Wounded veterans share the bonds of common experiences but everyone's journey is unique. The varied needs of our injured service men and women are the reason Wounded Warrior Project® supports their recovery process with programs that address mind, body, economic empowerment and engagement.
Sergeant, U.S. Army,
Wounded Warrior Project® Alumnus
When Christine Schei’s son, Erik, was gravely injured while serving in Iraq, she immediately began caring for him without considering the seriousness of his injuries or how it would affect her own life.
“I really did not understand,” Christine says. “Maybe I did not want to understand.”
Christine thought Erik just needed time to heal, but it was soon clear Erik’s recovery would require much more. “At that point, you are ignorant, and I can admit that. But we’d never met anyone with a brain injury, so we didn’t know,” Christine says.
For Christine and her husband, Gordon, the road to becoming caregivers started with Erik’s enlistment in the Army shortly after the 9/11. During his second deployment in Iraq in 2005, Erik was at the .50 caliber machine gun of his Humvee while fellow engineers repaired the roadway. He was the sniper’s first and only target.
“It was just one shot,” Gordon explains. “There was no big firefight.”
The sniper’s bullet pierced his helmet and brain. By the time his parents arrived at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, doctors saw little hope for his future, but they left the decision up to Christine and Gordon. They chose life.
Once Erik was back home in New Mexico, Christine left her job to care for him full-time. Erik is bound to a wheelchair because of his injury, which also limits his ability to move and speak. He relies on his parents to help with the most basic of functions, including eating and getting dressed.
For Christine, transitioning roles from mother to caregiver wasn’t easy. There were many unanticipated challenges, but the family found support through Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP). After taking part in a WWP-sponsored caregiver retreat, Christine said she had a better grasp of her role in treating Erik. Her sessions with wives and mothers of other wounded veterans gave her a place where she could share her fears and worries.
Today, Erik does physical therapy each week and is slowly regaining movement in his arms. WWP takes him to events with other veterans like Soldier Ride®, a four-day adaptive cycling event. With the help of his younger brother, Deven, also a combat-injured veteran, Erik is able to ride on a special tandem bike.
Recently, Erik was enrolled in the WWP Independence Program. This new initiative pairs severely injured veterans with specialists who ease them back into the community and help them re-learn certain skills.
“It keeps him moving forward,” Gordon says. “Because it would be so easy for him to stop.”
Captain, U.S. Air Force,
Wounded Warrior Project® Alumna
Mary McGriff thought her anxiety and depression would disappear in a couple of weeks after she departed Iraq in 2005.
“No one can prepare you for what this type of combat environment is really like. I had no idea what I was heading into in the months I prepared to deploy,” she says.
The Air Force sent Mary to Iraq to serve as an executive officer and she decided to do more to contribute to the war effort. At the end of her 12-hour shifts, Mary volunteered at the base hospital. She was there during the worst of the battle of Fallujah and the constant mortar and rocket attacks took a toll on her mentally.
“You just never knew when it was coming. I wondered every day if this was going to be my last,” she says.
When she arrived home, her family knew she had changed. Mary was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. She thought this diagnosis doomed her dream of making a career out of the Air Force so Mary vowed that no one would know what she was going through. She refused treatment, thinking she could “get over this” on her own.
For six years, Mary successfully masked her anxiety and depression, but the pressure finally got to her and she broke down in front of her commanding officer. Instead of this ending her career, Mary was allowed to finish her 20 years with part of her “job assignment and mental health treatment” being to attend Wounded Warrior Project functions, including a Project Odyssey®.
It was at Project Odyssey that Mary finally felt a sense of relief and discovered that she was truly not alone. Until then, she had seen doctors treat other women with PTSD “like it was a psychosomatic problem, like it was just something in our heads,” she says. “At WWP, they understood, and treated us a equals, because we were Wounded Warriors, too.”
WWP has helped Mary with everyday life improvements, like a gym membership, cycling events and meeting peers, and has been instrumental in helping Mary decide to accept a service dog. Today, Mary keeps Courage, her poodle, by her side as she tells her story and spreads the word about what WWP.
