Project Odyssey–Revitalizing an AW2 Soldier’s Confidence

By SSG (Ret.) Leslie Wohlfeld, AW2 Veteran

While participating in Project Odyssey, activities like horseback riding helped SSG (Ret.) Leslie Wohlfeld positively deal with PTSD

My name is SSG (Ret.) Leslie Wohlfeld and I am an Army Wounded Warrior. I would like to share with you all my experiences with the Wounded Warrior Project’s (WWP) Project Odyssey this past summer. With encouragements from my AW2 Advocate, Laura Castillo and my doctor at Brooklyn VAMC, I took a leap of faith and decided I would go ahead and meet other female Veterans from OEF and OIF.

Since my return from deployment in Feb 2004, I spend most of my days and nights in a “silent world” recovering from the physical and emotional effects of war. This leaves me mentally and physically drained. I tried working several different jobs, only to quit. Prior to Project Odyssey I avoided public gatherings and large noisy crowds because I felt unsafe, anxious, and overwhelmed.

After resigning myself to no public engagement other than going to my VA medical appoints, I received a phone call from WWP asking me to join them at Project Odyssey.  I spent 5 days and 4 nights in the New York Windham Mountains. During the month of June 2010, I, along with 12 other female combat veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq, had an extraordinary experience. The staff and volunteers from Adaptive Sports Foundation (ASF), WWP, and Vet Center, helped teach me different techniques in how to navigate my journey towards recovery from PTSD and my lower extremity injuries. 

Every day we were involved in different forms of physical activities during the morning followed by relaxation in the afternoon. The activities were numerous and diverse, each teaching me something new. For example, I learned how to properly ride a horse without falling off while taking picture–a feat if I do say so myself. Lucky for me, the horse knew the path.

Other activities included my first time in a kayak when I learned how to not tip over–saving myself from taking a dip in the lake. Thanks to my certified trainer we both stayed dry. Or, on another occasion, an ASF volunteer helped me get unstuck from a muddy hiking trail with a 3 wheel bicycle. I still remember hearing a battle buddy behind me, reassuring me to continue and not to turn back. She’d say, ”yes, you can do it.”  After our physical activities, we learned how to truly take deep breaths with some yoga and how to prepare our own healthy snacks.

During this experience, I never felt alone, there was always someone with me, a battle buddy, volunteer, or staff checking in to ensure that everything was okay.  Each day’s activities had an underlining theme–balancing one’s life. The energy I felt during this experience led towards a revitalization in my confidence.

Returning home, I realized it is okay to laugh, cry, relax, and trust others, knowing we are not alone in our individual battles during the healing process. I am very fortunate to have participated in this Odyssey. The bond and camaraderie I walked away with resembles a precious stone.  One cherishes it for a lifetime.

The Call

By Diana Hume, AW2 Reserve Spouse

The call informing Diana Hume of her Soldier’s injury tested her strength and perseverance

Editor’s Note: Diana Hume is a feature blogger for AW2. She’ll be sharing her experiences as the wife of a severely wounded reservist. She hopes her blog will help other reservist spouses, as well as inspire and educate others about the unique challenges they face

The call. We all know what that means to us and the emotions the simple thought of it still carries. The call is delivered in many different ways, but the impact it has on us is similar. Mine was not the typical process, but it was still the call.

With that said, I am going to begin sharing more personal pieces of my journey as a reservist’s spouse. Some of these topics will be painful to share, but they are from my heart. More than anything I want to touch someone, another reserve spouse, in such a way that they understand they are unique, brave, and someone who can defy all odds. So, here is some more of my story.

My Soldier had left his Texas home for war. Up to this point, this was one of the most difficult periods we had to experience in our marriage. My new time alone soon became an understated challenge, but simultaneously an inner strength began to reveal itself. The new routine at home was beginning to find its place and adjustment began. Part of this routine was preparing the packages to send to our Soldier and anticipating the rare phone calls when we would hear his voice or e-mails to read and share our thoughts.  All of these events were ways we coped as a family while helping him feel connected and close to home.

