November 24, 2008 – Methods of coping with combat and its after effects vary as greatly as the effects themselves, six warriors participating in a conference panel here said. The Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury hosted the “Warrior Resilience Conference: Partnership with the Line.” Combat veterans who spoke at the conference described a range of effects and needs in becoming resilient.
Army Maj. Stephen Williams was the head nurse with an outpatient unit of the 3rd Medical Command’s 28th Combat Support Hospital in Baghdad when the base was hit with mortars July 10.
Since then, Williams has dwelled not on what he saw or did that day, but on what he couldn’t do — save his battle partner, Army Capt. Maria Ortiz.
“I couldn’t provide assistance to my comrade who was actually lying next to me and ended up passing away,” said Williams, who was seriously wounded in his leg with a severed femoral artery.
Dealing with the reality that he couldn’t help Ortiz was just one piece of a larger puzzle for Williams. He also had to face how his injuries would affect him and his family. When he returned home to convalesce, he said, his young children wouldn’t touch him, for fear they would hurt him.
“In hindsight, I didn’t know enough to say, ‘Hey, we need to talk to them more [deeply] on this,” he said. “So, I think there’s something more that we could do for the families out there [to] let them come to grips with these situations.”
An Army couple at the conference, the Blackledges, also know how crucial it is to have family support during the healing process and just how important it is to come to grips with what’s happened.
Army Maj. Gen. David Blackledge, a West Point graduate, has served for 32 years and was serving with the 352nd Civil Affairs Command in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom in January 2003. He was on his last mission outside the wire before heading home when his convoy was ambushed. The vehicle he was riding in rolled and, among other injuries, he suffered a crushed vertebra.
It took nearly two years for him to fully recover and return to full duty. During this time his wife, Army Lt. Colonel-select Iwona E. Blackledge, learned how spouses cope with the effects of war.
She had attended family readiness group briefings. It was a good start, but there’s really no preparing for what she endured.
“It is very hard to prepare someone for that 5 o’clock call in the morning,” she said. “What helped was that it was my husband who called, so I knew he was OK. Once he hung up, I was all alone and that’s when the stress started.”
Talking to a psychiatrist at Walter Reed Army Medical Center here after her husband arrived gave her an idea of what to expect and how to deal with what might come up, she said.
Blackledge returned to theater after his recovery only to be injured again – much less severely — in a bombing.
Blackledge’s resiliency after combat, he said, came from family support and belief in the mission. Also, talking about it was a big help, he said.
“When I got to Walter Reed, they immediately assigned a psychologist to me,” as is protocol for all traumatic cases returning to the facility, Blackledge said. “He was really helpful because I was going through the dreams and all that stuff. He talked me through it, gave me some tips on how to deal with that [and] … what I would expect to deal with over the preceding weeks and months.”
Retired Army Capt. Dawn Halfaker said, for her, recovery was a three-part process that began in the hospital. That phase focuses on physically rebuilding the body. She lost an arm when her vehicle was ambushed with small-arms and rocket-propelled-grenade fire while she was serving in Baqouba, Iraq, in February 2004.
“I really, really would not be, I don’t think, here today or the person I am today without the physical therapy and occupational therapy that I received,” Halfaker said. “Although I wasn’t certainly busting out pushups or maxing my [physical test] … I was working toward a goal of getting better.
“That was really, I think, a positive and powerful phase for me,” she added.
Then, the West Point graduate entered the reintegration phase and realized it’s a journey that never ends.
“Every day something comes up that is difficult or challenging, or socially awkward or, I guess, psychologically challenging,” Halfaker said. “I feel like the support I had at Walter Reed and my family support and just sort of my ability through my work … to regain that sense of purpose is so critical to get through all those little frustrations.”
One thing that really helped, Halfaker said, was when she received a call from Army Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey, former acting commander of U.S. Central Command, from Iraq. Halfaker had played on the West Point basketball team with Dempsey’s daughter.
“That was just huge. I can’t even explain how powerful that was,” she said of the call.
Retired Army Master Sgt. Christopher Scheuerman reiterated suggestions that leaders throughout the chain of command need to be involved with their troops, even before injuries occur.
After a disciplinary action and corrective training for being what the Army labeled a “malingerer,” Scheuerman’s son, Jason, assigned to the 3rd Infantry Division at the time, killed himself, Scheuerman told the audience.
“We have a foundation of support, that foundation being our chain of command, the chaplaincy and medical,” Scheuerman said. “Very seldom do all three of those foundations of support fail.
“In this case, all three did,” he added.
Realizing he was suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, Scheuerman, who trains medics at Fort Bragg, N.C., began seeing a therapist and never failed to mention it to his students.
“Just by telling them that, almost every class, three of four of them would come to me later and say, ‘How did you start that? I need to do that, too,'” he said. “We have to err on the side of soldiers’ safety, because if we make a mistake, resiliency breaks down [and] we lose a soldier.
“It’s horrible to lose the soldiers we have to, [but] it’s an absolute tragedy to lose a soldier we shouldn’t.”
Retired Marine Sgt. Andrew Brandi, who works with veterans returning from combat, is working to prevent losing any more servicemembers to what he described as the “norm” for his generation.
“I was sitting down with three of my good Marine Corps buddies, all [diagnosed as] 100 [percent PTSD disabled] … not too long ago. Relationships came up,'” Brandi said. “Between the four of us … we had 23 wives. I’ve had 65 jobs, five major career changes and three wives, so I was by no means the record holder in this group.”
But one of his buddies piped up to say that’s “normal” for what they’d been through.
“He was right. For my generation that’s normal,” Brandi said. “We do not want this generation to go through what we have for the last 40 years.”
Veterans have the strength to overcome, but it won’t be easy, Brandi said.
“I want these young folks to know they have the strength as warriors to get through the [Veterans Affairs] programs and face it,” he said. “Is it easy? Hell, no. But is it worth it? Absolutely.
“Life can be excellent, but it takes a lot of guts … to get through it,” he added. “We have the strength to do this.”