s a fairly new program and programs have a tendency to outrun their regulations. This forum is a way to get these issues unfiltered to the people who can change things. I feel like I’m bypassing everything and going straight to the horse’s mouth.”

Active Duty Wounded Soldiers Share Experiences to Help Army Update Policies

By Emily Oehler, WTC Stratcom

COAD Soldier SFC Jonathan Grundy is one of the 30 delegates at the first AW2 COAD/COAR Forum determined to help the Army update its policies on allowing wounded Soldiers remain in the force.

“I am a Soldier, first and foremost.  I am a professional at what I do and don’t want to change my career any time in the near future,” stated SFC Jonathan Grundy, a severely wounded Soldier attending the COAD/COAR Forum this week.  He joins 29 other delegates who were severely wounded and decided to continue on active duty or reserve post injury.  He is here to help the Army update outdated regulations that date back to 1967. 

The Army Wounded Warrior Program (AW2) is hosting the first Continuation on Active Duty (COAD)/ Continuation on Active Reserve (COAR) Forum January 25-27 to identify the most important issues facing severely wounded Soldiers who remain in the Army post injury, and recommend solutions.

“I chose to be a delegate because I feel that the issues that I pose are of key concern to the Army and the Army Wounded Warrior Program (AW2).  I also want to see change and improvement in our archaic MEB/PEB structure,” Grundy added.

All Soldiers found unfit for duty by a Physical Evaluation Board (PEB) are eligible to apply for COAD/COAR. This designation provides Soldiers with an exception to policy which allows them to remain in the Army even if they have significant physical limitations—and typically remain in their current military occupational specialty. This allows Soldiers to continue to serve to meet their career goals, as well as support the Army through their leadership and combat experience. Injuries that can cause a Soldier to be found unfit for duty include blindness, amputation, post-traumatic stress disorder and paralysis.

Grundy was shot in the face—more specifically, he took an AK-47 round to the face.  Physicians rebuilt the left side of his face with titanium mesh and he’s blind in one eye.  He pointed out that 1 in 10 combat injuries are eye injuries and it’s getting closer to 1 in 5.  But on the upside, he discovered that since he lost sight in one eye that he has a better shot with a shotgun than he used to have. 

He not only wants to share his experience and ideas for improvements at the conference, but he hopes the updated regulations will attract other combat wounded Soldiers to remain on active duty.  “I want other wounded Soldiers to know that just because you aren’t 100% due to injuries sustained in combat, that the Army does have a place for you that is valuable in accomplishing the mission.”

As for his career, he’s most proud of being a member of the 82nd Airborne Division as a Cavalry Scout and as a Jump Master and looks forward to eventually becoming “a division liaison for the 82nd Airborne Division at Walter Reed or Landstuhl, Germany.”

With all he’s experienced, he said he’d do it all again.  “The pluses in my life far outweigh the negatives.  I’m still alive.  How many people do you know who’ve been shot in the head and still lived?  I’m still in the Army—I like my job.”

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