After a few months, this new routine started to feel somewhat normal. My new inner strength told me I can do this, it will be ok. Nights were long and I found it hard to sleep with re-occurring thoughts about where he was and whether he was safe. Some nights those thoughts came with tears and emptiness. An ache sprinkled with fear. Eventually sleep arrived but the peace it brought was always too short.

As more time passed I sensed unfamiliar changes in my Soldier.  His calls home became infrequent and when they did occur, the discussions were strange and extremely unsettling. Instead of conversations about the kids, activities, and us, it changed to conversations about whether his life insurance was in order to take care of the kids and me.  Then emails from him began to slow down perpetuating the re-occurring theme of pushing home away–detaching. My new strength was being tested and my instinct told me something had happened. Something was wrong. 

Eventually, the feared call had made its way home. For me, it came in the form of a letter from my Soldier.  He told me that he was checking out of the life we had built together. He thought he was not coming home. This was the first of many of my personal 9–1–1’s. From his words in his letters to my internal fear, all of it became overpowering. My gut ached and my thoughts scrambled. Questions overwhelmed me. How can I help him? Why can’t anyone in Iraq see the pain I hear in his voice? At this point, I did not have a book or document that told me what to do, who to call, or what to expect. I had no protocol. So, I took my new, and still building, strength and found a way to be resourceful. I had no other option but to help my Soldier, my love, any way I could. 

I understood that there is a business side to military and to war, but there had to be a humanitarian side to supporting the Family as well. I was alone and lost, but realized that I had learned a boat load along the way. The Army is big and I, as a reservist’s spouse, was feeling helpless and ignorant. I wasn’t part of a Family Readiness Group and didn’t have names of anyone in the unit. I didn’t have a clue about what the rear detachment was or that it even existed.  All I had to rely on was my own intuition.

During this time I found myself digging deep trying to find a raft to climb onto. I was sinking and sinking fast.  The kids were trying to take care of me as I worked hard to take care of the Soldier I thought I had lost 6,000 miles away. With time, I remembered someone talking about the acronym FRG (Family Readiness Group). This was the fuel that kept me digging for help. To this day, I truly don’t know how I found our FRG volunteer’s number. I chalk it up to persistence and resourcefulness, attributes I believe are part of each reservist’s spouse.

With what felt like an eternity, the FRG volunteer shared with me the bits and pieces about where my Soldier was and informed me that he was indeed actually getting help. He was being sent to Germany for a medical evaluation. The doctors concluded several things were going on and that they had to send him to Walter Reed. Up to this point, I had yet to receive a phone call from anyone informing me of his status and that he was being med-evac’ed to the States. Even he wasn’t in contact with me. I felt the detachment again and again.

Finally, a true call was made. To my surprise, it was from my Soldier telling me he had already been at Walter Reed for a few days.  His words were unfamiliar and his voice was changed and distant. I was confused and broken. He was able-bodied, but he was wounded.  No missing arms or legs, no injuries from direct IEDs. It was assumed that he could take care of himself, when in reality he couldn’t. And to top it all, the Army had forgotten his Family–no one called.

I know that my story is familiar. When we, the spouse, receive the call that our Soldier is injured, we are tested again. Our emotions run high, but our new strength takes charge and carries us when we least suspect. We look back and wonder how did I get through the call?  I believe that as a reservist’s spouse, we somehow find our own way to meet the objectives of our mission by being steadfast and strong.  All calls are unique, personal, and undoubtedly full of emotion and unimaginable challenges. One thing in common is that they change us forever and in ways we can’t always explain.

Even if we do not have the answers, we have to find them. We cannot sit and wait, even if it is just a gut feeling we are operating from. Our voice is our friend, sometimes the only one we may have at certain points along the way. That is why we have to learn to use our voice. Dig deep and let’s find answers to build the network we need in order to support each other. 

I know that work is underway on improving how reserve Families receive information during their Soldiers’ deployments.  It is a start, but we must share our experiences so that more can be done. We have to let those working to help us know what’s working and what’s not. I am sure I am not alone when I say this, but I don’t want someone to go through the same experience I did.  That’s why I want our words to be heard. We are important and our stories and experiences will make a difference.

