WWP’s policy priorities are shaped by our staff’s daily interaction with Wounded Warriors who take part in one or more of our 18 programs structured to engage warriors, nurture their minds and bodies, and encourage their economic empowerment. For 2013 WWP remains focused on areas where progress has been slow, where gaps and barriers remain, and where there is still work to be done. Further action must be taken to provide a holistic approach to care as Wounded Warriors and their families face a multitude of issues throughout their recovery process and often require a lifetime of services. Our commitment is to present not only immediate solutions, but create a positive and lasting impact in our warriors' lives.
The stories and photos of five exceptional warriors and their families illustrate these needs and are featured throughout our four different legislative objectives: mental health; economic empowerment; long-term rehabilitative care, and improving existing Wounded Warrior programs.
Robert Gil couldn’t stop his hands from shaking.
In every other respect, he was the tough sergeant in his platoon everyone turned to for strength. “Shake it off,” he told soldiers who came to him for help for combat stress. “You’re going to be alright. It’s not that serious.” But toward the end of his second deployment to Iraq his body began to betray him. It started with hands that trembled so much he accidently ignited a flare inside a Humvee and set the vehicle on fire.
“Take the day off. Get some rest,” his superior advised.
But time-off couldn’t fix this.
For months Robert had played the role of macho soldier. When a suicide bomber’s disembodied hand struck his face, he laughed it off. When the bullets and bombs began flying (a daily occurrence in 2006), Robert was the first to fire back so his soldiers wouldn’t carry the burden of killing someone. At night, when they weren’t under mortar attack, soldiers in his platoon would scream and cry in their sleep. Not Robert.
“I knew something inside me had changed. I felt very cold inside,” he says.
Read Robert's full story.
As an Army intelligence officer stationed in Baghdad, Tenay Guvendiren was never in direct combat, but she was still making life and death decisions. She spent 12 to 14 hour shifts poring over enemy activity, “trying to identify potential kill zones, so our guys can plan their routes effectively and be ready to engage the enemy if necessary. But if I mess up my analysis, soldiers die. Civilians die. Children die.” The weight of those decisions took a toll on her mind, but that wasn’t all.
Tenay was privy to haunting pictures of pregnant women slaughtered by insurgents, horrific debriefings from soldiers who were forced to kill, images of overflowing morgues, and grotesquely burned children.
Through two deployments, Tenay never lost a soldier’s life to enemy fire. But by the end of her second deployment she often found herself locked in a bathroom stall to “cry it out.” As the pressure mounted, she finally snapped:
“I can’t take it anymore!” She screamed as she poured a mountain of pills and reports from her psychiatrist on top of her company commander’s desk. “I’ve done everything I know to do! They keep changing my medication, increasing my dosage, and nothing is working.”
Her doctor agreed and had ordered Tenay to be medevaced in 24 hours. However, Tenay’s commander rejected the medical assessment. He harbored unwarranted suspicions of some illicit activity on her part; instead of approving the evacuation, he initiated an adultery investigation. Tenay was placed on suicide watch and confined to a hospital for five days until her lawyer intervened. Tenay was flown home 12 hours later, but the investigation continued for the next two months. It came back clean.
Read Tenay's full story.
In November 2006, Angie Peacock made a call for help.
At this point in her life, the Army veteran had been raped by a fellow service member, served in a combat zone, stripped of her career, and divorced. Multiple suicide attempts had failed; prescription pain pills could no longer numb her pain. So she picked up the phone and called her TriCare health insurance provider.
“I need help. I’m going to kill myself. I can’t stop it,” she says.
Their response: “I’m sorry ma’am. We don’t have a crisis line. It’s Saturday, you’ll have to call back Monday.”
She called a civilian hotline for psychiatric services.
Their response: “I’m sorry ma’am. You’re a veteran. You have to call the VA.”
Angie didn’t want to go to the VA. As a victim of military sexual trauma (MST), she experienced panic attacks when she came in close contact with men in a military atmosphere. But she needed help: “I had to get in there or I was going to die.”
On Monday, she swallowed her fear and got in to see a VA psychiatrist. He immediately acknowledged that Angie’s 17 prescribed medications were too many and found her a bed in the treatment center.
“It was the first time somebody saw I was suffering and actually cared,” Angie recalls.
Read Angie's full story.
The lives of Pam and Mike Estes revolve around the needs of their 27-year-old son Jason. Literally. There is no going out, spur-of-the-moment, for a loaf of bread. A trip to the movies must be carefully planned.
“You can’t even do anything spontaneous in the house,” says Pam. “If he needs to go to the bathroom, I have to drop what I’m doing because he can’t always control it,” she concludes.
This is the reality of caring for a Wounded Warrior living with a severe traumatic brain injury (TBI), both for the present and foreseeable future. Two years after Jason came home from the hospital, he still cannot walk; he cannot shower by himself; he can’t remember what he ate for breakfast. But he’s making progress through therapy and that’s something his parents can cling to.
“We’re hoping he can eventually live on his own,” Pam says, but that’s a goal still years away. Right now, Jason needs maintenance therapy just to prevent him from regressing.
This is the Estes family in 2013. Nine years ago, they were celebrating their only son’s graduation from high school. Both parents tried to talk Jason out of joining the Army because they knew he would deploy quickly, but Jason was adamant.
Read Jason's full story.
“When I saw Pat in the ICU, my heart sank,” says Patty Horan.
Her husband Pat, serving as a Stryker Brigade platoon leader in Iraq, had been deployed for more than a year. Now she stood by his bedside at National Naval Medical Center (Bethesda Naval), trying to be strong for him.
