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A DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE

Independence Day-- the beating heart of summer.

A day rife with historical and emotional significance for a nation, and a day that perfectly embodies national pride and patriotism for Americans.

It is time spent with family and friends in celebration of an ideal that unites us: freedom.

The broader cultural implications of Independence Day are undeniable, but the holiday is also tied to individual meanings that define what it means to strive for self-reliance– and respect.

Our nation’s injured veterans, perhaps more than many, are impacted by this holiday in a particularly unique way: their personal enlistment in the military is in direct correlation to the value they place on independence. No stronger motivation exists for the kind of valor and unspeakable sacrifices veterans make in the name of keeping us protected and free. Independence Day has deeply personal meanings for our brave service members; when we honor the holiday, we honor them. 

Honoring and empowering Wounded Warriors has been the mission of Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) since 2003 in the wake of the tragic events of September 11, 2001. Through 20 programs and services focused on warrior well-being and quality of life, WWP is dedicated to a lifelong commitment to this nation’s wounded veterans.

The unifying thread among those life-affirming programs and services? Warrior independence.

On their terms.

WWP’s Independence Program offers injured veterans this very opportunity. Engaging warriors, nurturing their minds and bodies, and encouraging economic empowerment ensures that independence is the most viable outcome. Through effective readjustment techniques, the fuller lives wounded veterans imagine post-military become their new normal. By emphasizing the importance of network on warrior wellness, WWP helps bring the warrior, family, treatment team, and community-support professionals together in a long-term partnership to establish goals and develop a personal plan for each warrior.

Among the array of programs WWP offers, Peer Support, Project Odyssey®, Soldier Ride®, and Warriors to Work™  are only a few with a laser-focus on peer mentorship, mental health, physical well-being, and economic empowerment, respectively. The newly created Long-Term Support Trust helps warriors, their families and caregivers look ahead to meet long-term needs so that self-reliance is lifelong.

“For injured veterans, services like supported employment and life-skills coaching can open up new avenues to greater independence,” explains Steve Nardizzi, Wounded Warrior Project chief executive officer. “We have to recognize and support their search for the fullest possible lives on their terms.”

Nathan Lawson served for eight years as a United States Army cavalry scout and was deployed to Iraq from 2005-2007, and 2008-2009. It is his personal experiences during Lawson’s service that impact how he now regards Independence Day. “I think of my brothers I lost and the blood I shed,” said Lawson. “It was not only so we could remain a free nation, but to also ensure America would be free for future generations.”

Securing that freedom comes with a heavy price for many combat veterans. Lawson, who was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), has difficulty during the very holiday that is meant to also honor his service and sacrifice. “I spend more time hiding in the house because of the fireworks,” he said. “Some understand. Others don’t.”

Despite these challenges, Lawson says he has made significant strides in achieving independence daily. He has participated in WWP’s Soldier Ride® and Soldier RideOff-Road events, and credits his success to the engagement with fellow veterans and WWP’s 20 free programs and services. “WWP reached out to me, and they gave me something to look forward to,” said Lawson. “They took me out of my element, put me with other warriors who experienced the same things I have…and made me realize I wasn't alone.”

One of the most devastating obstacles to independence for injured service members is traumatic brain injury (TBI), which represents one of the most complex and potentially severe injuries incurred by service members deployed in Operations Enduring and Iraqi Freedom. Severity and effects of TBI are broad in range, but extreme cases of TBI can result in lasting and persistent neurological and cognitive deficits.

Christine Schei is the mother and caregiver of Erik Schei, a former United States Army combat engineer turned gunner. During Erik’s deployment to Iraq, a sniper’s bullet resulted in grave TBI injuries that have confined him to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Christine witnesses first hand each day how much independence means to her son. The holistic benefits of art therapy have been deeply valuable. "Erik is participating in the Independence Program and loves it,” said Christine proudly. “The art therapist is also a counselor, so he can talk to her about issues that bother him or give him trouble. We have to help him, due to his limited mobility, but he gets to make decisions and choices that motivate him to work harder and get more independent so he can do more on his own.”

Many warriors express doubt about being able to regain independence as they experience post-military identity shifts. “I always looked at myself as an injured vet,” admitted WWP Alumnus John Rego. “I thought there was no way I’d ever be as good as I once was. I thought because I was hurt, I couldn’t go out and get active again.” Fellow WWP Alumnus Joe Washam agrees and confessed that the role reversal was disorienting for him: “After being independent since joining the Army at age 18, all of a sudden I was completely dependent on everyone around me.”

Ultimately, good old-fashioned tenacity can provide a necessary springboard for recovery says Chris Wolff, who was told by doctors he’d never walk again after a routine flu shot rendered him a quadriplegic. It was Chris’s own determination that allowed him to defy that prognosis. “There’s something to be said for being stubborn,” he said. “You look at your situation, at challenges you’re facing, and you say, ‘This isn’t me.’ When you determine in your mind [that you will] change, you get up off your mental couch and make life better.”

Caregiver well-being is also a top priority in light of the new support roles they embrace out of love for their wounded family members. For Kelly Eakins, caregiver to her son Steven, WWP programs have been a lifeline. "The Independence Program allowed me to go to a caregiver’s retreat and know Steven is taken care of through respite care,” said Kelly, who finds peace of mind in the joy she gets from Steven’s accomplishments. “We don’t want Steven in an institution. That’s why the Independence Program gives us peace of mind.”

As wounded service members who have come home transition into civilian life, they are ever-mindful of the daily fight for independence that many of their fellow veterans still face. Nathan Lawson’s words are simple, but his message is powerful and clear: “Don't quit. Life will never be as it was before serving. But now you have brothers and sisters everywhere you turn. And they will always have your back. Be involved, and always talk to someone.”(Contributed to by Vesta M. Anderson)

WWP recognizes the sacrifices of those who have served in honor of this great nation. When celebrating Independence Day, please remember to keep veterans in mind when planning firework festivities on the days leading up to and after July 4th. Posting signs to alert nearby residents of combat veterans in the neighborhood, or speaking to neighbors, for example, can go a long way toward making sure service members feel at ease with a familiar part of Independence Day celebrations. For more information on the Independence Program, and all of WWP’s free programs and services, please contact the WWP Resource Center at 888.WW P.ALUM (997.2586), 904.405.1213, or resourcecenter@woundedwarriorproject.org.

About Wounded Warrior Project

The mission of Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) is to honor and empower Wounded Warriors. WWP’s purpose is to raise awareness and to enlist the public’s aid for the needs of injured service members, to help injured servicemen and women aid and assist each other, and to provide unique, direct programs and services to meet their needs. WWP is a national, nonpartisan organization headquartered in Jacksonville, Florida. To get involved and learn more, visit woundedwarriorproject.org.

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