Wounded Warriors Give the Army a Piece of Their Mind

AW2 Symposium delegates focus intently on their role in improving Army warrior care.

By BG Gary Cheek, WTC Commander

This week, the Army Wounded Warrior Program (AW2) is hosting its sixth annual Symposium in San Antonio, Texas. It’s is a great event, where 65 AW2 Soldiers, Veterans, and Families get together to prioritize the issues and problems facing wounded warriors in the Army. Not only do they tell us what’s wrong, but they also tell us how they think we should fix it.

At the end of the week, I’ll listen to their recommendations, along with several other senior leaders from the Army and other government agencies. Then we’ll roll up our sleeves and start taking the actions necessary to address the problems.

The issues identified at past AW2 Symposiums have produced lasting improvements for wounded warriors and Families, such as…

  • access to treatment for TBI at every military installation
  • the creation of Soldier Family Assistance Centers

And new legislation that includes…

  • an additional $10,000 in VA housing benefits
  • a monthly stipend for primary caregivers
  • expanded Traumatic Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance coverage by adding TBI and uniplegia (complete paralysis of an arm or leg) as qualification criteria

I look forward to meeting the delegates and hearing their personal stories. I attended the event last year as well, and I noticed how seriously the delegates took their responsibility and how committed they were to making things better for wounded warriors and Families who will follow. Supporting the severely wounded is one of the most important missions in the Army, and I look forward to hearing the delegates’ recommendations on how we can continue to expand and improve the system.

Hot Off the Presses – ‘The Journey’

By Tania Meireles, WTC Stratcom

AW2’s print newsletter The Journey, Winter 2010, was mailed out to AW2 Soldiers, Veterans, Families, and staff recently.

This quarter’s issue includes:

  • 2010 AW2 Symposium: Tell the Army What You Really Think!
  • The Inaugural Warrior Games
  • Warrior Transition Command Launched New Web Site and Blog
  • 2010 AW2 Annual Training
  • AW2 Soldier Population at a Glance
  • Career Building Opportunity Signed by Army and Navy
  • Welcome AW2’s New Sergeant Major – SGM Robert Gallagher
  • There is No ‘Impossible’
  • AW2 Soldier Takes Command

The Journey highlights events, information, and news for the quarter and spotlights AW2 Soldiers, Veterans, and Families. The Journey, Winter 2010, is also available online at http://www.aw2.army.mil/assets/documents/Journey_Winter2010_FINAL.pdf. Please visit the AW2 Web site at http://www.aw2.army.mil/news/news.html to read all The Journey volumes.

The Journey, Winter 2010

The Journey, Winter 2010

AW2 to Participate in 2010 AFAP Worldwide Conference

The Army Family Action Plan (AFAP) Worldwide Conference will be held this week in Arlington, VA. AFAP was founded 25 years ago by a group of spouses who felt Army leadership should hear from Family members on bases around the world. Throughout the year AFAP conducts various different conferences, including the AW2 Symposium, to prioritize and highlight issues submitted by Army Soldiers and Families to Army leadership.

At the AFAP Worldwide Conference, delegates will vote on issues presented at previous conferences to be selected for presentation to Army leadership. Once the issues are selected, they are then sent to the Army Chief of Staff, Vice Chief of Staff, and Sergeant Major of the Army, who then assign them to relevant officers for actions.

AW2 will be participating in the 2010 AFAP Conference and will be presenting the Top 10 2009 AW2 Symposium Issues:

  • Community Support Coordinators in Geographically Dispersed Area
  • Comprehensive Psycoeducation for PTSD & TBI for Soldiers, Families, and Caregivers
  • Concurrent Receipt of Retired and VA Disability Pay
  • Process to Address Patient Feedback System in All VA Treatment Facilities
  • PTSD & TBI Education for DoD Healthcare Personnel
  • Stipend for Primary Caregivers of Ill/Injured Servicemembers
  • Service Dogs for Wounded Warriors
  • Understaffing of Behavioral Health Providers on All Army Installations
  • Enforcement of Medical Profile Compliance
  • Soldiers with PTSD/TBI Separated under Psychological / Behavioral Disorder Chapters

These issues were voted on by the AW2 Soldiers, Families, and Caregivers that attended the summer 2009 AW2 Symposium in San Antonio, TX.

