Wounded warrior program cares for injured Airmen

BEALE AIR FORCE BASE, Calif., -- When his convoy was hit Sept. 15, 2009 by an Explosively Formed Penetrator blast, .50 cal gunner Staff Sgt. Phillip Newlyn would be taken back to his Forward Operating Base in Baghdad, Iraq, then medavaced to Balad Air Base before being transported to Landstuhl, Germany and onward to Walter Reed Medical Hospital, Md. There, Newlyn would spend the next year and a half recovering from his injuries and learning to live without his leg.

Before he left Landstuhl, Newlyn became a part of the Air Force Wounded Warrior Program, an initiative started by the Secretary of Defense in 2004 to help combat-related wounded Airmen receive the care and assistance they deserve and need as they transition back to military or into civilian life.

Originally called Palace Helping Airmen Recover Together, the WWP identifies Airmen who have a combat-related injury or illness, requires long-term care or a medical evaluation board or physical evaluation board to determine fitness for duty. A majority of Airmen are identified through the Disability Evaluation System - meaning they have an obvious physical injury; however Liz Kim, Beale's Airman and Family Readiness Center Wounded Warrior coordinator, said its identifying Airmen without physical injuries that is the program's biggest obstacle.

"This is a really sensitive issue because most of Beale's wounded warriors are ones with PTSD [post traumatic stress disorder] but those are the ones that the people don't want to talk about," she said. "We look at cases of PTSD, TBI [traumatic brain injury] but the problem with them is that they don't like to talk about their injuries. These are the ones that are manifested by alcohol use, acting out, and become the problem child of the unit."

When an Airman is identified in the program, they are assigned a Recovery Care Coordinator at the Air Force Personnel Center, as well as a local coordinator wherever they are receiving care. When they transition back to their home station, or return to civilian life, they are assigned a coordinator from their local A&FRC. Wounded Warriors could be medically separated, retired or continue to serve, but Kim said recovery from either physical or mental injuries can be an overwhelming and daunting process and only six percent stay on active duty. The goal of the Air Force is to keep wounded Airmen on active duty, gainfully employed.

"We're there to help them coordinate their appointments and follow up care, to check to see they are supported and getting their needs met. The key thing is to work with the commanders and advocate for the members," said Kim. "Physical issues are easy to talk about, easy to see, but it's the PTSD issues too. The Air Force is a black and white world, but you have to have some gray when working with these people."

Other WWP services include a minimum monthly contact with the wounded warrior, family member or caretaker, advocacy and issue resolution and coordination of service delivery with base A&FRC - reintegration and transition support as well as counseling for financial planning, employment, benefits, compensation, relocation and family issues.

For Newlyn, who is currently undergoing his medical evaluation board and plans to medically separate, the program has been a support structure he needed.

"Honestly, the biggest thing is the support. My wounded warrior rep calls me from Texas all the time and I've had the support and guidance through the MEB process; I didn't know how that all worked," he said. "They took care of all the paperwork while I was at Walter Reed - I never had to do any paperwork while I was there. That was a big thing - I could solely focus on my rehab and in the spare time, have fun, which kept me sane."

The five most common career fields with wounded warriors are security forces, explosive ordnance disposal, vehicle operations, aerospace medical service and tactical air controllers. About 35 wounded warriors are identified every month, but Kim said there are a lot more that go unidentified especially in terms of members with PTSD or TBI.

"People don't want to look at themselves as broken, or feel there is a stigma related to these injuries, but you can't do it by yourself; that's why we have these great agencies," she said. "The biggest piece of the wounded warrior program is reintegration and transition support. They are realizing their whole life and their families lives are turned upside town. We owe it to these warriors to take care of them."

For more information on the Wounded Warrior Program, call the Airman and Family Readiness Center at 634-2863 or visit http://www.woundedwarrior.af.mil.