These war wounds aren’t easy to heal

Last year my Seeing Eye dog Whitney and I volunteered at a sports camp here in Chicago that was specially designed for injured military personnel. The camp was sponsored by the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC) and the Wounded Heroes Fund, and volunteering there was an experience I’ll never forget.

Out of respect for privacy, I won’t be sharing any specifics here about the veterans who participated in the camp. One thing that surprised me, though? Very few of them had physical disabilities. The vast majority had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress (PTS) 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 followed 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 PTS. Richards was retiring from the U.S. Army when the article came out, 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 referred to traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress 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 quoted then Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta admitting in a congressional hearing last year 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.”

Today is Veterans Day. It brings that New York Times story and my experience at the summer camp back to mind, and I’m hoping maybe Easter Seals is helping some.

Last year, the Dixon Center partnered with Easter Seals to help meet the needs of veterans and service members by focusing on employment, education and access to health care. If the stories I heard at that summer camp last year are any indication, our veterans need that help.


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