Speaking Out, Raising Awareness, Bringing Change

October brought two incredible opportunties my way.  First, I was asked to participate in an interview with CBS Evening News for a piece on Secondary PTSD with my dear friends Brannan Vines, Torrey Shannon, and Kat Honaker.  We met up in Washington DC to sit down with Alison Schwartz Dorfman, Executive Producer of CBS Evening News, and discuss the mental health issues facing caregivers of veterans across the nation, specifically Secondary PTSD.  You can find the two videos here:

Caregivers of US Veterans Bear Scars of War
Treating Family Members Suffering From PTSD

Let me tell you, it is truly a humbling experience to sit for nearly two hours and explain your mental health issues to complete strangers.  The four of us laughed, cried, hugged, and cried again.  We worried for weeks until the segments aired about what the world–our friends, our familes, strangers–would think of us.  Would they see us as weak and cowardly?  Strong?  Hopeful?  Surely we would be judged. . . The piece was met with overwhelming cheers and thanks for speaking out on a painful, sensitive, and embarrasing issue.  At the time I thought perhaps I’d lost my mind, but now I am thankful that I had the courage to stand up and shine a light into the dark corners of our world.

I also had the opportunity to present at the 2012 Association of the United States Army Annual Meeting and Exposition in Washington, D.C.  AUSA’s Family Programs provide Army families assistance to manage the challenges of military life.  The Miltary Family Forum was designed to bring to light the issues surrounding reintegration following deployement and/or injury.  Below you can read an article from Military.com which features my panel.

Challenges Remain in Warrior Transition Units

Oct 24, 2012
Army wives stepped forward Tuesday at the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual conference to explain the continued struggle they face in rehabilitating their spouses injured in war and the challenges that remain working with Warrior Transition Units.

The Army created Warrior Transition Units to assist in making the wounded warriors’ journey to their “new normal” as smooth and productive as possible. The Army currently operates 29 WTUs across the country.
“These soldiers all have one mission in common, and that is to heal and prepare for transition, whether it’s back to the force or civilian life,” said Army Brig. Gen. David Bishop. “Each soldier is supported by a triad of care. That includes a primary care manager, a nurse case manager and a squad leader to work with the soldiers and the families of those soldiers to help manage the care and support that they receive.”

The WTUs have come a long way since the early days of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but issues remain, Army wives said Tuesday. Melissa Johnson, wife of Staff Sgt. Sean Johnson, told the attendees about her experiences after her husband was wounded in Balad, Iraq, in 2005.

Upon his return, Johnson was diagnosed with “medically unexplained physical symptoms.” No one really knew about those types of injuries.

Eventually, he was diagnosed with moderate traumatic brain injury and post traumatic stress disorder. He was also declared legally blind, and fought depression and anxiety.

The Johnsons’ problems were compounded by the fact they live in a remote area of South Dakota.
“We have a VA clinic in town, which has just a couple of providers,” Melissa Johnson said. “And we have a VA hospital three hours from us.”

She explained that the nearest military facility — an Air Force base — was six hours away. The medical board process required that the family make the drive multiple times. The family has three teenagers, her husband couldn’t drive, and she was holding down a full-time job.

“We had our local unit and they weren’t very supportive,” she said. “We’re out there; we’re by ourselves. You’re left hanging, partly because they don’t want to hear what’s happening, partly because they don’t understand.”
The burden changed her outlook.

“We’ve gone from being a wife and a partner to being a caregiver,” Melissa Johnson said. “All of our kids have stepped into that caregiving role too.”

Kim Gadson’s husband, Lt. Col. Greg Gadson, was seriously wounded in Iraq by a roadside bomb while serving as the battalion commander for the 2nd Battalion, 32nd Field Artillery Regiment. Greg Gadson’s wounds resulted in the loss of both legs, and he sustained damage to his right arm and elbow.

The family was forced to relocate from Fort Riley, Kan., to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., to provide support and assistance as Gadson recovered from his injury. Gadson has since become the first amputee to take over a post command.

“As you can imagine, this was a very tough transition for us,” Kim Gadson told the conference attendees. “Lots of things were happening. Half of them you wouldn’t believe if I told you. The other half I don’t want you to know.”
Both wives eventually sought help from fellow Army families who were going through similar challenges
“We got some help,” Melissa Johnson said. “We had to have a lot of help from our family and our friends and our Army family.”

“The children and I had to learn how to take care of him before we could leave the hospital,” Kim Gadson said. “We learned lots of things so we could take our soldier home.”

But all the while, a nagging question lingered: “What if this is it?” Melissa Johnson mused. “What if he never gets any better than he is today?”

Catherine Mogil of UCLA’s Families Overcoming Under Stress (FOCUS) program said that reaching out is important for families, and that many families are fearful of getting help.

“Families do recover,” Mogil said. “They may not ever go back to the way it was, but they can move forward.”
Success hinges on awareness and communication, she said.

“A lot of spouses don’t know what to look for. They might be given a checklist, but what does it actually look like in day to day life?”

Mogil fears the Army has spent too much time focused on the troops and not enough on those around them.
“We need to be thinking about the entire family,” she said. “If I can get them functioning as a family unit, my servicemember patient is going to do better as well.”

Regardless of the challenges or effort required, Bishop assured the crowd that the Army supported those who have sacrificed so much.

“We embrace the responsibility to provide the resources necessary to support and care for our wounded, ill and injured,” he said.
 
Reflection (What I wish I had said):
 
While I feel I covered many issues (going well over my 13 allotted minutes during my presentation), there were several points that I felt were either missed in the article, or that I did not give enough emphasis during my presentation.  
  • We are in year *5* of the med board process, essentially starting over.  When we testifed in 2010 on Seamless Transition we were assured that Sean’s case would be wrapped up,  yet we’re starting over five years later.  I felt there was an effort to “breeze over” that fact and call us an “extreme” case.  I see these “extreme” cases every single day.  
  • We did not have, and still do not have, adequate support from Sean’s unit.  We have had a complete lack of support from the military.   I believe injury and illness gives new definition to an “Army of One.”
  • I know *without a doubt* I NEVER said, “Army family.”  We don’t have an Army family here. The one we should have had dropped Sean the moment he was injured and dropped me when I said I was too overwhelmed dealing with his injuries to volunteer for them full time.
  • Those of us in rural areas face unequal, at times nearly impossible, access to care.  We must travel hours, wait months, jump through hoops at the last minute in order to get physical and mental health care for our veterans.
  • It’s not about our case, it’s about painting a picture of what’s going on nationwide with families and veterans, raising awareness, and pushing for change.
I would like to thank the wonderful Kristy Kauffman of Code of Support for arranging the invitation for me to speak during the AUSA conference!

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