Several AW2 Soldiers, Veterans, and Families from the 2009 AW2 Symposium will be attending the 2010 AFAP Worldwide Conference and the AW2 Blog will feature stories from them about their experiences at AFAP later in the week.

AW2 Symposium Closing Ceremony

–By Sarah Greer, AW2 Stratcom–

This morning, AW2 Symposium delegates gathered one last time and reported their issues directly to senior Army leadership.

“You’ve worked hard this week,” Army Family Action Plan representative Ronnie Thomas told the delegates. “You took raw emotion written on a piece of paper and turned it into substantive recommendations that can help yourselves and other Army Families.”

The top five issues, as voted on by the Symposium delegates, are:

  1. Concurrent receipt of retired and Veterans Affairs (VA) disability pay
  2. Comprehensive psychoeducation for post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)/traumatic brain injury (TBI) servicemembers, family members, and caregivers
  3. Veterans Affairs (VA) education for Army Wounded Warrior Program Advocates
  4. Stipend for primary caregivers of ill/injured servicemembers
  5. Community support coordinators in geographically dispersed areas

Each of the five focus groups was represented by a spokesperson, who described the group’s top issue(s) to leadership and other delegates, and told some of the stories they had heard during the course of the week.

The VA focus group considered VA education for AW2 Advocates their top issue. “We want to advocate for our AW2 Advocates,” said focus group spokesperson and AW2 Soldier Jared Hatch. “We want to help them help us understand the programs and benefits available to wounded Soldiers. This shouldn’t be a difficult thing to implement.”

Jared also emphasized the difference concurrent receipt of payments would make for AW2 Families. “We know people are already working on this issue,” he said, “but if we don’t push it forward, it might wither away. Medically retired Soldiers have different needs than other retirees, such as childcare costs for medical appointments and often exceeding more than our TRICARE allowance for combat-related injuries.”

AW2 spouse Kimmie Davis represented the family focus group. “PTSD and TBI have touched all of us in a great way,” she said. Family members and caregivers need face-to-face education for how to care for their Soldiers with PTSD/TBI.”

Kimmie also discussed the need for a stipend for caregivers of AW2 Soldiers. “As a Family member myself, I quit my job to care for my injured husband,” she said. “Losing a job causes emotional and financial stress on the entire Family, and this shouldn’t be an additional burden for the Soldier and Family.”

AW2 Soldier and medical II focus group spokesperson David Booth discussed the passion his group members felt for placing community support coordinators in geographically dispersed areas. “We started discussing just the American islands,” he said, “and then realized that servicemembers throughout the country need focused support. It’s our goal for every single Soldier to be touched and represented, and to have access to the treatment facilities that can meet their needs.”

AW2 Soldier DeKeither Stamps represented the careers focus group. Their issues weren’t voted in the top five, but he emphasized the importance of taking care of wounded Soldiers for as long as it takes. “These Soldiers will never be the warfighters they once were,” he said. “We owe it to them and to the American people to return them to their communities with the tools to be successful.”

Army leadership was very receptive to all 11 issues presented this morning, including the six not voted in the final list. Leadership asked questions and pledged to work diligently to address these issues.

“AW2 will work inside the Army, inside the Defense Department and with other agencies to resolve these issues to the best of our ability,” said AW2 Director COL Jim Rice. “The 63 delegates this week have been the voice of all AW2 Soldiers, and AW2 takes their recommendations very seriously.”

AW2 Symposium Q&A with AW2 Leadership

–By Lee McMahon, AW2 Stratcom–

COL Rice, from your perspective how is this year’s Symposium different from your experience with last year’s?

“I think what’s really remarkable are the similarities among the three Symposiums that I’ve been a part of. The issues that seem to be of most concern to the Families fall into some of the same general kinds of areas–medical, VA, concerns for the Family. Even when you go into more detail, the issues have a very familiar resonance to them. They have common themes over all three years.”

SGM Jurgersen, how have you seen AW2 Symposiums change over the past several years?

