Military wives take charge to ensure quality care for injured husbands
WASHINGTON -- Colleen Kenny Saffron of Castle Shannon married her artilleryman nearly two decades before an improvised explosive device detonated on his truck near Al Rasheed, Iraq. The May 5, 2004, blast killed two buddies next to him and carved off parts of his jaw, which doctors can't replace.
The muscles in Staff Sgt. Terry Saffron's arm unrolled like bark on a tree -- surgeons pared four inches of bone from it -- and he can't always remember where he is when he's left alone in the soup aisle of a grocery. The Veterans Administration rated the former Ambridge man 100 percent permanently disabled. He retired honorably from the Army in October.
Colleen, 39, who is legally deaf, quit doing freelance design work to care for him and raise their three children. During the six years when Terry, 39, was in the Army medical system -- the last year in Fort Hood's Warrior Transition unit -- she says she received no educational loans, extra financial help or special training about how to tend to her brain-injured husband as they edged toward his retirement.
"Everything I learned, I learned online. All the student loans I got, I got on my own to help the family when he transitioned. I received little help from Army. Individuals within the Army were wonderful, but as a system, a process, I got very little help," she said.
Figuring spouses of wounded soldiers also were having a tough time, she started the nonprofit Operation Life Transformed in 2007. It's now part of the Inova Health System's "Military to Medicine" outreach that trains spouses for health care vocations.
After her husband left the Army, however, Saffron has struggled to pay the mortgage and fix the dilapidated car that ferried them to numerous medical appointments.
"I've been to the White House twice, but I can't get a new car," she said. "Less than 1 percent of Americans will serve in these wars. Less than 1 percent of those who serve will be seriously wounded or injured. We're a small part of a big country, and you're telling me that we can't do something more?"
Fort Hood's Volunteer of the Year in 2008, Saffron said "the burden of these wars hasn't fallen on the Army or the Veterans Administration. It's really fallen on spouses and the family of the soldiers. You're putting us in a tough situation. You want us to work and support the family -- and we want to work -- but how can I work and leave my brain-injured husband to get to a doctor's appointment on his own?
"There's so much that we haven't figured out. This isn't a blame game. There are no bad guys, just problems for us to solve."
For better or worse
Since 2001, more than 300,000 military personnel have been diagnosed with brain injuries or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or evacuated from Iraq and Afghanistan with wounds or nonhostile fire injuries, according to reports by the Department of Defense and Congressional Research Service.
About 70 percent of those ailments are tied to the Army, the largest of the services and the one that's done the most fighting overseas. And today's all-volunteer Army is married.
There's nothing unique about the Army's commissioned officers being hitched -- most of them have been married in every war since Korea; what's new is that three out of five of those in the enlisted ranks have wed, according to Army studies.
Compare that to the draft Army that fought in Korea in 1952 -- only about a third of the enlisted had a spouse at home.
With this new reality in mind, bipartisan Congressional efforts since 2007 have increased military pay, cut taxes for service members and their families, opened government jobs to spouses, lowered medical insurance costs for families of active-duty personnel and provided special training, counseling and respite aid for the spouses of soldiers with acute disabilities.
But some experts who study modern military families wonder if the help has gone far enough.
"The Army and the VA alike have failed to provide adequate support to soldiers and their families as they transition from active duty to civilian life," said Nancy Berglass, a senior fellow of the Center for a New American Security think-tank in Washington.
Her November study, "America's Duty: The Imperative of a New Approach to Warrior and Veteran Care," grapples with the full complexity of the problems.
It urges Congress, the Pentagon and Veterans Administration to help each other more often; work jointly to develop a "National Homecoming Plan" to ease the transition of military personnel and their families back into civilian life; and bring nonprofits inside bases to help -- reforms Berglass says have been blocked by government bureaucracies.
The VA told the Tribune-Review that they're working hard to begin new family-friendly initiatives, especially medical programs that cut red tape, speed discharges and quickly disperse benefits.
The Army declined to comment. It's difficult to gauge how widespread these problems are for Army families, especially those dealing with the Warrior Transition program.
The Army's "Warrior Transition Unit Program Satisfaction Survey" annually polls a small number of departing personnel, and officials use it to claim widespread support for the units. But a 2009 Government Accountability Office study faulted response rates "too low for the Army to reliably report satisfaction" of service members and their families.
The Army wouldn't tell the Trib if they had changed the survey methods.
Breaking the chain
Patti Gallion Katter, 36, says her family had a bad experience. Her husband, Ken, 43, returned from Iraq with extensive brain injuries, nerve damage and a long list of other ailments. He was honorably discharged in August with a 100 percent permanent disability from the VA.
When Patti isn't home schooling her three children, running an Army-Navy surplus store in Saginaw, Mich., and the nonprofit Christian Military Wives helpline, she's the primary caregiver to her husband. But she doesn't want wives like her to be seen as victims.
In fact, she wants all spouses to toughen up and take charge of their loved one's care, like she did when her husband was in Fort Bragg's special Warrior Transition program for 2 1/2 years.
Patti says she helped the Army find paperwork doctors lost twice and constantly toiled to get treatment for his head trauma and nerve damage. She had generals on speed-dial and ended up prodding the Pentagon to buy a bed designed to alleviate her husband's excruciating back pain.
"I'm not in the military. I don't have to abide by the chain of command. I can go up to the commanding officer and tell him what's wrong," she said. "The soldiers can't do that. They will get in trouble if they go straight to a general, but spouses should go around the chain of command if they're not getting help. That's what wives, especially the younger wives, need to learn so that they can help their husbands."
Patti recalled how "the commander kept telling me, 'You'll never be able to change the Army.' Well, I thought that I might not be able to change the whole Army, but I'm going to try to do everything in my power to do that."
Like Berglass of the Center for a New American Security, Patti recommends an "Adopt-a-Soldier" initiative that links charities, local families and churches near bases to Warrior Transition patients, advocating for their health care and easing their transition to civilian life.
She also calls on the Army to better include families in the healing process and to take seriously complaints about Warrior Transition staffers -- called "cadre" -- who are alleged to lack compassion for patients.
"For our family, one soldier was wounded -- but a family of five will never be the same," Patti said. "Just being nice to us helps."