Caring for Our Veterans: The Wounded Warrior Project

Wounded Warriors, veterans
Wounded Warrior Project Soldier Ride. Photo: Staff Sgt. Brooks Fletcher, U.S. Army

If ever you want a lesson in courage, strength, and the ability to persevere despite any obstacle, talk to one of the wonderful people who participate in the Wounded Warrior Project. The Jacksonville, Florida-based nonprofit organization’s purpose is to raise awareness for veterans and physically and mentally injured military service members.

Various programs focus on the brain — from mental health issues to traumatic brain injuries. In addition to their physical wounds, it is estimated that as many as 400,000 service members live with the invisible wounds of war, from combat-related stress and depression to post-traumatic stress disorder. Another 320,000 are believed to have experienced a traumatic brain injury while on deployment.

Veteran Julio Gavidia will be raising money for the organization through Tough Mudder, an extremely difficult 10-to-12-mile obstacle courses designed by British Special Forces. Tough Mudder has raised more than $3 million for the Wounded Warrior Project. A Desert Storm veteran, Gavidia was deployed twice and suffered memory loss after his head injury. “At the time, I hadn’t known about Wounded Warriors, but I would have loved to have been the recipient of all the charity’s benefits,” he says. “It’s so difficult to talk about these things with civilians who don’t understand what it is like to be in combat, or anything war-related. At Wounded Warriors, you can connect with other veterans, and that really is comforting.”

At a Wounded Warrior Project fundraiser in 2013 with musician Gene Simmons and actor James Gandolfini, comedian Bill Engvall said, “These guys and gals put their lives on the line for us. Stuff happens, and they come back home, and all of a sudden everyone forgets about them. That’s not right. I firmly believe we need to thank and support them for what they do.”

Added Simmons: “All the proceeds are going to Wounded Warrior. Anyone who risks their lives and gives the ultimate sacrifice to America has got to be honored. And that is what tonight is about.”

Gandolfini, who volunteered with the charity for many years, was the executive producer on the Emmy-nominated HBO documentary special, “Alive Day Memories: Home From Iraq,” where the actor interviewed 10 soldiers who survived severe injuries while serving in Iraq. The compelling film brought nationwide attention to the injured troops. In an interview with NBC News, Gandolfini said, “I went there, I came back, I was struck by the silence here in the country about what is going on over there. And then, when I talked to these soldiers, I was struck by their honor, duty, loyalty to their country, it hit me … I  guess some people forget about that.”

Little-known fact: Gandolfini had his Tony Soprano costumes auctioned off for the charity. The auction raised close to $200,000.

Earlier this month, ABC News raised awareness about post-traumatic stress disorder by airing a segment with John Roberts, a former marine who is the executive vice president of Warrior Relations, and Def Leppard drummer Rick Allen. The duo are helping vets heal by creating Warrior Gatherings, a kind of group therapy session that encourages injured vets and their families to talk about their inner pain.

The Warrior Gatherings, which take place about an hour before each concert, started in 2009 and are now in their third tour with the band. “One of the main issues is that the warriors won’t ask for help,” Allen said during the interview with ABC News. “And we are really here to highlight the fact that you’re not a coward if you ask for help. It’s a wonderful way to draw people in — through shared trauma … And the warriors realize they’re not alone.”

Added Roberts: “A lot of them, they won’t share this information with their wife — and in an hour, we’ve learned things about them that they haven’t shared with their wife who’s sitting right next to them. It’s strange. They don’t know us, but they feel comfortable enough when they are in these groups, and they hear us being very honest and open with our past, and they feel it’s okay to start talking.”

As an organization that is committed to improving mental health care for their service members and veterans, the Wounded Warrior Project helped draft legislation, signed into law last summer with bipartisan support, that will significantly improve access to mental health care services for service members and veterans.

“By passing this legislation, the Senate is telling our nation’s wounded warriors that they have heard their concerns and are ready to take appropriate actions to ensure that these brave men and women are taken care of,” said former Wounded Warrior Project executive director John Melia. “We are very pleased with the overall legislation and look forward to working with members of the conference committee to have this bill enacted into law.”

The provisions include requirements for the Veterans Association (VA) to make critical improvements to its mental health care services; directs the Department of Defense (DOD) to develop and implement a comprehensive suicide-prevention program for the armed forces; directs VA to establish peer-support-specialist positions at all VA medical centers; requires DOD to refer OEF/OIF (Afghanistan/Iraq) service members to the VA to be considered for such employment; and expands the scope of Vet Center services to include counseling family members of deployed service members.

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