“Number one I think are the injuries. We are starting to see more of what is dominant today in our population, it’s not so much the amputations and the burns as it is the so-called signature wounds of this war, the PTSD and TBI. We are also starting to see more of the Guard and Reserve and more females. The issues though seem to all have the same kind of flavor. I think we’re now just getting them more pinpointed. We are still hearing about some of the older issues, but I think it’s more of a refinement versus brand new issues all over again.”

Sir, what are you hearing from the delegates this year?

“Since the Symposium issues are submitted months in advance, we are all very familiar with the issues. What we’re seeing is a dedication on the part of some of the individuals who have been a part of the wounded warrior family for awhile now. It’s a dedication to produce solutions, at least a recommended solution. It means a lot to them, and it’s obvious that they are happy that their voices are being heard, they are not always pleased with either the healthcare that they are getting, or the benefits that are available, but they are grateful that there is a system in place that’s going to take their concerns and do something with it.”

SGM, why do you think AW2 Soldiers and their Families apply to be a part of what can be an exhausting, emotional, and intense week of focus groups?

“I think it’s a sense they want to belong. Often when Soldiers leave the Army they miss being part of something bigger. Even for those Soldiers in our population who are still serving, they want to make a change. They want to give back to the country. I think they come here to be part of their left and right, their brothers and sisters that they served with. They want to try to help others. We had an overwhelming response of delegates that actually volunteered to participate this year. I think we had either three or four times the amount of people we could have actually supported here. So I think they talk to other Soldiers, they talk to other Veterans, they talk to our Advocates, they want to come here and get the experience. It’s fun, exhausting, emotionally-draining, and intense, but at the end of the week I think they feel that it is worth it.”

Sir, why do you think having an AW2 Symposium is still important to the Army?

“It’s important because the concerns of those wounded Soldiers and their Families are going to continue to evolve over time. Our commitment is that we’re going to do this for as long as it takes and there’s a reason for that commitment. Their lives are going to change as they move through the wounded warrior lifecycle. There has been a shift in focus from these Symposiums–early on there was a focus on healthcare to the Symposium this year, which had a separate career and employment component.”

SGM, as the AW2 Sergeant Major and an AW2 Soldier, what do you hope this year’s Symposium accomplishes?

“Change comes from this, that some form of change will come from the issues that have been submitted and the recommendations. At the end of the week, we’ve asked the delegates to do what they’ve done. Now it’s the leadership of the Warrior Transition Command, Army Wounded Warrior Program, and the Army, to take those issues that the delegates have worked so hard on and to do something with those. That when they walk away from here, they feel like they are part of something bigger, that they were able to actually make a difference. Not only for issues that impacted their lives, but also ones that impacted those around them. For some of those, that’s the official stance and for other ones this is a major emotional/physical hurdle for some of the Veterans and their Families to get through a week like this and maybe its part of their recovery.”

Sir, after we hear the top issues at the end of Symposium, what happens next?

“The entire success of our program depends on a process that works like this. That we continue to identify issues, that we continue to solicit issues from the field, and that we refine them in a forum like this—so that the delegates are identifying for us what’s most important to that population. We must take them from here and get them to the right person inside the Army, at the Department of Defense, or at the right agency, that can render a solution to that challenge, but ultimately none of us are going to be successful at this if we don’t take it one step further, and that is to communicate back to the population what the result of them raising the issue in the first place was. We absolutely have to do a better job of saying to that wounded warrior and their Family, you did an excellent job in raising the concern, here’s what we did to help address that. It may not have been what they were looking for, but that is the answer we’ve come up with that’s going to support the broader population.”

AW2 Symposium: The AFAP Process

–By Sarah Greer, AW2 Stratcom–

What’s Going on Here

The AW2 Symposium uses the Army Family Action Plan (AFAP) process as one way to elevate the AW2 top issues of concern to senior Army leadership.  Over the last year, AW2 Soldiers, Veterans, and Family members have raised issues, and the Symposium delegates will narrow them down to the five of greatest concern to the AW2 population.

For the last four days, AW2 Symposium delegates have been narrowing down 70 issues submitted by AW2 Soldiers, Veterans, and Family members.  Tomorrow, each of the five Symposium focus groups will present their top two issues to the rest of the delegates, WTC Commander BG Gary Cheek, AW2 Director COL Jim Rice, and AW2 Sergeant Major SGM Brent Jurgersen.

