Caregivers, National Guard and Reserve support and sports for the wounded are the top Defense Department priorities for wounded warriors and their families, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for warrior care said Sept. 13.
John R. Campbell made the comments after listening to wounded warrior panelists discuss their experiences with recovery at the annual Warrior-Family Symposium, sponsored by the Military Officers Association of America.
The panel included four wounded warriors who spoke about their transitions to a new life after being wounded in battle.
Retired Air Force TSgt. Matthew Slaydon and his wife, Annette, were both part of the panel. Slaydon was an ordnance disposal technician on his third deployment in Iraq in October 2007 when a roadside bomb exploded in his face. Slaydon said he received excellent medical treatment, but struggled after returning home from the hospital. Family members didn’t understand the symptoms of post-traumatic stress, he said, and some relationships, including with his mother, ended.
Slaydon, who lost his arm and was blinded by the bomb, said his symptoms worsened after he received a medical retirement from the service. He became paranoid, he said, at noises in his house and would spend his days terrified and sitting with his guns.
Slaydon said he has had a wonderful caregiver in his wife, an Air Force recovery care coordinator. Still, the ongoing stress of recovery and caregiving weighed on the couple, and they separated even though Slaydon said he still loved her, but that he needed to recover on his own.
“There’s no handbook that says when you should pull back as a caregiver and give them more independence,” Annette Slaydon said. “There is no instruction booklet about how to move forward on this.”
Turning to Campbell, and with the preface of an apology, Mrs. Slaydon said, “There are some really big holes that need to be filled either by the government or the private sector or both to give our families a chance.”
“It’s OK, I need to hear this,” Campbell replied.
Retired Marine Corps MSgt. William “Spanky” Gibson moderated the panel, along with retired Marine Corps Col. Derek Donovan, vice president of the Fisher House Foundation. Gibson was a 35-year-old gunnery sergeant in Iraq in 2006 when he was shot through the knee. His left leg was amputated above the knee, but he started competing in triathlons while recuperating at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio and has competed in more than a dozen races. In 2008, he went back to Iraq as the first above-the-knee amputee to return to a ground combat area of operations.
Gibson’s determination showed up early in his recovery, when he proved he could get himself to the second floor of a Fisher House room – the only one available – rather than stay in the hospital. “I went up and down those stairs for two hours, sweating profusely, just to prove I could do it,” he said.
Another panelist, retired Navy Petty Officer Benjamin Host, was with the Seabees in Iraq in 2004 when he suffered severe traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder after being in a Humvee convoy accident. Host said he received “exquisite” military medical care that included three brain surgeries and repairing his fractured skull. But, he said, “it’s the in-between area where we get a drop-off” meaning a lack of oversight in the recovery process.
Although it took a legal battle, Host said, he was medically retired from the Navy earlier this year.
Campbell and the audience also heard from Dr. Tara Dixon, a trauma and critical-care surgeon who deployed to Iraq as an Army reservist with a forward-deployed unit in 2008 and 2010. Dixon recalled the stress of “routine bombings” on her camp, of treating “the guy I had breakfast with that morning” for critical injuries, and of having to make split-second decisions about whether to amputate a limb or risk transporting a soldier hours away to a Baghdad hospital.
Then there were the abused Iraqi children brought in as decoys for insurgent attacks on the unit and the surprising number of female soldiers who needed treatment for sexual assaults – crimes she was legally bound not to report at the victims’ request, she said.
“It messes with your mind a bit,” Dixon said of her time in Iraq. She described through tears the toll her service took, which culminated in a suicide attempt six months after her redeployment.
Among the many problems, Dixon said, was returning to a city without a military base and no means of support. “I was very much an outcast, and I felt very much alone,” she said.
Campbell, a former bank executive who started MyVetwork, said he started the online social network to add meaning to his work. In doing so, he said, “I heard the voice of my mother,” who was his caretaker after he was injured twice as a platoon commander in the Vietnam War.
“I’ve been worried and concerned for a while about caregivers,” he said, adding that his office will host a conference early next year about how to help them.
On the Guard and Reserve, he said, “They don’t have a base, they don’t have the community. They’re alone and they need our help.”
Campbell said he wants to continue to explore the issues that most affect wounded warriors and their families and get them the help they need.
He said he believes in public-private-nonprofit partnerships. “There’s this mindset that (the government) can do it all, but it can’t,” he said.