WINCHESTER, Va. – Andrea Sawyer knows first-hand how war can impact a military service member and a family. She said goodbye to her husband, a Soldier, as he left for Iraq in 2006 and welcomed home a changed man in 2007.
"Every day in the U.S., 18 vets will take their own life," she began. "My husband was almost one of them."
Sawyer visited the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Middle East District on Feb. 16 as part of the organization's monthly leaders forum, when senior leaders, participants in the Leadership Development Program, and other interested employees gather to learn about and discuss a variety of topics. February's forum welcomed an advocate from the Wounded Warrior Project to discuss her experience and how military leaders can help the service members and civilians who serve in warzones, as well as the families they return to.
Sawyer's husband returned from his deployment with a mortuary affairs unit suffering from migraines, light sensitivity, an endocrine disorder and a liver issue, but his most serious injury may have been the chronic and severe post-traumatic stress disorder. Her husband medically retired from the Army in 2008 and was subsequently declared 100-percent permanently disabled by the Department of Veterans Affairs. The full-time teacher and mother of two was soon a full-time caregiver for her wounded warrior.
This new phase in her life also presented new challenges. Frustrating experiences with healthcare providers and a VA system that is sometimes difficult to navigate, she said, left her in need of some assistance. Wounded Warrior Project was there for her, providing hope that life doesn't end with an injury – helping both Sawyer and her husband know that they weren't going to be left behind and forgotten.
"They (WWP) are always there for me when I need them," she said. "They are my team."
Sawyer had some advice for leaders of men and women who may potentially suffer from PTSD or other illnesses related to deployment. First, recognize that there is a problem, and then identify what it is. Once identified, determine the desired outcome and begin working to achieve it.
In Sawyer's experience as a caregiver and working with WWP, she and others from the program had "figured out our solutions. We had heard 'no' a million times, and we had figured out how to go around [obstacles], how to suggest making changes and how to improve [VA processes for treating wounded warriors] and accomplish our mission.
"Today, what I would like you to remember when you leave here: everybody – each and every one of you – has your own frustrations. You have your personal frustrations. You have your work frustrations. And, I imagine, in this mission you have a lot more frustrations," said Sawyer. "Your job here is not only to make Soldiers safe, but also to make everybody who is left behind safe. Every single day, when you find one of those frustrations, please remember that we really value and appreciate you looking for all those innovative solutions; that we are thankful every time you hear a 'no' you find some way to problem solve; and that every day each and every one of you chooses – by your work here and your personal commitment – to make the world a better and a safer place for all of us."
Sawyer's comments were directed at the Middle East District's mission, which is to provide engineering and construction services throughout the U.S. Central Command area of operations. The district carries out projects that provide operational and living facilities for U.S. forces deployed throughout this area, as well as projects for other U.S. and foreign agencies working in this region. The district's people frequently travel to countries in the Middle East and Central Asia, including Iraq and Afghanistan, to accomplish its mission.
"On behalf of the district, I would like to thank you for a very powerful talk, and thank you for putting a personal face on a very real issue," said District Commander Col. Jon Christensen at the conclusion of Sawyer's presentation. "We thank you for putting things in perspective. Although we have a lot of obstacles, perhaps they aren't as big as we think they are."
Sawyer became an advocate for wounded warriors while helping her husband find treatment. She participated in the Department of Defense Wounded Warrior Best Practices symposium in 2008, the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program 2008 as a consumer advocate for PTSD, and the Wounded Warrior Project Caregiver Summit 2009, which lobbied for caregiver legislation on Capitol Hill. Sawyer and her husband are subjects in the series "Living with PTSD" done by the Military Times papers to educate the public, service members, and veterans about the signs, symptoms, treatment options, effects on relationships, and long-term outlooks for veterans with chronic, severe PTSD and their families.
The Wounded Warrior Project's mission is to honor and empower wounded warriors, and the group's vision is to "foster the most successful, well-adjusted generation of wounded service members in our nation's history." To find out more, please visit WWP at their website: www.woundedwarriorproject.org.