Delegates will then vote on their top five issues.  Army-specific issues will move forward in the AFAP process, including action through the AFAP worldwide conference in January 2010. For issues involving other agencies, AW2 will use other appropriate avenues to bring the issues forward.

What is AFAP?

AFAP was founded 25 years ago by a group of spouses who felt Army leadership should hear from Family members on bases around the world.  They conduct eight conferences, including the AW2 Symposium, throughout the year to prioritize issues submitted by Army Soldiers and Families.  Each conference divides delegates into focus groups, which discuss and prioritize previously-submitted issues.  At the annual AFAP worldwide conference, two issues from each event (including the AW2 Symposium) and two from OCONUS Army installations are selected to be presented to Army leadership.  The issues are presented to the Army Chief of Staff, Vice Chief of Staff, and Sergeant Major of the Army, who assign them to relevant officers for action.

“AFAP issues have changed a lot over the years,” said Ronnie Thomas, AFAP’s representative at the AW2 Symposium.”I was one of the original spouses, and at the beginning, we focused on family support, relocation issues, and child care.  Now, we see a lot more concern about the single Soldier, medical concerns, and specific populations, like wounded warriors.”

How does AW2 Use the AFAP Process?

“Using the AFAP process serves the AW2 population well,” said MAJ Deb Cisney, the AW2 Operations Officer charged with overseeing all aspects of the AW2 Symposium. “This is the Army’s official method for addressing Soldier and Family issues, and AFAP conferences highlight issues the Army doesn’t normally delve into, such as community and collaboration issues.”

“They’ve really learned how to support our Soldiers and Veterans, and we appreciate being able to work with the same people year after year,” she added. “The AFAP team also helps us track the issues throughout the year and identify subject matter experts and action officers.”

What’s So Special about an AW2 Symposium?

There are several differences between an AW2 Symposium and a regular AFAP conference.”We only have AW2 delegates,” said MAJ Cisney.”It’s almost as though AW2 is hosting an AFAP conference.”  In addition, AW2 places an AW2 Advocate in each room to help gauge the needs of individual delegates. “AFAP has been incredibly supportive of AW2 and sensitive to our population,” said MAJ Cisney.

Ronnie has attended all five AW2 Symposiums and believes that AW2 has developed a great rhythm for working through the issues each year. “AW2 Symposium is different than the other AFAP conferences,” said Ronnie. “The issues are focused on this specific population, and the AFAP team has learned to accommodate Soldiers suffering from PTSD and TBIs.”

“For the first time, we’ve also placed an Advocate Mentor in each room,” added MAJ Cisney.  These specific AW2 Advocates are all AW2 Soldiers or spouses themselves. “No one can do what they do, they’ve walked in our Soldiers’ shoes, and they can quickly determine what individual delegates need.”

Another difference between an AW2 Symposium and an AFAP conference is that AW2 sometimes assigns a specific issue to more than one group. “This helps us get different perspectives,” said MAJ Cisney.

This year, AFAP staff are more involved in the formatting process for the individual issue reports.” Army leadership looks for specific key words when deciding on the best course of action for an issue,” said MAJ Cisney. “The AFAP team knows how to phrase things so leadership gets a clear picture of the focus groups’ intent.  They work closely with the groups to make sure the language still reflects their conversations.”

What Should AW2 Delegates Keep in Mind?

Ronnie had some great advice for Symposium delegates. “Be flexible and open,” she said. “Speak your mind and trust us – we really are here to help.”

AFAP staff also come away from Symposium with more respect for AW2 Soldier, Veterans, and spouses. “I am always inspired after an AW2 Symposium,” Ronnie added. “Every year, it is a life-changing experience.  You see the resilience and strength in these Soldiers, and their devoted spouses.  It helps me put my own life in perspective, my catastrophes become trivial when I hear these Soldiers talk about the challenges they overcome.”

“The resiliency of wounded warrior Families is incredibly powerful,” said Michelle Reilly, one of the focus group facilitators. “They’re here to tell their story, but also to improve the experience for Soldiers coming behind them.”

AW2 Symposium Q&A with WTC Leadership

–By Lee McMahon, AW2 Stratcom–

BG Cheek, do you see any differences this year from your experience last year at Symposium?

