May 21, 2007
by Marilyn Stern, Care Coalition Conference representative, JINSA Board of Directors
Matthew Drake, a 24-year-old Special Operations soldier who served in Iraq with the 9th Psychological Operations Battalion, was seated at the front of an auditorium at the headquarters of the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) in Tampa, Florida on March 27, 2007. Slowly, he walked to the podium but stood tall when he spoke. In uniform, Matthew haltingly addressed the audience. He expressed appreciation for the support shown to him by the many representatives of the Special Operations Forces (SOF) soldiers aid organizations that were meeting that day under the direction of the USSOCOM Care Coalition. The Care Coalition, brainchild of USSOCOM Commander General Bryan D. Brown, USA, was launched in 2005. This year's meeting was co-sponsored by the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA).
Matthew's mother stood by his side with a mixed expression of resolve, relief and pride as she watched how far her son had come since October 15, 2004, when his unit had been struck by a suicide bomber in Iraq. She had given her account of Matthew's journey from the day she learned of his survival in Iraq to today. Matthew, the sole surviving soldier in his unit, had sustained catastrophic wounds including Traumatic Brain Injury that left him bedridden, unresponsive and tube-fed. For the past three years, Matthew has progressed from a near vegetative state through stages not unlike being reborn. His mother's fierce advocacy undoubtedly proved vital in helping him from the time of the attack to the struggles he currently faces at a rehabilitation facility.
More young people are surviving catastrophic injuries in this war due to improvements in battlefield medicine and surgical triage delivered during the first "golden hour" after being wounded. Survival is only the beginning of their difficult journey. These service men and women now face the formidable challenge of redefining their lives and reconciling who they are now with the soldiers they once were.
Origin of the U.S. Special Operations Command
Special Operations Forces include the Army Rangers (Airborne), Army Special Forces (Airborne) known as the "Green Berets," units of the Air Force Special Operations Command, the Army's 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne), Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC) and Navy SEALs. Among those units are those that work with other countries' military and police forces on humanitarian projects to improve the civilian infrastructure.
Units train with a special emphasis on unconventional warfare, counter-terrorism and direct action warfare. Preparation beyond basic training for SOF may last as much as two years, is rigorous and highly specialized. Due to the demanding nature of this training program, candidates sustain a high attrition rate while attempting to qualify as SOF soldiers. More sobering is the fatality rate suffered by the Special Operations Forces. In general, since they are put into harm's way on a more regular basis then most other personnel, they unfortunately are wounded or killed at a higher rate per capita.
The catalyst for establishing the U.S. Special Operations Command was the failed effort of Operation Eagle Claw to rescue U.S. embassy personnel who were taken hostage in Tehran in 1980. A major lesson learned from this tragedy was the need to form a joint center of excellence to train and coordinate the Special Operations Forces from the different branches of the military and unite them under a joint headquarters structure when these elite units were to be used in the same operation.
Similarly, General Brown understood the need to unite the disparate good-will efforts carried-out by volunteers and professionals to assist injured warriors. More soldiers are surviving in greater numbers and benefit from a coordinated response by these aid organizations. The Care Coalition consists solely of a team of six soldiers who efficiently step into action under the direction of James R. Lorraine, Director, USSOCOM Care Coalition. The six handle a multitude of tasks ranging from advising families of wounded and fallen soldiers as to the often-bewildering number of medical and rehabilitation programs to direct intervention when their charges are at risk of falling through the cracks of an overburdened bureaucracy. They utilize their "golden hours" to take these wounded warriors from the initial phase of recovery on to connecting families with the community assistance that meet the unique requirements specific to each soldier's disability.
Many of the wounded that are married undergo enormous pressures adjusting to their disabilities and many marriages have failed under the stress. Additionally, families of fallen soldiers experience trauma and grief due to spouses and children struggling with their loss. The support these organizations provide will go a long way toward strengthening the resiliency of families coping with these stressful demands.
It is jarring to witness the contrast between the elite status of these soldiers before they sustained life-altering injuries and the tragic circumstances of their present disabilities. There is an extra measure of determination that enables a soldier to qualify as a member of the Special Operations Forces. It appears this same measure of determination serves many recovering veterans to find new purpose in spite of their disabilities. The assembled aid organizations prove their worth harnessing this determination by creating opportunities to discover untapped potential in the recovering veteran.
Back at the Care Coalition conference, Jennifer Paquette, the wife of a wounded veteran, came to the podium next. She recounted how her husband Roland, 32, a Special Forces soldier and medic serving in Afghanistan, was left a double amputee by a rocket-propelled grenade. Jennifer described how Roland had benefited directly from the care he received from the organizations represented at the conference. Roland Paquette is now employed as an Operations Analyst by the U.S. government.
That these men and women who served on our behalf cannot recover in isolation was clearly communicated at the conference. Matthew Drake's mother and Roland Paquette's wife, advocating for their loved ones, spoke of the strengths and weaknesses in a still-evolving system of care for wounded veterans. The representatives of these organizations heard the same message from each family advocate. These injured soldiers could not have come as far as they have without the additional support that goes above and beyond that provided by the federal government and other established support groups.
Organizations Filling the Need
The following organizations work directly with the Care Coalition to identify and verify the needs of wounded special operations soldiers.
Mike Conklin, a father of three Army Rangers, founded Sentinels of Freedom. He responded after one of his sons was injured in Iraq in 2003. Sentinels of Freedom provides a four-year program "for veterans with severe service-related injuries who have the attitude and character to become independent members of society" by enlisting the aid of local communities to partner in their recovery.
