AW2 marks 10 years of support to Soldiers and families

Story by Elizabeth M. Collins, Soldiers

This year will mark 13 years since 9-11. Thirteen years of combat and injuries, many of which would have meant certain death less than a generation ago. It marks 13 years of warrior care, recovery and starting over.

This month marks another milestone, the 10th anniversary of the Warrior Transition Command’s Army Wounded Warrior Program, which the Army founded after leaders realized many Soldiers wounded in combat would need long-term care and assistance that went far beyond medical.

“AW2 was stood up as the Disabled Soldier Support System for our most severely wounded, ill and injured Soldiers,” said its director, Col. Johnny Davis, who was himself injured in Afghanistan in 2010. “Some of the Soldiers were returning with injuries that required additional resources and help. … We provide from beginning to end all of the resources and assistance for all of our severely wounded, ill and injured Soldiers.”

Soldiers are eligible for AW2 when they receive or expect to receive at least a 30 percent rating from the Integrated Disability Evaluation System for one of the following conditions: post-traumatic stress disorder, severe traumatic brain injury, severe or total loss of vision or hearing, loss of limb, spinal cord injury, permanent paralysis, severe burns, permanent disfigurement or a fatal/incurable disease with limited life expectancy. Soldiers who receive a combined rating of 50 percent for any other combat-related condition are also eligible. Military doctors and nurse case managers usually can tell if a Soldier is a candidate and will immediately bring in the local AW2 advocate, who will then complete his or her own assessment, said Davis.

“When we stood up it was only about 340 Soldiers,” Davis said. “Now our numbers – we’ve provided support to almost 19,000.”

Of those 19,000, AW2 actively contacts about 8,000 every month via about 200 advocates. Those advocates are there, Davis said, from the moment wounded Soldiers arrive at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, to make sure those Soldiers (and their families) have everything they need. The advocates are located at each major military and veteran medical center and in every state where there is a large wounded population. They can assist in everything from helping family members find places to stay in those initial, worry-filled days to later walking a Soldier through the medical board process.

“These dedicated professionals are on site at all (Warrior Transition Units) … and are integrated in the interdisciplinary team of medical and nonmedical professionals who collaborate on all aspects of the Soldiers’ recovery and transition plan,” said Thomas Webb, deputy to the commander of the Warrior Transition Command.

In fact, much of AW2’s focus is helping Soldiers through the transition process. Do they want to stay in the Army? Do they want to find jobs or go back to school? AW2 will be there, assisting Soldiers when it comes to continuation on active duty paperwork, offering resume and job workshops and tracking down job opportunities and scholarships.

The Army Wounded Warrior Program, now in its 10th year, was behind now-retired Capt. Alvin Shell long before he had even heard of the program. He and his wife Chilketha consider Shell's AW2 advocate a part of their family. (Photo couresty of Alvin Shell)

The Army Wounded Warrior Program, now in its 10th year, was behind now-retired Capt. Alvin Shell long before he had even heard of the program. He and his wife Chilketha consider Shell’s AW2 advocate a part of their family. (Photo couresty of Alvin Shell)

“We can help them identify the steps to identify their goals and connect them with the resources and support them, because our advocates have access to thousands of different resources,” said Davis.

AW2 was behind him long before he had ever heard of the program, said retired Capt. Alvin Shell, who was injured when AW2 was in its infancy in 2004. Shell had deployed to Iraq in December 2003 as a military police officer with the 82nd Airborne Division just days after his premature son was released from the neonatal intensive care unit. After months of almost continuous enemy contact, combat patrols and improvised-explosive devices, Shell volunteered for an extra patrol in August when his platoon watched an IED detonate as a convoy of trucks crossed a bridge. The platoon immediately responded, but the IED had shredded one of the truck’s gas tanks — the Soldiers and the road were covered with gasoline. So when a rocket-propelled grenade exploded soon after, it turned the road into an inferno.

