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  • Here’s another article I wrote for the Navy Memorial’s Navy Log Blog a couple of years ago, when I covered the American Veterans Center’s Annual Veterans Conference, held at the Memorial. This time of year, leading up to Veterans’ Day, I think a lot about our veterans and especially, our wounded warriors returning from the current and recent conflicts.

    We don’t hear enough about their experience coming back into the civilian world. It is one of the most difficult things there is to do, adapting from a war zone to the civilian world – especially, when they return with injuries, both the "seen" type and the "unseen" type. We’re pretty good about acknowledging their sacrifice, now - at sporting events, there’s always a moment during the game when those in attendance are honored, and everyone gets up and gives them a resounding applause. That’s cool. Other than that, though, I feel like we just don’t see them as they return and try to make their way in society. They deserve to be noticed.

    This event was truly humbling to be a part of. Gathered together in the Navy Memorial, a crowd of more than 150 veterans, soldiers, sailors, marines, air force personnel, cadets, admirals, generals, and recent returnees from Iraq and Afghanistan, mixed and mingled over drinks and hors doevres, several generations of American warriors sharing their experience with each other. Eventually, they all made their way to the theater to convene a most compelling panel.

    One of the first panelists to descend the long, winding flight of stairs to the stage, well before the crowd came in from the reception, was a most remarkable young man, Navy Corpsman HM3 James Raffetto. Just back from the campaign in Afghanistan for several months, and 2 months into his rehab program at Walter Reed, James made his way down those steps like he’d been doing this for a long time. He may have lost both legs and parts of both arms in Afghanistan, but this man’s spirit remains fully intact, and his wife Emily just seems to know instinctively what to do in support of her beloved husband. But, he managed those steps on his own. Remarkable!

    The moderator, Bret, started the evening off with a panel discussion with James and fellow amputee Captain Ryan Kules, U.S. Army, to discuss their injuries, recovery, and re-entry to society. James considered himself to have been very lucky – “ A lot of guys developed massive infections with similar wounds – I didn’t. After some minor physical therapy at Bethesda Hospital, my real rehab program started at Walter Reed, building my strength up, getting fitted for legs – the technology (for prosthetics) is incredible!” Ryan, who lost his left leg and right arm in Iraq in November, 2005, reported that “the treatment has been tremendous. What really concerns me is the suffering of those with the unseen injuries - Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI). When people see guys like James and myself, our injuries are obvious. Those guys really have it rough.”

    They both stressed the importance of the shared experience in recovery – not having to go it alone. They each attributed a lot of their successes in the recovery process, and their ability to keep positive outlooks and attitudes through the difficult process, to the love and support of their families and the networks they’ve been able to reach out to. James especially singled out his devoted wife, Emily, who sat nearby in the front row. “Keeping a bright outlook is huge.”

    Next, Bret spoke with 3 individuals recovering from the unseen wounds – PTSD and/or TBI. Major Jim Nolan (USAF), who suffered from PTSD, Staff Sargeant Jeremiah Workman (USMC), who has written a book “Shadow of the Sword” about his experience with PTSD, and Staff Sargeant Michael Lipari (US Army), recovering from TBI and PTSD. Michael spoke of coming home from the Battle of Fallujah and having to fight the battle for normalcy, trying to forget everything that went on over there. The common theme for these brave men was the difficulty for others to understand what they’re going through, since they look healthy. “It’s a battlefield without blood”, said Jeremiah. “PTSD is not a disease. Some folks hear you say you have PTSD, and they don’t want to have anything to do with you. They don’t know what to do. But, what they need to realize is, we’re not stereotypes.” Bret asked if we’re getting better at recognizing and helping with these issues. The panel all agreed that it’s gotten a lot better. “Major steps are being taken to remove the stigma associated with PTSD and TBI”, responded Jeremiah. Jim talked about the importance of being able to admit there was even a problem, and reaching out for help. “That was the hardest thing for me to do, but once I did that, I started to get the help I needed. Now, I know that I’ll get better”.

    The third segment of the program featured Staff Sargeant Dillon Behr (US Army Special Forces) and Ariel Bell (US Army) talking about the importance that sports have played in their, and many others, recoveries. “Regular P.T. wasn’t enough to get back to where I was, after hip replacement” said Dillon. Ariel talked about “Ride To Recovery”, the cycling group that provides bikes to any wounded warrier or veteran who wants to explore the world of cycling. “Cycling is an activity that anyone can do. One participant is a quad-amputee. We’ve found that cycling helps us get out of our own heads, and just into a really healthy, vigorous activity”.

    This evening was one I won’t soon forget. These men and women left an indelible impression of real courage and a drive for life on me. It was a true honor to share this evening with them! Thank you all for your service, and for your sacrifice.
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