In Jewish tradition, the highest level of tzedakah, charity, is to enable one in need to master or regain skills of self-sufficiency. Sentinels of Freedom has provided an opportunity to reintegrate these wounded individuals, who exhibited enormous dedication and expertise in the Special Operations Forces, to become contributing members of their communities.
Also represented at the conference was the grass-roots organization Soldiers' Angels, founded by a woman whose son served in Iraq and wrote her of his concern that some of his fellow soldiers were not receiving support from home. Among the projects spearheaded by "Wounded Team" Director Lynn Frascella provides calling cards for soldiers to contact their loved ones at home. Specially outfitted personal computers with voice-control have been distributed to soldiers whose injuries prevent typing.
Soldiers' Angels also has a project called "Blankets of Hope" that reach soldiers in their hospital room upon arrival. Matthew Drake's mother, remembering how she felt when she saw that blanket in Matthew's room upon seeing him for the first time, noted that this seemingly small gesture buoyed her spirits at a time when she was exhausted and overwhelmed.
Sitting among us in the conference room was Millie, a guide dog, with her trainer, Bobby Newman. They represented Southeastern Guide Dogs, Inc., which provides professionally trained guide dogs, free of charge, to the blind and to individuals seeking therapy dogs. The "Paws for Patriots" program was launched in January 2006 to provide services to blinded or wounded veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. Roland Paquette's wife, Jennifer, spoke movingly of how significant their therapy dog, Rainbow, has become in her husband's recovery in encouraging him to progress from using a wheel chair to taking daily walks using prosthetic legs with Rainbow by his side.
And then there is TAPS, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, represented by Bonnie Carroll, a former member of President Reagan's staff. In 1992, Bonnie's husband, Brigadier General Tom Carroll, was killed in the crash of an Army C-12 transport plane in Anchorage, Alaska. In response to her loss, Bonnie became the founder and chairman of TAPS, headquartered in Washington, D.C. The TAPS organization addresses the shattered lives of those impacted by the loss of service members who gave their lives serving our country. The counseling and programs ensure that a trained professional supports the grief and trauma endured by the families of fallen soldiers. These professionals give the helping hand necessary to make sure that these families at risk process their loss in order to heal and move forward.
The Special Operations Warrior Foundation (SOWF) steps in to take these children further in life with scholarship grants. SOWF provides free college scholarship grants, financial aid and educational counseling to the children of Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps special operations personnel killed in an operational mission or training accident.
Law enforcement leaders have also responded to the need with Operation One Voice, under the guidance of its founder, Lieutenant Bill Stevens, a Duluth, Georgia police officer. Stevens raises funds for the children of fallen Special Operations Forces. Serving the Southeastern U.S., Operation One Voice enlists local businesses to contribute their services for wounded veterans in their communities. They also arrange volunteer pilots to fly special missions transporting surviving spouses and children to various locations to attend memorial services for their fallen SOF spouse. This enables the families to experience closure under devastating and trying circumstances.
The mission of the Wounded Warrior Project (WWP) is to raise public awareness and enlist the public's aid for the needs of severely injured service men and women, to help severely injured service members to aid and assist each other, and to provide unique, direct programs and services to meet their needs.
JINSA's "Support Our Troops" Campaign
Since 2003, JINSA has assisted American servicemen and servicewomen in need with two annual programs: JINSA's Fran O'Brien's Soldiers' Dinner Fund and the Deserving Soldiers Holiday Appeal. The Fran O'Brien's program is named for the Washington restaurant that began the practice of hosting recovering soldiers from Walter Reed Army Medical Center and Bethesda Naval Hospital and their families for a private dinner. This ongoing program has played a therapeutic role in helping wounded veterans feel more secure as they venture into public while adapting to life as amputees. Funds raised by JINSA subsidize the substantial costs of the necessary specialized transportation for the participants as well as meal costs.
The Deserving Soldiers Holiday Appeal distributes funds to military families in the U.S. Special Operations Command, who were identified by their unit commanders as in need of financial assistance to participate fully in the holiday season. These families have or had a breadwinner serving in Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries where American troops are deployed or have had a family member killed in action. Funds are distributed from Thanksgiving to New Year's Day. While the funds are primarily used to ensure a holiday celebration for all our troops, a percentage of the contributions are allocated to assist servicemen and servicewomen who have suffered grievous injuries fighting in the War on Terror.
The need to support JINSA and USSOCOM Care Coalition organizations is immense because there are large numbers of wounded veterans who, in addition to adjusting to their disabilities, must wend their way through the paperwork of an overwhelmed system in order to access their benefits. By partnering with JINSA and these aid organizations, there is an assurance that you will have a direct hand in the recovery of these SOF soldiers and their families.
These recovering men and women are assets America cannot afford to lose. The strength of a society is reflected in how this vulnerable segment, composed of both the men and women injured while protecting us as well as their families, is treated by their fellow citizens. JINSA has the opportunity to be able to provide its membership with specific recommendations of organizations pinpointing services that make a difference in the lives of wounded veterans and their families.
The dedication the assembled teams and representatives exhibited at this conference conveyed a passion to fix what is broken. The inspiring testimonies given by the wounded and their families attest to what one person can accomplish given the encouragement and assistance to take that extra step in a difficult journey. I was left to wonder how any of us would fare being similarly challenged. As a result of the courage of these Special Operations Forces who did their jobs and paid a high price, we can live our lives in safety and security.