Don’t Give Up on Me, I Won’t Give Up on You

Danelea Kelly and her mother at Camp Striker, Iraq, in 2005.

Danelea Kelly and her mother at Camp Striker, Iraq, in 2005.

By Tania Meireles, WTC Stratcom

AW2 Veteran Danelea Kelly had two tours in Iraq, one in 2005-2006 and again in 2007-2008. She was a driver leading convoys of supplies. Explosions and being shot at were common occurrences. She was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) while in Iraq and an Army chaplain had her medically evacuated in 2008. Her plans for a 20 year Army career and following her Family’s tradition of being in the military ended, she was medically retired from the Army in 2009.

“I was crushed and depressed,” Kelly said. “I lost the best part of me. Being in the military is like being with a Family. Once you have left the military, you feel like a fish out of water. No one seems to understand you, and you don’t know what you are going to do with yourself.”

Because of Kelly’s struggle with PTSD and pain in her back, knees, and feet, she was having a hard time finding employment that will not aggravate her condition and will allow her to go to frequent medical appointments at the Veterans Affairs (VA) medical center. She doesn’t sleep well, has mood swings, hides from people, doesn’t like leaving the house, and hates crowds. She also tried going to school but with her memory problems, school was very difficult. She couldn’t handle the stress anymore.

“With all I was going through with PTSD, my physical impairments, trying to get to VA appointments and looking for a job-having my AW2 Advocate around helped take the burden off of me,” she said. “She calls me and makes sure I am ok. If she can’t get in touch with me, she stops by and makes sure I have food and a place to stay. She encourages me, counsels me, and is available 24/7.”

Danelea Kelly during her deployment in Iraq.

Danelea Kelly during her deployment in Iraq.

Kelly praised AW2 and the National Organization on Disability (NOD), the latter of whom arranged for her to speak about her experiences with members of Congress. AW2 and NOD have been assisting her in finding the right resources, such as financial and career and education assistance. Kelly has been outspoken about her struggles with PTSD and finding employment. She talked about the importance of programs like AW2 and NOD, and asked Congress to expand these programs.

“AW2 and NOD are very important to a Veteran like me,” she said. “I don’t take them for granted. My gratitude, my words, my actions-show how sincerely grateful I am for this help during the most troublesome time of my life.”

With the help of AW2 and NOD, she is focusing on the things she can do and working around PTSD for a “plan b” or “plan c.” Kelly participated in the Veterans Affairs Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment Program (VR&E), also known as VocRehab. This program assists with employment services such as job-training, job-seeking skills, and résumé development—as well as rehabilitation services, counseling, and training. Her Advocate also suggested that she apply for the Wounded Warrior Project TRACK program.

“TRACK really concentrates on healing the Veteran holistically,” said Kelly. “They help you with counseling, physical fitness, physical therapy, college classes, training, etc. You are in classes with other Veterans like you. Your expenses are taken care of and you leave there ready to succeed. I am so excited, I couldn’t ask for more of a blessing.”

“For all the organizations that don’t give up on me, I won’t give up on them. I keep fighting to say thank you to them. Next to God, they are my help and strength.”

We Cannot Do It Without You

BG Cheek talked with wounded Veterans and spouses at AW2’s Symposium Family Night in TX

By BG Gary Cheek, WTC Commander

This past week I got to know many of the delegates at the AW2 Symposium—wounded Soldiers and Veterans, along with their spouses and caregivers.  They were in Texas once again serving the Army by working to identify and recommend ways government agencies can improve warrior care.  It was an honor to listen and learn from them so that I can do better to shape the Army’s programs in the future. 