BG Cheek and Jay Wilkerson
“The biggest difference is that I have another year of experience. I was pretty new into it last year. Last year we were still the Warrior Care and Transition Office and the AW2 Program was still part of Human Resources Command so its not that we weren’t good partners in working this together but our relationships were different and our responsibilities were a little different. Last year, I was only able to stay that one day and this year I’ve been here for virtually the whole conference. This year, I think the delegates have given me a.) their personal experiences and b.) by listening to their issues and ideas, I’ve been able to match those with things that we’re working on and I’ve also been matching them with things that I thought we had fixed. There have been some cases where its caused me to step back and say we really need to look at this again because in execution its still not where we want it to be. The other point is that when I hear delegates talking, I can step forward and say we agree with you, we’ve seen the same thing, here are policies, here are the changes we are putting into place. A lot of times they will give us other ideas and perspectives we hadn’t considered. All in all, I’m enormously impressed with what I’ve picked up this year, and if I wish anything at all, I wish I had stayed for the whole conference last year. I’m sure I would have learned a lot there as well.”

SGM Lac, do you see differences from your experience at Symposiums in the past two years?

“I came on-board the same time as BG Cheek. I focused on my current job at that time as a senior enlisted advisor for the Warrior Care and Transition Office. It was a huge learning curve for me from last year until now. I’ve learned a great deal. There are great facilitators, great focus groups, and all the issues are very relevant to what we are doing and the reason why we are here.”

Sir, this is the fifth Symposium AW2 has held for severely wounded Soldiers and their Families. Why does the Army continue to hold this event?

“One might say, you’ve done this five times, how many more times do you need to do this? My answer to that would be you really need to come here and sit down and participate in it to adequately answer that question because we learn an awful lot from those we are trying to serve. The Army does this because we need some kind of measuring stick, on the policies, the programs, the services, the benefits, and the orchestration of all of that. We need someone to come back and give us a common sense test from their own personal experiences on how we are doing. Whether its working right or its not working right. Their perspective is something that is irreplaceable.”

SGM, you’ve been listening in on some of the focus groups, how is it going from your perspective?

“Its wonderful to sit down in some of the focus groups and listen to the Soldiers’ and the Families’ issues and concerns. I’ve heard quite a few issues that we are already working. Some of the issues may have already been resolved but its getting that information back out to the field. Other issues, they are right on track, and we need to take it back to leadership.”

Sir, I know focus groups just started on Friday, what are your thoughts on what you’re hearing?

“I’ve had the opportunity to sit in on all the different groups. I’ve had a lot of sidebar discussions with them on their personal experiences which they are eager to share. It has given me a greater appreciation for the complexity of what they face in terms of not just their medical treatment and recovery but the wide array of benefits and opportunities, and the procedures and processes they have to go through are very daunting and challenging. It really gives you an opportunity to get in their shoes a bit and in the smallest way to begin to appreciate what they are going through. I think we have a lot of things we can do better and I’m really appreciative of what these focus groups are doing. I think they are going to give us some great insight into our program and things to work on to make it better.”

SGM, are you getting input you can bring back to the enlisted force within Warrior Transition Command?

“Absolutely. This really helps me a lot; it gives me an opportunity to better understand the needs of our Soldiers and Families in this particular population. This will give me insight as we relook at the process of cadre training in terms of squad leader, platoon sergeant training. We need to make sure we develop a training requirement that meets the needs of our Soldiers and Families, that’s number one.”

Sir, as commander of WTC, what is your desired end state of this Symposium?

“We want to take major issues and the insights that are given to us from the focus groups and take them back, assign the issues to an action officer, put them on a milestone list, and let’s get after fixing those issues. I think to a large extent that could require new policies, changes to policies, but it will certainly require a lot of training and education. We’ve got to figure out a way to effectively pass on what we learn from events like this to our Soldiers and Families. We’ve got to do it in a recurring timeline because ours is a very transient population. Our program is all about taking care of Soldiers and Families. Whether that’s a Soldier in a warrior transition unit or a proud Army veteran, an Army wounded warrior out in the civilian community, and his or her Family, it’s all about whether we are taking care of them and doing everything we can for them. As AW2 says, for as long as it takes. That’s what we want to do here. I’m very excited about the Symposium. I think it’s been a huge success and we still have several days to go.”

