Communities Must Unite Behind Troops, Official Says
By Elaine Sanchez
American Forces Press Service
FORT BELVOIR, Va., Feb. 29, 2012 While government programs are essential, it will take a concerted community-level effort to ensure troops, veterans and their families realize their independent “capacity for greatness,” a Defense Department official said yesterday.
“Sometimes it takes more than valor. It takes leaders in the community connecting with them in meaningful ways,” said Army Col. David Sutherland, special assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for warrior and family support. “[It’s] recognizing there’s greatness in our formations, and there’s greatness when they come home.”
Sutherland, a 29-year military veteran, urged a group of employers to recognize service members’ potential during the 2012 Wounded Warrior Employment Conference here. The conference, hosted by the services’ wounded warrior programs, is intended to educate and encourage federal and private sector employers to hire wounded warriors.
Meaningful employment, along with education and access to health care, are the foundations to ensuring long-term quality of life for wounded warriors, veterans, their families and families of the fallen as they return to communities across the nation, Sutherland said.
Troops don’t come home to government programs, he noted -- they come home to their families, their neighbors and their communities. The colonel cited a study that indicated the No. 1 remedy for dealing with combat’s effects is a sense of community, a feeling that they fit in.
Communities must step up to embrace these troops and veterans, the colonel said, particularly once their battle buddies are no longer by their side. They need new battle buddies, he added, but this time from their communities -- people who can assist them in translating their skills, knowledge and attributes into civilian life and organizations.
Government programs can’t do it alone; however, “independent organizations working together at a community level can,” he said.
Employers who take a chance on wounded warriors won’t regret it, Sutherland said, as they will bring the same valor and devotion they displayed on the battlefield to their communities and employers.
“I’ve seen them do amazing things,” he said, citing their leadership skills, performance under incredible pressure, respect for diversity and their ability to be strong team players.
“Their competencies tied to their values make them unbelievable to your bottom line,” he told the employers.
“They just need a little assistance during transition and reintegration, and they will thrive. They will contribute for years and years to come.”
Many times, however, troops are hindered by an “epidemic of disconnect” between civilians and the military, the colonel said, citing Army Sgt. Jeffrey Wray as an example of the painful effects of this divide. Wray was injured while deployed in Iraq, Sutherland said. The colonel recalled visiting him a few hours later at a combat support hospital.
When he first saw him, Sutherland said, Wray was conscious, but couldn’t speak because he had a tube down his throat. He’d been cut open from neck to groin, he said.
“As we walked up to him, with tears in his eyes, he asked us for a pen and paper,” the colonel recalled. “And he wrote down one thing: ‘Can I stay in the Army?’”
Like so many wounded warriors before him, Wray wanted to get back to his unit and his soldiers, where he’d be able to apply his competencies and values, the colonel said. Instead, he was medically discharged two years later. The sergeant had trouble finding a job, and he struggled in school and in his relationship.
“They don’t understand me,” Sutherland recalled Wray saying to him a few months after his discharge.
The colonel helped Wray get community-based peer support, education for his educators and marriage enrichment through a local nonprofit organization. And he helped Wray find an employer who valued his skills, and provided him with a mentor and a support network to ensure his success.
“Sergeant Wray will thrive,” Sutherland said, thanks to an outpouring of community support he referred to as a “sea of goodwill.”
Still, the nation’s leaders must continue to bridge the civilian-military divide by educating educators and counselors, establishing veterans resource centers for employment and education, and helping to combat the credentialing challenges troops face when they come home.
Sutherland cited the importance of community action teams that bring together all of a community’s resources -- including faith-based organizations, employers, health care providers and educators -- to enable service members’ success. In return, he said, communities will gain determined, competent people who, like all veterans before them, are “wired to serve.”
Sutherland recalled Army Capt. Sam Brown, who was injured when a roadside bomb hit the vehicle he was riding in while in Afghanistan. Brown caught fire and did the “stop, drop and roll,” then tried to douse the flames with his hands, Sutherland said. “The flames wouldn’t go out,” he said. “So he dropped to his knees, threw his hands in the air and he said, ‘I turn it over to you.’ The flames went out.”
Brown survived, but suffered burns on more than 70 percent of his body, including his face. In the midst of a long, painful recovery, Brown went with some friends to an Army-Navy game in Philadelphia. “Someone walking by said, ‘He looks like Freddy Krueger,’” Sutherland said, referring to the horror movie character.
Brown struggled with how he could fit in with a society that didn’t understand him, the colonel said.
But this officer is a “veteran, not a victim,” he said. The soldier decided to dedicate his life to other veterans and went on to establish a nonprofit organization called Allies in Service, which connects veterans to resources and mentors.
Brown later married an Army officer, and they recently had a baby, Sutherland said.
Sutherland said he’s often asked if he’s concerned about the nation’s youth and their future. The answer is a resounding no, he said. He encouraged the employers to recognize troops’ strength, resilience and courage, and the value they can bring to an organization.
“These are your men and women in uniform,” he told the employers. “And they’re phenomenal, and they’re coming home.”