Event delegates spent a week hashing out ways to improve “the system” and then voted on their top five priorities.  They selected:

  1. Medically retired service member’s eligibility for Concurrent Receipt of Disability Pay (CRDP)
  2. Post 9/11 GI Bill transferability to dependents for all medically retired service members
  3. Mandatory post-traumatic stress disorder/traumatic brain injury (PTSD/TBI) training for Veterans Affairs (VA) healthcare staff
  4. Transfer option from Temporary Disability Retired List (TDRL) to Permanent Disability Retired (PDR) for wounded warriors
  5. Benefits and entitlements information to wounded warrior primary caregivers

Our work at the Warrior Transition Command is such an important mission for the Army and if we don’t do it right, and take the best care of our wounded, ill, and injured Soldiers and Veterans—and their Families—then we will run the risk that young people will not step forward to serve and defend this country in the future.  I am honored to have this responsibility. 

I told the AW2 Symposium delegates they’ve given us great work to do with these five recommendations and I plan to do it right. 

The Votes Are In, and It’s Time For Action

By COL Jim Rice, AW2 Director

At each of the last six AW2 Symposiums, we’ve given the delegates a mission: to be the voice of the thousands of wounded warriors, their Families, and their caregivers. Like delegates in years past, 2010 Symposium delegates accepted the mission and got the job done.

On Friday morning, each of the five delegate focus groups briefed senior officials from Army, Veterans Affairs (VA), and other agencies on their top issues. AW2 Veteran John Wright, spokesman for the careers focus group, got the session off to a great start when he plopped Veteran Scott Stephenson’s prosthetic on the podium and told the audience that his group “had a leg up on the rest of the delegation.”

After the briefing, the delegates voted to prioritize the top issues facing Army wounded warriors, their Families, and their caregivers. This year, the delegates selected the following things to be addressed:

  1. Medically retired service member’s eligibility for Concurrent Receipt of Disability Pay (CRDP)
  2. Post 9/11 GI Bill transferability to dependents for all medically retired servicemembers
  3. Mandatory post-traumatic stress disorder/traumatic brain injury (PTSD/TBI) training for VA healthcare staff
  4. Transfer option from Temporary Disability Retired List (TDRL) to Permanent Disability Retired (PDR) for wounded warriors
  5. Benefits and entitlements information to wounded warrior primary caregivers
At the 2010 AW2 Symposium, delegates in the medical focus group reflect on their discussions as they prioritize their top issues for the brief-out to senior Army leadership.

At the 2010 AW2 Symposium, delegates in the medical focus group reflect on their discussions as they prioritize their top issues for the brief-out to senior Army leadership.

Senior Army, MEDCOM, and VA leaders listened firsthand to the delegates talk about these issues and committed to work hard to resolve them.

Now that the votes are in, my team and I will get to work. We’ll coordinate with other programs within the Army, throughout DOD, and other federal agencies, especially those within VA. In addition to their commitment, I promise that AW2 will do all it can to continue to provide personalized support for as long as it takes. It’s our honor and privilege.

This week at the AW2 Symposium, there was a lot of hard work by our delegates—65 severely wounded, ill, and injured Soldiers, Veterans, and their Families. They opened up about experiences they don’t typically share, they tackled hard issues facing wounded warriors, and came together to prioritize areas for change to improve things for those who come next—all while dealing with their own ongoing medical challenges such as burns, amputations, TBI, and PTSD. I was proud of how they continued to serve the Army. Their efforts will impact generations to come.

I thought AW2 spouse Loree Pone put it well, she said, “Delegates had a lot of compassion for other peoples’ issues—we’re here to make things better for the wounded Soldiers that follow. I know that some of these issues will take time to resolve, but I know that the Army will work to fix them as quickly as possible.”

I appreciate all the 2010 Symposium delegates, as well as delegates from all previous AW2 Symposiums, for taking the time to come and tell the Army how we can continue to improve the care we provide to severely wounded warriors and their Families. We heard your concerns, and now it’s time to take action.

