WASHINGTON, DC (Jim Garamone) – It’s an ethos burned into the minds of generations of American service members to “leave no one behind.”
This ethos has grown in response to America’s wars since 9/11, with coalitions devoted to the treatment and care of wounded, ill or wounded service members and their families.
U.S. Special Operations Command and the services are looking at innovative ways to ensure service members get the care they need and deserve. All are working to ensure there are no gaps in care or assistance for these service members.
Congress gave U.S. Special Operations Command the authority to provide a wounded warrior care program for its 69,000 personnel, said Army Col. Cary Harbaugh, the director of the command’s Care Coalition Wounded Warrior Program.
No Small Job
This is not a small job, Harbaugh said. There are more than 5,100 special operators enrolled in the program. Officials also track more than 2,400 special operations veterans, and assist more than 400 families.
Most special operators have deployed multiple times, the colonel said. They are “at the tip of the spear,” he said, and even when not deployed to combat areas, they often work in underdeveloped or undeveloped areas. Their training is tough and realistic.
All this takes a toll, Harbaugh said. Most special operators in the program are combat wounded, he said, but others are ill from disease contracted during deployments. Still others, he added, are in the program because they were injured — either from training accidents or the accumulated tolls on their bodies.
The Socom coalition looks to get special operators back to their teams quickly, or if that is not possible, to transition to other jobs in the military or to veteran’s status.
Began in 2005
The Care Coalition began in 2005 to fill in the gaps in care for special operators, Harbaugh said. The coalition, he said, is more focused on retention and preserving service members in the force even after they’ve had a wound, illness or injury.
As the number of wounded, ill or injured special operators grew, the program grew, he said.
“It’s all about advocacy,” the colonel said.
“You don’t know how to navigate the medical system until you have to do it,” said Army Sgt. Maj. Kelly Ammerman, the Care Coalition senior enlisted advisor.
Like the community it serves, the Care Coalition is small, quick and agile. The organization has a total of 90 people with most serving with the forces where they are needed, said Lt. Col. Theresa Lewis, an Army nurse in charge of the program’s Recovery Care Center.
Coalition liaison officers handle the immediate situation. “They are at the bedside while the service member is in the hospital,” Lewis said. “They also deal with the immediate issues with the family throughout the process.”
Advocates — also called recovery care coordinators — are more long-term. Advocates help with appointments, financial issues and family issues, whether the service member is returning to duty or transitioning to veteran’s status, she said.
Liaisons and advocates are with the force, wherever there are special operations forces — at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Dam Neck, Virginia, Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, and at other installations. They work at positions at military treatment facilities like Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and at San Antonio Military Medical Center in Texas.
The coalition is involved throughout. For those wounded, there is a coalition representative in Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan, who makes the initial assessment and works in-country with medical teams. The representative notifies the coalition liaison at Landstuhl Medical Center in Germany as the special operator is medevaced.
If the patient is moved stateside, liaison officers and advocates are part of the process at every step of the way.
Liaison officers and advocates at the installations are part of the process for those ill or injured, Harbaugh said. “There is always someone involved with the special operator,” he added.
The advocates and liaison officers are senior people who’ve served in special operations on an average of 26 years.
“They know how to find the ‘yes’ answer,” Ammerman said. “They are bureaucratic wall-busters.”
The advocates and liaison officers are people that special operators will talk to about their problems. “Our community is relatively close-mouthed,” the sergeant major explained. “They are only going to deal with somebody they feel comfortable with — a vetted source.”
Special operators want to stay on the team, Ammerman said. They don’t want to be away from their friends, he added, and they want to do their share of the labor.
“They are going to do all they can — including ignoring injuries — to deploy and continue to be operational, because that’s why they signed up,” he said.
But at some point there comes a time when they realize they cannot deploy, and they need someone they trust to talk with, Ammerman said. “Our advocates are people who have been there before,” he said.
More needs to be done, Harbaugh said, but the work is advancing. The Care Coalition works to assist those operators who don’t remain in service, supporting the transition to civilian life and to veteran status. The Care Coalition works closely with Veterans Affairs to ensure seamless transition, he said.
“This is a work in progress,” Harbaugh said.