AW2 Symposium: Day Two

–By Sarah Greer, AW2 Stratcom–

Opening Ceremony

AW2 delegates filed into the Symposium Opening Ceremony this morning as an Army band played Ruffles and Flourishes.  The room buzzed with excitement and activity.  Delegates were anxious to get started on the week’s business: telling the Army what they really think.

AW2 Sergeant Major SGM Brent R. Jurgersen welcomed the crowd and reminded us why we are here in San Antonio: to discuss 70 issues raised by AW2 Soldiers, Veterans, and Families over the last year.  “It’s time to get busy,” he said.  Over the next four days, AW2 delegates will determine which five issues should be raised to Army leadership.

“The Army, Warrior Transition Command, and AW2 want to get this right,” Jurgersen said, “and your efforts will affect the Soldiers that follow you.”

AW2 Director COL Jim Rice echoed this sentiment.  “Your mission this week is to identify issues most important to you that you believe will make a difference in how the Army serves wounded warriors.”

WTC Commander BG Gary H. Cheek emphasized the Symposium’s importance in helping AW2 delegates move forward with their lives.  “The goal is to enable AW2 Soldiers to get to a future that is rich in opportunity,” he said.  “You have retained the core of your essence and abilities, and we want to help you focus on your abilities, not your current state and disabilities.  What do you want to do with your life?  You have to make that decision, and AW2 is here to help.”

Focus Groups

The focus groups are already off to a strong start.  AW2 Symposium delegates are divided into five Focus Groups based on the issues of most concern to them: Careers, Family, Medical I, Medical II, and Veterans Affairs.

Each Focus Group will work through 10-15 issues submitted by AW2 Soldiers, Veterans, and Families over the last several months and determine which two issues are most important to the members of the group.  At the end of the Symposium, they will vote and report their top five issues to Army leadership and suggest solutions for correcting the issues.  Each Focus Group is led by a trained facilitator and includes a subject matter expert the delegates can turn to for factual information.

“I was surprised at how quickly the Family Focus Group gelled,” said AW2 Advocate Ann Yingling.  “Within the first few minutes, I could see the group would work well together.”

Advocate Patti Walker is the Advocate Mentor in the Medical II Focus Group.  “I’ve been to a Symposium before, so I told my delegates to be patient – this week will be therapeutic for them,” she said.  “Within hours, they were already coming to tell me I was right.”

Operation Purple Camp

Campers were most excited yesterday about the opportunity to connect with other children of wounded warriors.

“This is the first time the boys have gotten to meet other kids whose parents were injured in the war,” said AW2 Advocate and spouse Kathreyn Harris.

“I expected my eight-year-old to enjoy Operation Purple Camp,” said AW2 spouse Christina Grimes, “but my teenage daughter was even more excited.  She met three other girls whose fathers had traumatic brain injuries, and they spent most of yesterday talking about their experiences.  We’ve been looking for programs for the kids, and there’s nothing out there like this!”

Today, Operation Purple Camp hosted a Texas Day.  Campers went horseback riding and visited the Alamo, Texas’s most famous landmark, right in the heart of San Antonio.   Tonight, while their parents are occupied for Couples’ Night Out, AW2 kids will enjoy a “Flick and Float” night at the YMCA.  They’ll enjoy a private movie screening and then dive into the pool for a celebration of their own.

Couples’ Night Out

In this morning’s Opening Ceremony, SGM Jurgersen also reminded delegates that the Symposium is a time to “reconnect with your family and your comrades.”  Tonight, Operation Purple Camp and child care are giving the parents a night off to enjoy San Antonio and to spend time together.

Ten delegates won dinner at Chart House Restaurant at the 750-foot Tower of the Americas, with breathtaking views of the entire city.  Other delegates are planning to enjoy the many restaurants and water taxis along San Antonio’s romantic and historic Riverwalk.

AW2 Symposium

– by Sue Maloney, AW2 Advocate –

In June 2008, I had the opportunity to attend the AW2 Symposium as an Advocate from the field.  Because there were Soldiers and their Families from Washington State, I thought it was an important part of my Advocate role to volunteer.  Fortunately for me, someone at HQ agreed.

