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A Fight for Independence

By Vesta M. Anderson

Two weeks shy of his 20th birthday, Jason Ehrhart’s Humvee took a direct hit from two anti-tank mines. Jason was the gunner in a convoy providing security for the first free elections in Iraq since 1953. Propelled from the turret, Jason sustained injuries so severe that upon his return stateside, he was considered to be the most seriously wounded soldier in Maryland. Among his injuries, Jason suffered from third-degree burns covering 60 percent of his body and badly shattered legs – the left would be amputated a month later. But those are just the visible wounds. Jason also sustained a traumatic brain injury (TBI) from the blast.

Due to improvements in military medicine and technology, many warriors, like Jason, are surviving combat injuries that would have previously been fatal, including severe TBIs. TBIs, which occur when a sudden trauma or head injury disrupts brain function, are one of the signature wounds of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) – two wars exposing service members to improvised explosive devices (IEDs). In an effort to bring TBIs to the conversational forefront, March is now referred to as TBI Awareness Month.

To date, more than 52,000 service members have been physically wounded in combat, and as many as 400,000 service members live with the invisible wounds of war, including: combat-related stress, major depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Another 320,000 are believed to have experienced a traumatic brain injury while on deployment. In its 2014 Annual Alumni Survey, Wounded Warrior Project®(WWP) reports 43.2 percent of its injured veterans report having a TBI.

Jason represents many injured service members who continue to struggle daily with the aftermath of sacrifices made on the battlefield: physically, mentally, emotionally, financially, and legally. While support and services for this injury have progressed—due in large part to the injured veterans and their families who are redefining the concept of TBI rehabilitation—they do not adequately account for long-term needs.

Jason's road to recovery was expected to plateau in two years, but instead he continued to progress. When financial support for his rehabilitation began to dwindle, Jason and his family refused to regress in therapy and began paying for treatment out of pocket. More than seven years after the IED attack, Jason is now able to walk around his home with assistance. This is a huge feat as it places him one step closer to his independence – something Jason, like so many others suffering from TBI, considers to be the most important achievement in rehabilitation. 

The fight for independence has also proven to be one of the most difficult battles Jason and his parents endure. On behalf of their own family and the many families across the country enduring the same struggle, Jason’s parents advocate on Capitol Hill for programs and services that not only enhance rehabilitation, but also focus on long-term quality of life and community integration. They push for legislation that redefines the concept of recovery – laws that will make veterans the centerpiece. 

Many wounded veterans are fully dependent upon caregivers for long-term rehabilitation and care – many are cared for in part or in whole by family members. A growing concern among family caregivers is the thought of what will happen to their warrior when they are eventually unable to continue providing care. WWP has played an intricate role in lobbying Congress for the resources required to sustain such a need, including a coordinated effort to ensure enactment and implementation of the Caregiver Assistance Law of 2010, specifically advocating for a program that would provide caregivers with needed training, technical support, mental health counseling, health care coverage, respite care, and a modest financial stipend. Still a gap currently exists between the support structure available to these warriors and their families, and what they will need over a lifetime. Last year, WWP committed $30 million a year to cover both immediate and long-term care needs of nearly 700 of this generation’s most severely injured veterans, who without this funding are most at-risk for institutionalization.

WWP has 20 programs and services that provide a holistic approach to help injured veterans by assisting in physical rehabilitation, aiding in their mental and emotional recovery, assisting them to achieve their educational and employment goals, and helping them maintain their independence and stay connected with their families, their communities, and each other – all free of charge. While all programs and services focus on the WWP mission, to honor and empower Wounded Warriors, the Independence Program and the Long-Term Support Trust are two that directly benefit those who are dependent upon caregivers due to their injuries.  

The Independence Program pairs a specialized case manager with each warrior and his or her family to develop a personalized plan that targets the warrior’s needs or interests. For many, this is the opportunity to participate in the types of daily tasks and meaningful activities many people take for granted, like getting dressed or eating on one’s own. Each roadmap is developed to a warrior's unique interests and goals for independence and quality of life, as are the resources brought to bear. Jason has a goal to be capable of doing more for himself, which in turn would lead him to his dream of having a family.

Current rehabilitation programs typically invest heavily in the beginning of a warrior’s recovery from traumatic brain injury, spinal cord injury, or other neurological conditions, but not during the longest and most defining phase of recovery, which begins upon the return home. Warriors who must work through the compounding effects of both visible and invisible wounds will require a more long-range, strategic plan for care and independence. In many instances, for the cost of one month in an in-patient institutionalized brain injury rehabilitation program, WWP’s Independence Program can provide a year’s worth of community-based support on a weekly basis to an individual warrior.

The Long Term Support Trust was developed to ensure services including life-skills training, home care, transportation, and additional resources remain available to the severely wounded who, upon the loss of their caregiver, are at risk for institutionalization. Through this Trust, resources are available for all enrolled warriors to supplement services and entitled benefits. To assure long-term viability of financial resources, an advisory panel, which includes the warrior and his or her representative, evaluates all distribution requests for resources required.

Together, the Independence Program and the Long Term Support Trust focus on immediate and long-term quality of life, and help warriors, like Jason, to live life on his or her own terms – as independently as possible. 

Jason wakes up each morning as a testament to the honor and patriotism still rumbling within him. All his years of rehabilitation and his unyielding determination to defy any preset, ill-conceived limitations placed on his road to recovery have led him to where he is today – ready to take another stand for himself and his injured service brother and sisters.

“It’s up to me whether I think I plateaued or not,” said Jason as his eyes veer off into the distance, “Not up to anybody else. This is my world.”

Jason’s story is spotlighted among other warriors in a WWP produced documentary mini-series “Wounded: The Battle Back Home,” which is now available on Internet television network Netflix. To learn more about Wounded Warrior Project, visit woundedwarriorproject.org. If you or someone you know is an injured veteran suffering from TBI, please contact the WWP Resource Center 888.WWP.ALUM (888.997.2586) to get in touch with someone who can help.

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