Army’s Wounded Give Marching Orders for Five Areas of Improvement

Alexandria, VA—Sixty-five severely wounded Soldiers, Veterans, and their Family members prioritized the top issues facing the Army’s wounded warriors. This year, the delegates at the annual Army Wounded Warrior Program (AW2) Symposium selected five items to be addressed:

  1. Medically retired servicemember’s eligibility for Concurrent Receipt of Disability Pay (CRDP)
  2. Post 9/11 GI Bill transferability to dependents for all medically retired servicemembers
  3. Mandatory post-traumatic stress disorder/traumatic brain injury (PTSD/TBI) training for Veterans Affairs (VA) healthcare staff
  4. Transfer option from Temporary Disability Retired List (TDRL) to Permanent Disability Retired (PDR) for wounded warriors
  5. Benefits and entitlements information to wounded warrior primary caregivers

“The AW2 Symposium is about listening to those who have been through it and learning firsthand about ways we can continue to improve how we care for our most severely wounded, injured, and ill Soldiers, Veterans, and their Families—then take action,” said AW2 Director COL Jim Rice. “These delegates were the voice of the Army’s 7,000 severely wounded Soldiers, and we listen very closely to what they say.”

Issues raised at previous symposiums that have been resolved include expanded facilities to treat TBIs and a stipend for primary caregivers of severely wounded servicemembers to the creation of the AW2 Community Support Network and a $10,000 increase in VA housing benefits.

The final issues were announced at the conclusion of the AW2 Symposium, which took place from June 21-25 in San Antonio, TX. The top issues were chosen from more than 80 topics that were discussed in five focus groups: medical, careers, Family, Soldier support, and VA.

AW2 Symposium delegate and Veteran, Matt Staton, stated, “I can leave this event knowing that my voice, and the voices of the Soldiers I represent, will be heard. The AW2 Symposium is an excellent process for the Army to listen and to improve warrior care. All the delegates leave with the knowledge that a lot of people in the Army are striving to improve the care we wounded warriors receive.”

For the last six years, AW2 has served the most severely wounded, injured, and ill Soldiers, Veterans, and their Families. AW2 assists and advocates for the most severely wounded Soldiers, Veterans, and their Families, wherever they are located, regardless of their military status, for as long as it takes. AW2 is part of the Warrior Transition Command (WTC)—a new one-star command under the U.S. Army Medical Command that serves as the central comprehensive source for warrior care support across the Army. To learn more about AW2, visit www.AW2.army.mil or call 800-237-1336.

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Stories Offer a Glimpse into Life Post Injury

Retired CW3 James Hume talks about life with PTSD.

Emily Oehler, WTC Stratcom

This morning, I had the honor of listening to three people tell their personal story. While each story was unique, heartfelt and powerful—they all showed the full impact of a life with a severe injury, and the impact on the Family. I was in awe as retired Chief Warrant Officer James Hume, Army spouse Gina Hill and retired Sergeant Scott Stephenson shared their stories at the Army Wounded Warrior Program’s (AW2) Symposium.

As I watched James speak, he looked like corporate America—dark suit, clean cut, distinguished. Actually, he looked a lot like actor Bill Pullman who played the president in Will Smith’s Independence Day. Watching him, it was hard to connect what he was saying to his calm, poised demeanor. James suffers from PTSD and mild TBI. Although he received treatment at the combat stress unit in Balad, Iraq, cognitive behavior training at Walter Reed, and coping skills therapy through the Veterans Administration, it wasn’t until he returned home that it all really hit him.

“I returned home, my Family and I were hit hard with the symptoms of PTSD. My condition got worse in my new environment and over the following six months my situation deteriorated to a crisis mode. As a result, I was admitted to the Dallas VA for two weeks to stabilize my condition with medications. About three months later, I was admitted to a seven week inpatient PTSD program at the Waco, Texas VA. It was there, for once, I finally received what I call a well rounded education on PTSD. I was able to process my traumas, recognize triggers, and attempt to alter my behavior. This awareness does not cure PTSD but is intended to improve the quality of life for the Veteran and that also translates to the Family. My wife Diana and I feel awareness, education, and treatment should be extended to the Family members for they are an integral part of the Family dynamics and in many cases Family is all you have left.”