One of Shell’s Soldiers was in the middle of it, consumed by flames, so Shell ran through the gasoline and the fire to help throw his Soldier on the ground and put out the fire. Shell crossed through the firestorm once again to respond to enemy contact, realizing too late that not only was he too on fire, he was trapped in a circle of flames. With nowhere to go, he finally covered his face and ran through the fire.

“I just lit up,” Shell, who later received a Bronze Star with Valor, remembered. “Everything that I had on that was soaked with gasoline was now ignited: My vest, pants, everything was on fire. I immediately dropped to the ground and I’m trying to roll it out. … I started stripping my clothes off out in the middle of the road because I thought maybe it was just my clothes on fire … but I realized that no, it’s my skin and my body. So I look in a ditch … I jumped down and just got down as deep as possible as I could in this nasty ditch water and I finally put myself out.”

Shell’s Soldiers tried convincing him that it was time to leave, but his weapon was missing. He refused to leave until they found it and, of course, until he had full accountability of his Soldiers. And it would be faster, he figured, to just drive to the hospital rather than wait for a medevac. During the trip, his driver and another Soldier kept looking at him nervously. He was fine, he assured them. It wasn’t serious. It didn’t even hurt that badly.

His adrenaline lasted until they reached the hospital, and then the pain came on in a wave so intense that two separate doses of morphine barely took the edge off. Even as he was being loaded onto the medevac, with third degree burns over some 35 percent of his body, Shell promised his commander he would be back in a couple of weeks. When he woke up at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio a week or so later to see his wife and his father peering at him through masks, he was livid: How dare the Army bring his family to Iraq?

So began a very slow, painful recovery process that lasted almost two years and involved countless surgeries to repair as much of his charred flesh as possible. Shell knew his injuries meant he would be leaving the Army, but he figured that with his degree and both civilian and military law enforcement experience, it would be relatively easy to find a job; he was wrong. He filled out more than 100 job applications without any success. Then one day, after yet another surgery, he got a call from an officer at the Department of Homeland Security in the Office of the Chief Security Officer.

He didn’t actually have any openings at the moment, but Shell’s resume had ended up on his desk and he liked what he saw. Three interviews later, Shell had a job he had never applied for in an opening that hadn’t existed and he started to wonder how the Department of Homeland Security had gotten his resume. Working backward, Shell discovered that AW2 had sent his resume to Military OneSource, which in turn had forwarded it to DHS. “I didn’t even know these organizations were helping me.”

In the years since, his AW2 advocate has gotten him a Segway to make getting around easier (the fire took large chunks of muscle from Shell’s right leg), helped his kids attend personalized summer camps and sent his entire extended family to professional sporting events. “She knew that if it was something halfway athletic or outdoorsy that it was something that I would be interested in,” he said, adding that these days his advocate is like family herself. “As I think back now, this was her and my wife talking to each other. … I fell in love with what my kids were doing and I became much more involved in the family than I was before when I was just kind of working 50 hours and going upstairs and going to sleep. … I can’t thank her enough for it.”

That’s exactly what AW2 is there for, said Davis. It gives Soldiers help they may not have known they needed, even Soldiers like Shell who thought they had everything together. Advocates are great at finding those local resources and benefits for wounded veterans, and if a Soldier needs help with another federal agency, such as the Department of Veterans Affairs or the Social Security Administration, advocates handle that too, Davis said, explaining that they can often cut through the delays and back logs.

Army Wounded Warrior Program alumnus Jeremy Horsley lost an eye and suffered from post-traumatic stress and a traumatic brain injury after his convoy was attacked in Afghanistan in 2004. Today, he is an AW2 advocate who guides his fellow wounded warriors and their families through every step of the recovery and transition processes. (Photo courtesy of Jeremy Horsley)

Army Wounded Warrior Program alumnus Jeremy Horsley lost an eye and suffered from post-traumatic stress and a traumatic brain injury after his convoy was attacked in Afghanistan in 2004. Today, he is an AW2 advocate who guides his fellow wounded warriors and their families through every step of the recovery and transition processes. (Photo courtesy of Jeremy Horsley)

One of those advocates is Jeremy Horsley. The former corporal is himself an AW2 alumnus. He lost an eye while deployed to Afghanistan in December 2004 with the 25th Infantry Division, after two Taliban fighters attacked his convoy and left his face damaged with shrapnel, an injury that Horsley tends to downplay. “I got a mere wound out of it, but men died that day so that was the important part.” When Horsley’s fiancee, Brianne, finally saw him, she was horrified at how bad he actually looked. His face was swollen, black and blue, and shrapnel peppered his skin.

