This is part two of our series about the Wounded Warrior Project coming to Great Bend. Last weekend, a group of five soldiers attended a Wounded Warrior hunt sponsored in part by the WWP and Pheasants Forever Rooster Booster Chapter 504. The Tribune spotlighted each of the soldiers and how they became part of the project. Today, we’ll take a closer look at how the Wounded Warrior Project is working to help soldiers transition back into civilian life, and ways the community can help.
Tim Horton LCPL, USMC, RET, is the alumni manager of the San Antonio unit of the Wounded Warrior Project. A wounded warrior himself, Horton lost his leg in combat eight years ago. Today, he continues to be part of a softball team made up of Wounded Warrior amputees, and works to spread the word about the Wounded Warrior Project to underserved rural areas in states like Kansas.
When members of the Pheasants Forever Rooster Booster Chapter 504 contacted him with their desire do something to give back to soldiers, he brought together a group of handpicked Kansas based wounded warriors for a guided hunt funded entirely by the community.
“It’s really helpful when a community contacts us,” Horton said. Lots of warriors want to take part in activities. Outside of areas centered around the major medical hospitals where wounded soldiers are brought to for recovery, resources are spread thin.
“When you’re wounded, they cut your cloths off, evacuate you to a hospital, you end up in Germany or in the United States, with none of your stuff,” LTC. David Johnson said. Johnson was one of the wounded warriors taking part in last weekend’s hunt.
According to Horton, this is where the Wounded Warrior Project got it’s start, and is where first contact with wounded soldiers continues today. Shortly after the war with Iraq began after 9-11, a couple of veterans saw the need for wounded warriors returning home, and began a backpack project. They filled 50 packs with comfort items such as clothing, toiletries, playing cards, etc. It wasn’t long before the hospital requested 50 more. Today wounded service members receive backpacks as they arrive at military trauma units across the United States. Wounded soldiers overseas evacuated to field hospitals receive a smaller version to help with their immediate comfort. They also receive the assurance that if there is anything they need, the WWP is there for them, whether their injuries are visible or invisible. Other soldiers who received their injuries or service-related illnesses post 9-11 may also seek out help from the WWP.
Soldiers who have less serious injuries are sent to bases like Ft. Riley to finish their recovery, Horton said. Horton and his staff provide outreach about every two months he said. They stay in contact with the soldiers, but there are far fewer outings planned in these more remote areas.
WTB a positive change
Each of the wounded warriors taking part in last weekend’s hunt west of Great Bend were transferred to Ft Riley’s Wounded in Transition Battalion (WTB). After initial treatment or diagnosis of their injuries.
Ssg. Ronald Ryker is the only soldier of the group that has sat on both sides of the table at the WTB. He remembers what it was like to deal with service related injuries pre-WTB. When the soldier’s initial injuries were treated and he or she was fit for service, they were put back with their company’s rear battalion.
“It was basically left up to me and my wife to make sure I had all my appointments, that my meds were right, make sure I had a way to get to all my appointments,” he said. Sometime around 2006-2007, the military realized too many soldiers needed help they couldn’t get while they were still attached to their unit. That’s when WTBs were formed, and Ryker gives the Army credit for doing a great service. Soldiers who have issues also have pride, and may not want to bring these issues to their leadership and risk being labeled as “the guy with problems,” he said.
“A lot of guys had the tendency to bottle a lot of that stuff up when really, they needed to be pulled away from their mission so they could focus on getting better,” he said. “Big picture, in the last ten years, the Army has really done a lot better job of making sure soldiers are getting the help they need physically, emotionally, mentally, and offering counseling and therapy for spouses and children.”
Today, Ryker, a civilian, works as a caseworker with the WTB at Ft. Riley managing between 12 and 15 soldiers at any time.
“In the WTB, no two soldiers are wounded the same way, and they come from all branches of the military,” he said.
Helping with transition
But when a wounded soldier is retired or discharged, they still need to make a transition to the civilian world. Some, like Ssg. Josh Feinburg, truly miss the structure of military life. Feinburg shared Saturday morning how the lack of structure in civilian life led him back to the military after his initial service with the Coast Guard ended years ago. He joined the National Guard and volunteered for his first assignment to Iraq. After completing his recovery and serving with the WTB, he was discharged in September and works as a Lowes loss control specialist.
“Everything I’ve ever known or done is military,” he said. “It’s hard to figure out anything else to do besides that.” Going from leading a group of soldiers to working on his own has been a hard transition to make.
Upon hearing about the hunt, he checked the list and saw a familiar name--that of SGT Marcus Johnson. He said he couldn’t sign up for the trip soon enough.
By coming together, soldiers can relate to each other’s issues, Ryker said.
“Where you might not feel comfortable going to a psychologist or talking to a physical therapist about what’s going on, you can talk to fellow soldiers because you have that bond.”
And the military bond exists even if soldiers didn’t serve in the same unit. All branches have that bond of having served.
“Getting to shoot that first bird is awesome...but at the same time, they are surrounded by guys who understand, and you don’t even have to say anything,” he said. The common bond allows them to relax in a way they can’t in their day to day life. “Even with wife and kids, you can’t always relax the way you do with other soldiers. The kind of stress relief you get from these kinds of events, you really can’t even put into words.”
Horton knows there are thousands of soldiers the project still hasn’t reached they haven’t reached. “If they didn’t go through a major medical facility, they may never have heard about the WWP,” he said. The only other ways are through word of mouth or if they happen across the organization online. An advertisement during the Superbowl was donated in part by the broadcaster and the NFL to help get the word out too. It was the first national exposure the group has received, as it strives to use as much of the donations it receives as possible to fund the 18 different programs it administers for soldiers, wives and families. But Horton especially wants to see the reach of the WWP extend into places like rural Kansas. Some examples of other outings communities have sponsored include fishing trips, sporting events, long-distance rides, attendance at entertainment events. Many of the events these soldiers attend are new experiences, ones they might never be able to take part in on their own. But, with the help of the WWP, most if not all expenses are paid for.
Horton handpicks participants for events based on their abilities and the progress they’ve made in their recovery. He said attendees must represent themselves and the WWP well. If he does not have a personal history with the warrior he gets references from other warriors, depending on the outing. Event sponsors may also help by suggesting candidates they may know. Ultimately, the goal is to put together a group that is well suited to one another so all experiences are positive for the soldiers and the communities alike.
Horton can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by phone at (210) 569-0314. More information about the range of projects offered can be found at the organization’s website, http://www.woundedwarriorproject.org
“As long as we’re reaching out and helping them as much as they can, we’ll provide as many events as we can for them,” Horton said. “Our goal is to honor fallen warriors, anyway we can.”