A Marine and Army reservist for nearly 30 years, James served in the Persian Gulf War and volunteered to deploy to Iraq with an ordinance unit. In Iraq he went on missions for route clearance and foot patrols throughout the villages which exposed him to multiple IEDs, mortar and rocket fire and resulted in life-altering injuries.

“This is not the person I use to be. I even avoid people that knew me before so they do not know me now. I try to protect a reputation that is now masked behind incompetence. As a reserve Soldier, this impacted not only my military career but also my civilian career and almost cost me my Family. I have worked hard with coping mechanisms but they also have limits. I can’t respectfully articulate what it is like to live with PTSD. The closest I can come is to imagine your mind is no longer your mind, your life is no longer your life, your dreams are no longer your dreams, you’re not the husband your wife deserves, you’re not the father your children deserve, you’re not the friend your friends deserve, you’re not a contributor to society but rather you view yourself as a burden. To simplify, imagine a life with a broken spirit. This may seem extreme to a normal person but it is normal for a person with PTSD.”

SGT Allen Hill’s wife Gina added that, “While the majority of Allen’s physical, or visible, wounds have healed, our Family still struggles daily with the psychological wounds. Often times, these are called the invisible wounds, but I have a hard time calling them that, for they are very visible to anyone who spends any amount of time with him.”

Gina then spoke about the impact of her husband’s TBI and PTSD on their Family. “These psychological wounds greatly affect not only the Soldier, but the entire Family. My husband’s triggers are now triggers for myself as well as our children. In the rare times we are away from my husband, we are constantly on high alert for his triggers. It is next to impossible for us to turn that off. Our kids have had to become caregiver’s for their dad instead of just being kids. They are well rehearsed in PTSD, calling 911, and explaining why their dad has a service dog, why he isn’t at many of their events, and why he sometimes acts really weird. They also have to understand that plans are never set in stone and are always contingent on their dad’s current mental state.”

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

Her husband commented, “I wish I could get back to the old me for my Family’s sake, my wife’s sake. I know they long for the person I used to be.”

The life-long challenges retired SGT Scott Stephenson talked about were more physical. As a SAW gunner, he experienced third and fourth degree burns over 66 percent of his body and the amputation of his left foot as a result of an IED explosion. “I was sent to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio where I received the best possible care and treatment. My treatment has been a long, hard road, and is still ongoing. Trying to describe living with burns is tough, and the best explanation I can come up with is, it’s like living with most of your body wrapped in air-tight saran wrap. I can’t feel the breeze on my skin.”

With all their challenges, each Family continues to serve and give back through nonprofits they’ve started, those they volunteer with, and through the stories they share so that other wounded Soldiers, Veterans, and Families know they are not alone.

Army Gathers Recommendations for Improvements

Veteran Carlos Labarca-Cruz and his Family

Veteran Carlos Labarca-Cruz and his Family traveled from Puerto Rico to attend the 2010 AW2 Symposium in San Antonio, Texas.

By COL Jim Rice, AW2 Director

For the sixth year in a row, AW2 is bringing in more than 65 delegates—severely wounded, injured and ill Soldiers, Veterans and their spouse/caregiver—to identify the top issues facing this population and recommend improvements. While delegates are hard at work, their children will participate in Operation Purple®, an urban adventure camp hosted by the National Military Family Association.

I look forward to this event every year. Not only does it keep AW2 focused on what is important to the Army’s wounded warriors, but it unites Soldiers and Veterans together—as well as their Families. This afternoon I saw a Soldier, two Veterans, two wives and a mom all talking in a group about their challenges and their accomplishments. There were tears but also much laughter in describing the adventure that comes with being a wounded warrior.

I look around and see amputees showing off new prosthetics. I overhear wives talking with other wives about the organizations where they got local help. I hear Veterans talking about life with PTSD—comparing symptoms. I see anxiety on a parent’s face when they talk about the stress of the injury on their kids, as well as relief when they talk to an organization in our Community Support Network. I see folks connecting with their greater Army Family—learning they are not alone. It’s a powerful week for all involved.

