Late Breaking News
Program Aims to Help Injured Servicemembers Reach Their Goals
WASHINGTON, DC—One of the most difficult challenges that severely wounded servicemembers face is that they are physically and mentally changed after their war experience. Mentors in the Wounded Warrior Mentor Program, however, hope they can help these severely injured servicemembers see that their life is not over. “We try to establish that you are never going to be like you were before, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t be completely normal. We approach them like a person, not like an injured person,” said Jonathan Dodson, PhD, who helps with the program’s coordination at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
The Wounded Warrior Mentor Program is a program that matches volunteer mentors with wounded warriors. The program was founded by several members of the West Point Class of 1958, many of whom are Vietnam veterans, who realized that injured servicemembers in the current conflict needed more support.
The mentors aim to help the servicemember, who may be grappling with serious injuries like multiple amputations, deal with their new reality and chart a course for the future. “We try to pull that person [beyond just], ‘I need to learn to walk on my prosthetics in the next two or three weeks’, to what are you going to be doing 10 years from now, five years from now, what do you want to be?” said Dodson.
The program is a private nonprofit organization that has mentor programs in place at WRAMC, DeWitt Army Community Hospital, Kimbrough Ambulatory Care Center, National Naval Medical Center, and McDonald Army Health Center at Fort Eustis, VA.
Most of the servicemembers who are inpatients at WRAMC, where Dodson has spent time during the last several years as a mentor, are severely wounded. These servicemembers may be alive, but many now deal with the trauma that comes with losing a leg or experiencing mental health symptoms stemming from their deployment. “The kind of loss that these people are going through is that, ‘I have lost myself. The person I was before, is no longer,’” Dodson explained.
Mentors who participate in the program are trained to support the servicemember they are paired with deal with their immediate concerns and to set goals for the future, focusing on the next three to five years. “The idea of the mentor is a one-to-one relationship. The mentor does not have four or five other people, so it is a one-to-one relationship and we have mentors waiting because we want the perfect match,” said Dodson.
Mentors are not a member of the servicemember’s chain of command or medical treatment team and are not there to replace the non-medical attendants, but they serve as a coach. They offer assistance, helping to connect the servicemember with jobs and internships and helping the servicemember understand their benefits, such as the GI Bill and VA benefits. In addition, mentors may provide assistance through a financial planner, who is a part of the program. “The focus is on taking that person from where they are and getting them to where they want to be,” said Dodson.
The injured servicemember must volunteer to take part in the program in order to participate in it. Prospective mentors are nominated by a current member of the program and they provide information on themselves so they can be matched to a servicemember. Mentors are managed by a “mentor manager” who is their immediate contact point for questions and/or guidance, according to Dodson.
Dodson said that mentors are chosen through a selective process and that one quality desired in a mentor is empathy. “You have to be empathetic to the fact that this person has undergone a very traumatic psychological change.”
Understanding Injured Servicemembers
Dodson understands what some of the injured servicemembers whom he has mentored are experiencing. He sustained a severe penetrating traumatic brain injury while serving in the Army in the Vietnam War and is now 100% disabled by the VA. “It took eight years for me to recover in rehab. I couldn’t talk and I couldn’t walk. I could see, but couldn’t focus. I was quite lucky because I was an anomaly in terms of the neurosurgical world, so they flew me around to see the top people in the military to do my neurosurgery. I am still a patient at Walter Reed.”
His medical prognosis was not very promising. “I died twice, once when they were pulling me off the field to the immediate surgical hospital and once in surgery. When I had my last brain operation, the brain team said ‘we don’t know why you are alive.’”
Dodson exceeded expectations and went on to earn his doctorate and had a career. Now he serves as a mentor in the program for those patients with TBI/PTSD.
He says he does not focus on his own experience when mentoring a TBI patient, but there are times when his experience has helped him in his work. He recalls how he once was asked to speak to the parents of a soldier who was returning from theater with a head injury. After he spoke with the doctor about the extent of the patient’s injuries, he was able to offer some support to the parents. “I said, ‘39 years ago that was me. I have been talking to you for about 40 minutes, am I okay?’ I made them feel the hole in the back of my head. They could feel the scar. That was me. He is going to be okay.”