In reality, Symposium was more than I expected it to be.  Administratively, it allowed me to meet the staff and understand how to work with them more effectively.  The other Advocates inspired me by their strength, commitment, humor and experience.  We worked, interacted and played together while spending time with Soldiers and Families during the duty day and after hours.  They helped broaden my role as an Advocate in subtle and not so subtle ways, each using their own strength and unique style to build relationships.

Most importantly, I spent time with Soldiers and their Families.  I observed, maybe for the very first time, their strength and challenges up close and personal.  Many wounds were visible, others were not.  At various times, they talked about frustrations yet they frequently expressed appreciation for the smallest things.  Many reached out to offer friendship and support to one another.  There was a lot of giving throughout the week.

During registration, I saw teenagers who did not buy into the “mandatory fun” requirement for AW2 and Operation Purple “stuff.”  They obviously did not want to be part of this grand adventure in Indianapolis, IN.  Yet, at the first Parents and Kids meeting, on the very first night, they began to build life changing friendships that only strengthened during the week.  There was a magic in the hotel that began within hours of check-in.  I wish every child could experience the wonder of Operation Purple; as an outsider to the process, lives were changed.  Kids were normal and they didn’t have to explain their family situations.

Since AW2 Symposium 2008, I have a stronger commitment to Wounded Warriors and their Families.  They taught me a lot that week and continue to help me grow as a person and, most importantly, an Advocate.  Our Soldiers and Families are inspirational people that bring honor to America!  They will both amaze and surprise you with their experiences, contributions, struggles and survivals.  Their strength and passion might bring you to tears; they will have stories to tell and I’m confident you will laugh and cry during the week.

As an Advocate, it’s important that you work with your Wounded Warriors to ensure this is a successful experience for them.  It is hard work, emotional at times and physically draining.  One of the attendees, several years past his injury, expressed his dismay about how emotionally draining the process was for him.  Although families will benefit from the trip, especially children attending Operation Purple Camp, it might be difficult to share a room without having personal space.  This will not be the same experience as a fun family vacation.  There might be out of pocket expenses and the hotel might not be co-located next to discount stores to help ease the financial burden.

AW2 Symposium helped me to feel more connected to AW2 and, I hope, a better Advocate for our Wounded Warriors.  I encourage you to consider participating in the 2009 event scheduled for July 8-14, 2009 in San Antonio, TX.

AW2 Anniversary

Prior to becoming the AW2 Director I spent most of my 30 years in the Army Medical Department on the tactical side. From company grade time in Desert Storm to OIF tours as both a battalion and brigade commander I tried to ensure Soldiers were treated and evacuated timely and effectively.

This month, as AW2 marks five years of service, I look at the needs of our wounded, injured, and ill in a different way.

I see not only the results of modern medicine on the battlefield, I see the way the Army has adapted to provide support for the entire Soldier and equally importantly for his or her Family. We have seen our Soldiers survive injuries that previously would have taken them from us. While our Soldiers may survive, they are left with severe and life-altering injuries and the Army is left with figuring out how to help Soldiers who have given so much find a new normal.

Army Wounded Warrior Program is one way the Army has made a commitment to our severely wounded, injured, and ill Soldiers and their Families. With this our five-year anniversary, I think about the more than 4,000 severely wounded Soldiers and their Families within our ranks. I think about the more than 100 Soldiers we have helped to stay in uniform and I think about those Soldiers and Families who we work with everyday to find a career or education path that suits them in their future goals.

We are always striving to do better. We rely on you, AW2 Soldiers and Families, to tell us what needs to change and what is working. One venue for doing that is the AW2 Symposium, this year being held in San Antonio, TX. If you want to contribute to making future changes in warrior care for wounded Soldiers and their Families, please consider applying to be a delegate this year at https://www.aw2.army.mil/Symposium/index.html. I look forward to meeting with those of you who do attend this year’s Symposium.

I’m honored to be a part of the AW2 Program. I have enjoyed working on a new side of warrior care. Our Soldiers, Families, and Staff constantly inspire me.

Thank you for your service.

COL Jim Rice
Director, Army Wounded Warrior Program

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