Pat was shot in the left side of his head. Neurosurgeons in Balad were able to remove half his skull and some of the bullet fragments from Pat’s brain, but the injury left him completely disabled. He couldn’t walk. He had total weakness on the right side of his body and lost the right visual field in both eyes. He couldn’t read or speak or even understand language. And there was a very real possibility Pat’s memory loss would be so profound he wouldn’t ever recognize his family.
“I hadn’t seen my husband in … months. I knew our lives were now forever changed. Between gasps and sobs, I wondered how we would travel this dark road of healing alone,” Patty says.
“We were going to meet this injury head on, though,” she explained, “it became my mission to find the best rehabilitation environments and programs for him.”
Only later did it become clear that Pat’s Army career would be cut short by a medical retirement. While Pat received great care, though, the couple experienced “a complete disconnect” between the military’s clinical side and the administrative demands of Pat’s Warrior Transition Brigade (WTB).
Read Pat's full story.
Combat stress and combat-related mental health conditions are highly prevalent among OEF/OIF/OND veterans and affect many who have sustained other serious injuries. Numerous studies have documented the profound consequences for warriors’ overall health, well-being, and economic adjustment when chronic post-service mental health issues like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are left unaddressed.
After more than a decade of combat operations marked by multiple deployments, the systems dedicated to providing mental health care to service members and veterans are still struggling to accomplish their missions. The military has yet to find a solution to the epidemic of suicide among our service members and the VA health care system is still not reaching large numbers of returning veterans, while a high percentage drop out of treatment, or don’t seek treatment at all.
Accordingly, 2013 mental health initiatives include:
- Through continued oversight, close the multiple health-system gaps to better serve warriors with combat-related mental health issues.
- Promote more effective VA procedures to evaluate -- and more equitable criteria to rate -- disability due to mental health conditions.
- Promote stronger efforts to prevent military sexual trauma and ease the evidentiary burden on warriors of establishing service-incurrence of such trauma.
- Establish grant-support for development of veterans’ treatment courts to foster diversion of warriors with behavioral health problems from the criminal justice system into treatment and rehabilitation.
Please download the 2013 policy agenda and refer to pages 5-6 to access references for this section.
With military careers often cut short by life-altering injuries, this generation of Wounded Warriors faces often-stark employment challenges as they attempt to reintegrate into their communities and rebuild their lives. Meaningful employment is paramount to a warrior’s sense of personal self-worth and economic stability and it is critical that Wounded Warriors be afforded the tools, skills, resources, education, and support needed to secure employment and develop fulfilling careers in ways that matter to them and their families.
While some warriors are seeking to enter the civilian workforce, many other Wounded Warriors are returning to school to further their education. But even when enrolled in school, wounded veterans face hurdles. They report difficulty assimilating on campus and adapting to student life; insufficient or nonexistent accommodations for their disabilities; and lack of understanding on the part of faculty and fellow students of needs arising from PTSD and traumatic brain injury (TBI).
The two primary benefits warriors are utilizing to foster their economic empowerment are the Post-9/11 GI Bill and VA’s Vocational Rehabilitation & Employment (VR&E) program. But even with the assistance of these programs warriors still often face hurdles that make it difficult to adjust to campus life or meet their ultimate employment goals.
Accordingly, 2013 economic empowerment initiatives include:
- Improving the effectiveness of the VA’s Vocational Rehabilitation Program.
- Promoting efforts to make vital campus-support services available to Post 9/11 GI Bill wounded student-warriors and to improve information on school options.
- Eliminating a barrier to certain severely disabled wounded warriors’ pursuing gainful employment when they are rated 100% service-connected disabled by reason of individual unemployability.
Please download the 2013 policy agenda and refer to pages 13-20 to access references for this section.
Improvements in military medicine and technology have allowed warriors to survive injuries that would have been deadly in previous conflicts, including severe TBIs and injuries that affect many different systems of the body – also known as polytraumatic injuries. Many of these warriors will need care that calls on VA and their family for their entire life. Care and support provided by VA must be focused not only on function, but also quality of life and ensuring that family members and caregivers are supported so they can continue to be there for their loved ones throughout the long journey to recovery.
Accordingly, 2013 optimal, long-term rehabilitative care initiatives include:
- Ensuring full implementation of recent changes in law that require the VA to provide warriors who have suffered TBI with rehabilitative services to sustain functional gains and to achieve maximum independence by including community based support services.
- Ensuring full and effective implementation of the caregiver-support provisions of the Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act of 2010.
- Improving the effectiveness of the VA’s amputee care.
- Revising current law to provide VA coverage of services to overcome a warrior’s inability to have children due to traumatic injury.
Please download the 2013 policy agenda and refer to pages 21-26 to access references for this section.
Wounded Warriors must navigate a vast array of systems when making the transition from service member to veteran. While many programs have been created or improved to help guide service members through these systems and ease the confusion during transition, many of these programs and systems lack coordination across Departments and still contain gaps that make the goal of a seamless transition elusive for many service members.
Accordingly, 2013 improve existing Wounded Warrior programs initiatives include:
- Seek systematic “veteran-centric” review and oversight of the operation and effectiveness of DoD and VA Wounded Warrior programs, and gaps that have yet to be addressed.
- Foster changes in the governance of the Federal Recovery Coordination (FRC) program to ensure that those needing help from the FRC program receive such assistance at the earliest possible time.
- Improve the operation, efficiency, and effectiveness of the medical retirement process and DoD-VA coordination in evaluation of disability.
- Revise current law, which now subjects the most severely Wounded Warriors to loss of TRICARE coverage, if they opt out of purchasing Medicare supplementary insurance.
- Promote in-depth oversight of Warrior Transition Units (WTUs), and needed reforms to improve effective support during the transition process.
Please download the 2013 policy agenda and refer to pages 27-32 to access references for this section.