“I need to educate the public about their etiquette around service dog teams and how these dogs help PTSD sufferers,” she says. “But most of all I want people to understand that women are not just caregivers or wives of Wounded Warriors. We’re Wounded Warriors, too.”
Chief Warrant Officer 2, U.S. Army,
Wounded Warrior Project® Alumnus
From an outsider’s perspective, Bill Jones has an inspiring success story. From his own perspective, Bill simply sees himself standing on the shoulders of those who have helped him over the years.
Now he wants to help others as much as he can.
“Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) impacted my life exponentially,” says Bill. “I went from being very unstable to being able to overcome the triggers of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and feeling empowered for a better life.”
Bill served in Iraq and Afghanistan and like many of his fellow service members, he never had time to process the realities of war.
“You go from one mission to the next, where the next traumatic event happens, and then to the next event, on and on,” says Bill. “You can’t deal with it, so you don’t. You bury it. When you eventually come home, it all surfaces.”
Bill says WWP Project Odyssey® helped him transform from hopeless to hopeful. The team-building approach of this outdoor, rehabilitative retreat gave him the confidence he needed to heal and motivated him to get involved with the WWP Warriors to Work® program.
Through Warriors to Work, Bill was chosen from thousands of applicants as a camera operator with the Def Leppard and KISS tour. Traveling with the band was a dream come true for Bill, but there were unexpected challenges and benefits to being in a concert environment.
“It forced me to deal head-on with my fears of crowds and loud noises,” says Bill. “The prolonged exposure helped me re-train my mind to understand they were not a threat. None of this would have been possible without the Warriors to Work program.”
Bill is quick to point out the positive effects of his recovery extend to his family and beyond.
“As I improved in my healing process, my family and I have grown closer together. The support has been incredible. Through Wounded Warrior Project, no warrior should ever have to give up.”
Today, Bill is dedicated to helping other warriors who are living with PTSD. He serves as a WWP Peer Mentor and manages a personal Facebook page called “The Prisoner Within – A Look into PTSD.”
“I want to dispel the myths associated with PTSD. Healing comes in many ways for a PTSD survivor, but recovery doesn’t mean that everything is all better. The key is to get help. Stand on the shoulders of those who care, and you’ll be strong enough to help someone else. Regardless of what side of PTSD you stand on, you are not alone.”
Sergeant US Army,
Wounded Warrior Project® Alumnus
“I wanted to find a purpose in life,” says Carlos De León about his reason for joining the Army. “And I felt being a soldier was one of the greatest purposes any American could have.
Before I joined the military, my life was a bit unstable,” Carlos says. “I was trying to get life in order and the circumstances weren’t easy. I would go over to my friends’ houses, and I would see they had their father who was in the Army, their mother, their nice house, their kids all dressed nicely. I admired the stability and the respect of those families. I saw how things could be. So in January 2000, I went to boot camp to become a U.S. Army soldier.”
During Carlos’ deployment in Baghdad in 2007 his life changed forever. As he was walking across his base to give his father a birthday phone call, mortars started raining down. “The first shelter I saw was an opening between some big metal storage compartments,” he said. “As I was running toward them, a mortar fell behind me.” Carlos was seriously injured by shrapnel and returned to the United States.
“My rehab and recovery have been very difficult, both physically and mentally,” said Carlos. Treatments include frequent injections in his head to deal with nearly constant headaches from his traumatic brain injury. But Carlos has found ample support from his family and Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP).
“Out of nowhere, WWP reached out to me and told me about the TRACK™ program in Jacksonville. Carlos has now completed TRACK – the first educational center in the nation designed specifically for Wounded Warriors –and is living with his family in Florida as he continues his studies in information technology.
“My family is the most important thing to me,” he said. His wife Jellitza is pursuing a degree in nursing. His teenage son is making plans for college. And his young daughter sings, dances, and plays soccer. “They make me very happy,” said Carlos.
“I joined the military because I wanted a new life, and I couldn’t see the light,” he continued. “For me, the military was my light. I try to make sure my kids have more than one option in life. They will never have to say they took one direction because they had no other possibilities. My wife and I know we’ve done everything possible to give our children what they need.”
And that is a superbly worthy goal for a man of purpose.