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American Forces Press Service

President's Commission Hears From Defense Officials, Wounded Warriors

By Sgt. Sara Wood, USA
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, June 18, 2007 – A special commission appointed by President Bush to examine medical care given to wounded servicemembers held its sixth public meeting here today, receiving testimony from Defense Department officials, wounded warriors and their families, and other experts.

Today’s hearing of the President’s Commission on Care for America’s Returning Wounded Warriors focused on family support and outreach services. The commission, headed by former Kansas Sen. Robert Dole and former Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, is due to present recommendations on improving the military’s care for wounded troops to the president in July.

Olivia Smith, who works for the Defense Department’s Office of Military Community and Family Policy, testified about programs the department offers to support severely injured military members and their families. She said department officials strongly believe in the importance of quality of life for all servicemembers, especially those who have been wounded.

“We believe there is a true connection between families being supported and the member being capable of doing the mission they are called to do,” Smith said.

Each military service has its own support programs for severely injured servicemembers, and the Defense Department backs up the services and augments them with anything they need, Smith said. In 2005, the department established a military severely injured center, which ties together military support services and services offered by other government agencies, such as the departments of Veterans Affairs and Labor.

One of the Defense Department’s biggest successes in this area has been the Hiring Heroes program, Smith said. This program holds small job fairs at military treatment facilities for wounded troops and their families. The companies involved are required to offer jobs on the spot, not just accept resumes, she said, and wounded troops often find themselves in the middle of a bidding war between interested companies. She highlighted one soldier at Walter Reed Army Medical Center here who came out of a job fair with an $85,000 salary.

“We were really thrilled,” she said of the incident. “He was thrilled, and I think it was, for all of us, a realization of how valuable these kinds of events are for our young servicemembers and their families, to see how valuable their skills are.”

Smith spoke about several other partnerships that have been successful for the Defense Department, such as the database they compiled of nonprofit organizations that support injured troops, the “Heroes to Hometowns” program, and the Department of Veterans Affairs’ vocational rehabilitation programs. She stressed that there can’t be a “cookie cutter” approach to supporting wounded warriors, because each case is different, but there needs to be a focus on getting critical information about benefits and support programs to troops and families when they need it.

The commission also heard from retired Army Col. James A. Martin, an associate professor of social work and social research at Bryn Mawr College in Bryn Mawr, Pa. Martin emphasized the importance of community support for America’s veterans, past and present. He used the Chapel Hill, N.C., area, where a citizen-soldier support program was created to support National Guard and reserve servicemembers, as an example.

This support program works to inform local organizations about the needs of citizen-soldiers and their families, assist these organizations in planning services to help military families dealing with deployments, and connecting the military members with these services, Martin said.

“The most important overall point is that communities really do care, and I think our citizens care,” he said. “The issue often is knowing what to do and how to reach these families.”

Martin stressed that opportunities for programs like this exist all over the country, and strong communities are essential in supporting servicemembers in areas where there isn’t a large military presence. “The lives of these soldiers, veterans and families are going to be lived in their communities, and it’s critical to engage our communities throughout America in this kind of effort,” he said.

Sarah Wade was one of the family members to testify before the commission. Her husband, retired Army Sgt. Edward Wade, was injured in a bomb blast in Iraq in February 2004. Wade detailed the problems she and her husband have had with his medical care since his injury, including the loss of essential paperwork that resulted in a lapse in pay and insurance benefits.

The Wades also ran into trouble because Edward has a traumatic brain injury and is an amputee. The amputee care he needs is at Walter Reed, Sarah said, but he can’t get the care he needs for his traumatic brain injury in this area. As a result, the couple spends a great deal of time travelling between Chapel Hill, N.C., where they live, and Walter Reed.

Wade had several specific recommendations for the commission, which she based on her experiences trying to navigate her husband’s administrative and medical problems. Her recommendations included:

-- Electronic DD-214 forms, which are reports of separation from service;

-- An overlap of active-duty benefits and Veterans Affairs benefits for severely injured servicemembers;

-- Flexible funds to customize rehabilitation plans for different injured troops;

-- Streamlined Medicare and Tricare systems;

-- Better case management continuity, including smaller patient loads for case managers and lifelong tracking of injured troops;

-- Better access to community-based resources for injured servicemembers and their families, so they can stay close to home;

-- Caregiver training, certification and compensation for family members who already are taking care of injured family members; and

-- Improved respite care for traumatic brain injury patients

“Our story is the story of a lot of families, many worse off than ourselves,” Wade said. “Though we’ll never be able to fully compensate severely injured veterans for the sacrifices they make on our behalf, we could certainly do a better job managing their care and rehabilitating them to their fullest potential in a timely manner to maximize their quality of life.”

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