Surgeons removed his eye in country and after he was medevaced, he spent only a week at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., before returning to Tripler Army Medical Center in Hawaii to finish his recovery, most of which was outpatient. He thought he was lucky, but then reality started to set in. He couldn’t sleep. He thought he was on guard duty all the time and when Brianne came up behind him in the bathroom and touched his shoulder, “He just kind of freaked out. That was the first time I realized that something wasn’t right,” she remembered. “I don’t know. He was just like, ‘I was somewhere else.’ It was weird. … He went to the doctor because he realized it wasn’t normal either.” It was, in fact, PTSD and he started seeing a VA doctor.

Horsley got out of the Army in 2005 and went back to school, quickly realizing that he had developed what he can only explain as dyslexia. He suddenly started writing backward and math became almost impossible. “I was like, ‘This ain’t right.’ So I went to the doctor at the VA and they referred me to a TBI person. They said, ‘Hey, from this event, this is what you suffered and this is what it was. It just wasn’t really recognized then,” he said. Doctors wanted him to undergo therapy three times a week, a schedule that just didn’t fit with working full time and attending classes, so Horsley learned to help himself with various memory games.

Along the way, he moved to Washington state to be near Joint Base Lewis-McChord, he was laid off and Brianne gave birth to twins just two weeks later. They racked up a lot of debt. And then this “weird lady” kept calling Horsley, finally trying Brianne when she couldn’t reach him. She was an AW2 advocate, and she turned out to be a lifesaver. Horsley had never heard that he was eligible for coverage for his lost eye under the Traumatic Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance program, but within weeks Horsley had $50,000 in his account.

“That’s just a benefit that was out there that I would never have known if I didn’t have AW2. Their mission was to help people through the recovery and transition process and educate you. … I’ve never fallen through the system because I’ve had someone there looking over my shoulder.”

When an advocate position opened up at Madigan Army Medical Center at JBLM, Horsley’s own advocate knew he would be perfect for it. Since he had been where the newly wounded Soldiers were only a few years before, he could relate to them in a way few could. He has anywhere from 45 to 60 Soldiers assigned to him who he contacts on a monthly basis, but because he is co-located with the WTU, he sees most of them on a weekly basis.

“I’ve kind of made my own list of things that I think are the most important issues. … Most of the time I can squash every issue they’ve got just by going over things with them to begin with,” Horsley said, explaining that housing is always at the top of his list. He works with a nonprofit organization in Texas to help all of his Soldiers apply for mortgage-free homes. And remembering his own experience, he has them apply for all of their financial benefits up front. Many of his Soldiers have even had their VA claims come back in three to six months.

Just as importantly, he can recognize the early signs of PTSD and TBI. And because he works next to the social workers, he often gives them a head’s up, and he’ll tell Soldiers, that he’s not a professional, but he’s been there, and “I can tell you ways that it worked for me to deal with some of the stuff. … They kind of look at an end result of where they can be.”

“Bottom line: Our support is personalized for each Soldier,” said Davis. “We’ve been doing this for a long time. It’s 10 years, and I would tell you we’ve matured in a manner that I think we are starting to get it right. More importantly, I think we are building something that can be enduring for warrior care in the future. … After I was wounded, I wondered, ‘OK, what’s next?’ Well, we have great people in place to help answer that question. We have evolved … and this is something special and powerful and we will not mess this up. We will just get better every single day.”