I think delegate spouse Regina Hill summed it up best when she told me, “Participating in the AW2 Symposium is very important for us for many reasons. It helps us heal by sharing our story, as well as giving us the sense of helping make this road better for other Families facing similar situations. Allen and I both feel that if we don’t share our own story, we can’t expect for things to get fixed that we have struggled with throughout this journey. We hope that by sharing our personal struggles and accomplishments, we will shed light on some things that need fixed and share the blessings we have received that others may not know about.”

Working At Symposium Connects Soldier to Others with PTSD

Battle buddies Brett Turpin and Matt Staton reunite at the AW2 Symposium.

By Nick Lutton, Guest blogger and member of the National Guard

This week I’m attending the Army Wounded Warrior Program (AW2) Symposium for the first time. I kind of got here by pure luck, the way most of the cooler things in my life have happened. The company I work for is supporting the event, and there was an open spot for a guy who writes, edits, lifts heavy boxes and can eat good Tex-Mex. I fit right in. When I first signed on to do this gig I didn’t realize it was going to affect me in the way that it has so far. I initially thought, “There goes my diet and blood pressure.” What I mean is this Symposium is going to be deeper than I thought.

For example, I met one of the main presenters yesterday. CW3 James Hume is a wounded warrior who is here to talk about wounds that have affected so many of my fellow servicmembers coming back from OIF/OEF. He has been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). As we were talking, I realized I went through very similar scenarios in my head. My friend has gone through similar scenarios too. Since coming back, I’ve been violent, I’ve been depressed, I get easily frustrated and lash out. My friend still refuses to drive on highways. I tend to avoid heavy crowds. I’ve had nightmares. I crawled into a bottle. I know other friends who have too.

I joined the Army prior to 9/11. I remember standing in formation, as a young private, and the drill sergeant asking everyone why they joined the United States Army. Every single one of us joined for the college money. It was a different time then, we all had a different way of looking at the world. I hadn’t given a thought as to who our biggest threat was. Of course, 9/11 changed that for most if not all of us. I stayed in the Army for patriotism, and I would do it all over again.

I first deployed to Afghanistan in June of 2003. I was part of a 20 Soldier team that conducted Public Affairs missions all around the country. I volunteered for every mission I could. I first met my buddy with the highway problem during this deployment. I’m not releasing his name because I don’t have his express written consent. We’ll just call him “Highway.” So Highway and I were constantly travelling, we ended up in several hairy situations that I can only describe as the first real time in my life that I was actually scared for my life.

When I got back home, initially I thought I was okay, but PTSD crept up on me. It hit me like a frying pan to the back of the head. This was the first time I became violent towards a significant other, after that incident, I sought counseling and I co-created a group at my university for Veterans so that we could be around people who understood what we had gone through. I deployed again in 2006 to Afghanistan and came home a different person. I initially had what I call jumping spells at night. I would almost leap out of bed, but I don’t remember the dream exactly. My relationship suffered and I eventually got a divorce, drank more, had another violent outburst, and eventually sought serious counseling. The counseling has helped me calm myself. I’ve always felt, my counselor believes, and my ex agrees that I might have PTSD, which brings me back to James and the Army Wounded Warrior Symposium.

James is a well-spoken man, and he does his best to describe what he is going through. It’s tough, it’s tough to watch, and it’s tough to listen to. Not because his voice hurts my ears or anything, but because I know. I know the pain, the embarrassment, the feeling of let down from the actions you have taken. I know the frustration.

If you are a Veteran, a wounded warrior, a spouse or Family member of either, you should read the blogs, read the information on the Symposium, make plans to come to one of the Symposiums if you can, learn about AW2 or contact your local VA or Military OneSource and get help.

AW2 Spouse Writes to Cope, Heal

By Tania Meireles, WTC Stratcom

AW2 Family Janis and Norris Galatas at home in Mississippi.

AW2 Family, Janis and Norris Galatas, at home in Mississippi.

