A profile in courage

My Seeing Eye dog Whitney and I met a lot of terrific athletes last weekend at the Summer Military Sport Camp, and as is so often the case when it comes to volunteering, we got far more out of it than we put in.

Out of respect for privacy, I won’t be sharing any specifics here about the individuals who participated in the camp, but I can tell you this: very few of the vets I met used wheelchairs or a prosthesis of any kind to get around. The vast majority had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or a traumatic brain injury (TBI).

An op-ed article about the high percentage of veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan who report mental health problems happen to come out in the New York Times the very day I started volunteering at the military sports camp. The piece follows the heartbreaking story of Maj. Ben Richards. He came home in 2007 after suffering multiple concussions in Iraq, and it took three years for him to get a diagnosis of TBI and PTSD. Richards is retiring from the U.S. Army this month, and the article quotes him saying that things might have been easier if he had lost a leg in Iraq.

”I’d trade a leg for this in a heartbeat,” Ben said. “If all I was missing was a leg, I’d be a stud. And if I’d lost a leg, I’d be able to stay in the Army. That’s all I want to do.” He summed up his future saying, “it comes to failure.”

The article refers to traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder as the signature wounds of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, “partly because of the strains of repeated combat tours and partly because the enemy now relies more on bombs than bullets.” It quotes Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta admitting in a congressional hearing last month that the military and the Department of Veterans Affairs are overburdened by the mental health demands of returning soldiers. “This system is going to be overwhelmed,” he said. “Let’s not kid anybody. We’re looking at a system — it’s already overwhelmed.”

Maybe Easter Seals can help. We have a long history working with people who have disabilities, and we’ve been providing direct services to the military and veterans communities since 1945. Back in 2005, when we started recognizing the new and unmet needs of tens of thousands of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, we established the Military and Veterans Initiative. In 2008, (thanks to funding from the Ludy Family Foundation and W.K. Kellogg Foundation) we launched a new in-home, computer-based cognitive training program nationwide to help returning veterans with Traumatic Brain Injury. And now, this year, the Dixon Center is partnering with Easter Seals to help meet the needs of veterans and service members by focusing on employment, education and access to health care. The Dixon Center will also act as an advocate and mentor on issues affecting veterans, service members, their families and families of the fallen.

After spending time with some of these veterans at the sport camp over the past weekend, I concur completely with what Nicholas D. Kristof said in that New York Times piece:

In speaking out with brutal candor about his injury and decline, Maj. Ben Richards exemplifies courage and leadership. He’s not damaged goods, but a hero. Maybe, if our leaders are listening, one of his last remaining dreams is still achievable: that his story will help win better treatment for so many others like him.


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    Easter Seals Blog » Blog Archive » A profile in courage

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