I always think of my Uncle Lee on Veterans Day. He was a quiet, shy country boy when he enlisted in World War II. Born and raised in Missouri he only had a grade school education. To my knowledge, he had never been to a city or seen the ocean when he patriotically enlisted in the army and became part of the war effort.
After the war, he returned to the states a broken man. At the tender age of 18 or 19, he had physically survived the Battle of Normandy (some relatives say the Anzio Beachead) but the mental toll would be a lifelong battle. They called his condition “Shell Shock” from the ammunition barrages. He was in and out of Veterans hospitals for the rest of his life. Mentally, he was mortally wounded.
Sixty years later, men and women are returning from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan with the same condition under a new name. This invisible wound of war is now called ‘Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.’ One out of eight soldiers suffer from PTSD. They may be safely home but they’re still at war. They have flashbacks, nightmares or other anxieties because inside they are still battling the enemy.
If you add physical injuries to the mental anguish you have a recipe for personal disaster. In spite of fast, quality medical care on the battlefield, thousands suffer amputations, traumatic brain injuries, blindness or visual impairment. This scenario breeds depression, fear, isolation and low self-esteem. Burned or maimed veterans may be ashamed of their appearance. Their activities are restricted. They are alone and angry.
The veteran suffers. Family, friends, neighbors and the community suffer. Everyone is wounded.
There were no support groups for my Uncle Lee. His was a lonely battle. Today there are dozens of Wounded Warrior organizations seeking to enable the disabled and encourage the discouraged. Sun Valley Adaptive Sports (http://www.svasp.org/) is a notable example. Initially it was organized to enrich the lives of individuals (i.e. children, teens, adults) with disabilities through sports and recreation.
In 2005 SVAS began the same encouraging sports outreach to veterans organizations. After severely wounded warriors had been treated and transitioned back to their home communities they still needed help. SVAS’ goal was to renew their spirits and give them hope. The program is an unqualified success.
I recently interviewed SVAS Executive Director Tom Iselin. A warm, enthusiastic guy with lots of irons in the fire, he excitedly noted that SVAS now hosts 50 couples per year at 8 events (at no charge). Two of those wounded warriors were Oregonians and their wives: Luke and Tonya Wilson, Hermiston and Bill and Naomi Congleton, Winston. They attended a winter snowsports camp program.
“We use sports as a healing tool but it’s not just a camp,” Iselin said. “Therapists consult with the fishing guides and are briefed on the injuries of each veteran. They know what to do in case someone has a seizure. We follow up participants for three years with phone calls and questions about physical progress, hopes and aspirations. We extend monetary help where needed to accomplish goals.
“The men come to us through VA referrals and word of mouth. They’re used to being (military) leaders and now they’re all alone. The warrior events apply those leadership skills to work, school, family and community. Groups are small and focus not only on fishing but feelings and emotions. They learn ways to combat depression and isolation and harness frustration and anger.
“The wives are always included,” he stressed. We know that wives suffer as much as the men. Some of them are only 20 years old! They have no college education. They become the primary caregiver, breadwinner and (sometimes) a single parent. We provide for them a safe, comfortable environment where they can relax and be pampered. They are given an opportunity to connect with other women. We take care of everything so they know that they’re also important.”
Fly-fishing is a therapeutic sport. A video of participants in the fly fishing program shows that after some initial apprehension, the men start to relax and have fun. They forget about daily stresses and think about the fish on the line. Hats come off, revealing scars that criss-cross their heads. Amputees discover that they can wade out into the water or cast with a prosthetic arm. Laughter bubbles up with each caught (and released) fish.
Attitudes change. One wife observed that her husband sat on the couch for 7 years before coming to the camp. Because of the program he began to realize that he couldn’t do things like he did before but he could do something. And she learned that it was okay for her to leave him alone and let him do it!
“Recreation is something that you take home with you. Having a goal to learn how to fly-fish is not good if you don’t go home and do it again,” said Iselin. “Fly-fishing is a life sport. You can lose yourself in the water. It is soothing, comforting and it’s portable. You can take it anywhere in the world. ”
One of the fishing guides summed up his experience at this summer’s camp for the blind, visually impaired and traumatically brain injured this way: “The smiles that I see on the faces of some of these soldiers means more to me than anything else.”
“Magical” is the term that one of the soldiers used in describing his experience at this unique camp. “This time was magical because you realize that people care.” And we do care. We just don’t always know how to show it.
So here’s a salute to all veterans (past and present) who have left home and family and served our country around the world in hope of freedom for over 200 years. We owe you an eternal debt of gratitude.
God bless you all!