AW2 Spouse Janis Galatas wrote a book, A Soldier’s Courage, about her husband Norris and the struggles they have gone through. I was able to catch up with her recently to ask her how the process of writing about her feelings and challenges has helped her and her husband and how she hopes others will use writing as an outlet during difficult times.

How did you start writing?

I must have inherited the writer’s flair from my mom. Mom wrote a moving poem about her brave hero brother who died in WWII on the “Indy Maru.” She also wrote a little book for her nieces and nephews connecting them with their Family history. My Mom and I are also great writers of letters.

How did writing down your experiences after your husband’s injury make you feel?

At first it was just documentation, but later on, as the wait got longer, staff moved to other jobs, or surgeons moved on to other hospitals, it became very cathartic. I was writing it all down as it happened to us at Walter Reed, and my pals in Georgia and California were posting it on their websites over the Internet. From April 2005 through the horrible aftermath of surgery #17 in August of 2006, it all went global. We went through some bad times at Walter Reed. But things eventually did get better. I realized I would have exploded on somebody if I hadn’t had the “blog” to vent and to have the support of “prayer warriors”—people from all over the world…literally—praying for us. Without my buddies on the Internet, I would have been totally alone at Walter Reed with no support group. Blogging is therapeutic. It was all in the book and people tell me they had no clue how badly our wounded were getting treated.

When did you decide to write a book and why?

While Norris lay in a coma at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC, I remembered advice from a friend of Norris’s who had to fight with the Army and the VA for every percentage of his disability benefit. He said to put down everything, so I was documenting Norris’s care, his medications, and his procedures. When Norris awakened nine days later, he was disoriented, deep into a drug haze, and he couldn’t even tell the doctors what hospital he was in. So, I began a daily journal to keep up with his surgeries, procedures, and adventures in the hospital so he could read them later on. After he became mobile his adventures grew. During the first 90 days I stayed with him, it was mostly documentation, but after four years of making Walter Reed his home, the book was born. He met so many wonderful supporters and we have become firm friends with so many all over the globe. I wanted to let all the Families know where to go for help and where to get stuff for their Soldiers without having to spend their own money. People need to know this. It is also a healing experience for our veterans who have read it.

How has writing the book helped you and your Family?

Everyone is happy to read it and loves it, but with sales so slow, writing, and publishing the book was more a labor of love than anything else. I am still in the hole financially and it has been rough on us. I’m just glad families have benefitted from all the information I put in. People who were not close to us and didn’t know how severe Norris’s injuries were, after reading the book are all shocked at just how wonderful he looks but how almost dead he was. Especially the medics who worked on him that day, they thought he was a “goner.”

What are your hopes for your book?

Of course I would love to make a little money for my two passions—horses and Soldiers. I have rescued horses and adopted Soldiers. But if I never make a dime in royalties, I just wish military families could know it is out there. There is just so much information about how the Army can better work for you or even things you can do from the civilian side to benefit your wounded warrior. There are some things that are going to happen and one must learn how to cope with stuff and not let it ruin a marriage and destroy the kids. PTSD and TBI are difficult to diagnose and so many go untreated until they have lost everything. My book tells how our wounded can learn to “work the system” and lets families know how to recognize PTSD and even how to deal with TBI. Norris was at WRAMC for one and a half years before his “mild” TBI showed up, and it took until just last Christmas for me to realize he was suffering from PTSD and withdrawing from public places and events. We are working through it and we are going to be fine, but it is not easy to watch someone you love go through the emotional withdrawal as well as suffer the physical pain.

How do you suggest AW2 Soldiers, Veterans, and Families start writing as an outlet for what they are going through?

Just grab a notebook and start keeping a daily journal. Write down every appointment, every flashback, and every hurdle. As you write, go ahead and keep track of who does what and to whom you have to report. Go ahead and vent and get it all out of your system. Later on, should you publish, you can edit. One of the things my Soldiers said they missed was being able to talk with other Soldiers. Go to meet with other troops in homes, camp houses, VA facilities and even clubs if necessary…but get together with other troops. Talk about it. Same for spouses and kids…meet with other families and kids. Find out how they coped.

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Write a blog for WTC

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