August 1, 2008  

The long recovery

Civilian organizations reach out to war wounded

On Dec. 19, 2006, Minnesota Army National Guardsman J.R. Salzman was leading a convoy to Tallil Air Base in southern Baghdad when an explosively formed penetrator tore through his truck. The blast destroyed his right arm below the elbow and crushed his left hand. Two days later, before he had even left the theater for Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Salzman managed to post a message on his blog, Lumberjack in a Desert: “it is hard for me to tell you all this but i was hurt by an ied here. … i am in high spirits. i am going to be ok, but i will have a long road to recovery.”

Upon his arrival in Washington, D.C., Salzman began nine months of surgery, recuperation and physical therapy. Joined by his wife, Josie, whose own Life in a Crackerbox was described in the February “Blogs of War,” Salzman faced a grueling path as he dealt with his various injuries. Writing in January, a month after the attack, he lamented: “Now I’m struggling with the mentality that I’m just a one-armed, four-fingered gimp. … I have constant phantom pain in my arm where it feels like my hand is still there, and someone is sawing on it with a knife. … I spend a lot of time crying and I don’t know why. … This isn’t a dream, this isn’t some fictional story about patriotism, this isn’t some story I’m writing to be a hero. This is my life here at Walter Reed.”

From this painful start, Salzman has achieved and documented a seemingly miraculous recovery. In September, he and Josie moved to Wisconsin, where he is taking college courses on the GI Bill. In a tremendous display of both skill and determination, Salzman has returned to the sport of log-rolling, in which he was a champion before enlisting in the National Guard. But his ordeals are not yet over. Salzman discovered only after beginning college that he suffered a brain injury in the attack, which resulted in short-term memory loss, among other symptoms. Faced with this and other challenges, the Salzmans have received a stream of support from fellow citizens that has continually shaped their recovery. Between February and September 2007, they lived at Walter Reed in a Fisher House unit provided by a foundation that works with the Defense Department to arrange free, private housing for injured soldiers and their families at military and Veterans Affairs hospitals throughout the nation. Upon their return home, they received a grant from the Minnesotans’ Military Appreciation Fund, a statewide effort that has raised more than $6 million to support returning war veterans. The Soldiers’ Angels have provided the Salzmans with support for treating J.R.’s traumatic brain injury.

In contrast to the Salzmans, Matt Bernard discovered how much more difficult recovery from physical and emotional injury can be when left to deal with it alone. A New Hampshire Army National Guardsman, Bernard earned two Purple Hearts during his tour in Iraq, the second on March 4, 2006, when a roadside bomb left him with brain damage, hearing impairment and post-traumatic stress disorder. Upon returning home, Bernard notified his former Guard unit that he had returned and waited for a call from the VA. Amazingly, the VA had lost his records, and it took Bernard more than a year to be completely evaluated or receive disability payments or treatment.

Bernard eventually met with the New Hampshire National Guard’s adjutant general, to whom he proposed a new system for greeting injured soldiers in which volunteers and soldiers would be organized to take the initiative. The state Guard adopted Bernard’s proposed “Bridging the Gap” plan, and returning guardsmen now are contacted within a week of coming home with information about doctors, counseling and other resources to help them recover from wounds while reintegrating into civilian life.

Today, Bernard is working on a documentary titled “Veterans Affairs” that will describe the toll paid by returning soldiers when they are not provided with resources to re-enter civilian life. Focusing also on the incidence of homelessness among veterans, Bernard argues for additional reintegration programs, such as the New Hampshire Reintegration Program he inspired, and housing for homeless veterans.

The experiences of these bloggers point to a simple conclusion: Although the military services and the VA are assigned to assist returning veterans, there is a vital role to be filled by private citizens. Fortunately, there are dozens of organizations working to support American service members, with or without injuries. The Web site of the Association of the United States Army offers information about many of these groups. These organizations merit ever greater support.


Association of the United States Army


Lumberjack in a Desert

http://www.jrsalzman.com/ weblog

“Veterans Affairs”


CHRISTOPHER GRIFFIN is a research associate in Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute.