by Pamela Stokes Eggleston
This past Friday, the Military Officers Association of America (MOAA) and the United States Naval Institute (USNI) co-hosted the 4th annual Defense Forum Washington, a one-day conference that examines the current and pervasive interests of today’s military. My husband and I were asked to be panelists at the DFW, and we were honored.
Senator Jim Webb (D-VA) was the opening speaker. He talked about the long deployments “multiple deployments have placed us in uncharted territory.” He went on to describe his military family experience and stated that he did not see or experience the multiple deployments that we do now. “We have less dwell time and more deployment time.” He said that he could not believe that this was allowed to happen. He also mentioned his Dwell Time Amendment in 2007. “We tend to think that because we have an all volunteer force, we have an all career force.” The US military is a unique institution.”
The panel that I spoke with my husband on was called “Navigating Recovery – Are We Meeting Needs and Expectations?” Other panelists include MG Todd Bunting, Sgt. Maj. Ploskonka Jr., USMC, Jean Langbein, LCSW, and John Campbell (BSF friend from My Vetworks who is the new Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Wounded Warrior Care and Transition Policy). Charles and I spoke about the problems we had with Walter Reed, from a wounded warrior and caregiver perspective. Charles also mentioned the suicide rates among wounded warriors and how he lost some of his brothers.
The second panel, Confronting the Integration Process – Embracing the Experience, was just as interesting. There was a mother, a parent on the panel with her wounded warriors on speaking about her experience, “the military spouses have benefits, but the parents do not.” Her son was injured in 2007 and thought that the MEB/PEB processed had improved since 2004, 2005, 2006. Charles and I had a hell of a time with that process; we mentioned that it and the disability evaluation system (DES) needs to be revamped. It was stated that we need to tailor what we do differently for every single one of the soldiers and veterans. The female veteran on the panel said she was initially reticent and in denial about her PTSD and that accordingly made it worse. The President of the Brain Injury Association of Michigan Michael Dabbs piggybacked on what Charles and I stated during our panel: we need to get better and faster at delivering services in a uniformed way. He challenged the audience to return to DFW 2011 to report what each of us has done in the past year.
Gen. George Casey and Sheila Casey gave the keynote speech during the luncheon. Sheila Casey thanked all of the organizations present for raising awareness for the wounded warriors and the challenges that they face. Having 40 years as a military spouse, Ms. Casey travels around the country and the globe and has seen the stress placed on military families. “Tomorrow marks the 9th anniversary of 9/11. These past nine years have been incredibly difficult on the force. Our soldiers are stressed, and so are their families. In the face of the new normal, our troops have come together and supported one another.” Ms. Casey worries about the long-term effects these long deployments are having on the children. “Our families are dealing with the cumulative effects of 9 years of war.” Her sense is that more services and support will be needed. And then there are those families that have the added challenge of caring for a wounded warrior. “What I have observed about caregivers – they are the last ones to take care of themselves.” She is right. As the caregiver of a wounded warrior, I often forget to take time for myself.
Gen. Casey spoke after his wife and stressed the new normal. “Before 9/11, the good old days, we were an army to train. But I have to tell folks that we are not going back there. Although we have drawn down to 50,000 in Iraq, the war isn’t over. We are preparing ourselves form protracted confrontation. Gen. Casey stated that globalization, technology, demographics, population growth, and an increased need for resources are all doubled edged swords, particularly during these turbulent times. “The cumulative effects of the war, of the past nine years, are going to be with us for a while.” And according to a study he commissioned, it takes 26 to 34 months to recover from a 12 month deployment. To this end, he believes that the Army is out of balance. “We are so weighed down by our current demands, that we could not do what is currently needed from our soldiers and their families.” Gen. Casey stated that we have to follow the following steps to put the Army back into balance: prepare, reset, transform, sustain. He promised that by this time next year, units will have two years at home. And he mentioned a recently launched national action alliance for suicide prevention.
The final panel, The New Normal: Hope for the Future, focused on gaps in services. It was suggested that a council of DOD, VA, and private organizations partner to provide services to wounded warriors. One of the panelists lives two and a half hours away from the nearest VA hospital; both he and his wife were wounded veterans dealing with PTSD. “Placing a stigma on PTSD, something that is normal, is unacceptable.” It is not a disorder, it is a challenge. There was also a brief discussion about the preference to use the term post traumatic stress (PTS) instead of PTSD. My husband prefers PTS and has been using for months. “It is not a dis-order, implying you are out of order. It is a normal reaction to an abnormal situation.” The Egglestons’ friend and country singer Stephen Cochran was the colorful moderator of this panel, openly discussing his PTSD and how it affected his relationships.
Speaking at the closing session was Tammy Duckworth, a female wounded warrior and Assistant Secretary for Public and Intergovernmental Affairs at the VA. She spoke about treating the physical and psychological injuries of our wounded warriors. “We as a nation owe it to our warriors. Recovery to the new normal can last for an entire lifetime.” Ms. Duckworth stated that 45 percent of all women who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan have come to the VA for services, and that the fastest growing population of the VA is Vietnam veterans. She also stressed the importance of a single disability evaluation system (DES) rating system and DOD-VA collaboration.
Pamela Stokes Eggleston is the Development Director for Blue Star Families. Her husband Charles is a purple heart recipient and a member of the BSF Board of Directors.