The Many Masks of War
By Michael Richardson, WWP Independence Services & Mental Health Vice President
Change can take on many faces. Like masks in a theater worn to show a shift in identity, change represents a new player in the script, assuming a new role. Theaters vary in scenery, but post-9/11 veterans’ theaters take on a similar backdrop: sand and dust, heat and sweat, tears and cries, and fear of the unknown – locked tightly in the cuffs of bravery. The warrior’s mask is donned, and the curtain opens. Silence fills the room until the final act is completed. Change takes its bow, and the warrior walks off the stage, but the mask of change remains.
And so marks the first of the many masks of war.
Rosemarie Ader joined the Hawaii Air National Guard in 1993. In 2007, she volunteered for a six-month “in-lieu-of-Army” deployment as a logistics officer in Kabul, Afghanistan. Taliban routinely engaged the NATO military installation where she was stationed with rocket-propelled grenade attacks, leaving Rosemarie with a traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
According to the 2017 Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) Annual Warrior Survey, more than three-quarters of warriors (77.1 percent) had an experience that was so frightening, horrible, or upsetting that they were constantly on guard, watchful, or easily startled.
“I lost my sense of purpose,” Rosemarie said. “I lost my identity and cognitive and physical abilities. I thought I wasn’t worthy of receiving care because there were others much worse than me – I still had all my limbs. I didn’t seek care because of guilt tied to these wounds that no one can see, and so I began to isolate myself from life.”
If history teaches us anything, it is that change is inevitable. The world we live in today is very different than before 9/11, as are the needs of injured veterans. While support and services have progressed from previous generations, gaps in care still exist between what is currently available to these warriors, their caregivers, and families and how their needs will evolve.
With advancements in battlefield medicine and technology, an unprecedented number of service members survive combat injuries and return home to face their own battles in recovery. To date, more than 52,000 service members have been physically wounded in the current conflicts, and it is estimated as many as 500,000 service members – like Rosemarie – live with invisible wounds of war, including combat stress, TBI, depression, and PTSD.
“My normal functioning started to deteriorate, and it got to a point when everything just stopped,” Rosemarie explained. “I kept losing and forgetting things. Gunshots and explosions from nearby military training were triggering memories of my deployment. I realized something wasn’t right.”
In July of 2013, Rosemarie admitted herself to a veterans’ emergency hospital in San Diego, California.
To address the growing mental health needs of warriors returning from war, WWP offers wounded veterans a range of specialized mental health programs and services – all tailored to each veteran’s specific needs and free of charge. Recently, WWP fully launched one of its highly popular pilot programs, WWP Talk, a mental health support line that serves as an invaluable, non-clinical form of emotional support for warriors, family members, and caregivers. The program has been a lifeline to more than 2,500 participants to date, with 92 percent reporting satisfaction with WWP Talk in 2016 alone.
“I wasn’t ready to talk to anyone face-to-face,” Rosemarie said. “I went through a deep depression stage, so a supportive phone conversation that was on my terms was welcomed. If I didn’t feel like talking, it was OK. It became easy to trust and open up more than I could with friends or family. I shared my darkest fears. There were a lot I haven’t even shared with my best friends.”
Each week, WWP Talk participants speak with the same helpline support member, developing an ongoing relationship in a safe, non-judgmental outlet to share thoughts, feelings, and experiences. WWP’s professionally trained staff help warriors build resilience, develop coping skills, and achieve goals to improve overall quality of health.
This program is crucial for warriors who are returning home from military service with injuries. Warriors need to know they are not alone and not forgotten – that we, as a nation, will continue to be here for their recoveries long after their military service ends. For many warriors, they just need a safe environment and someone they can trust to listen to their successes and worries, and who can be there for them consistently to provide that first step in connecting to life and regaining a sense of empowerment.
Through the generous support of donors, the mental health support line is available at no cost to warriors, family members, and caregivers registered with WWP. It serves as a stepping stone in the recovery process for many of them.
“Accepting my invisible wounds has been the most challenging part of my recovery,” Rosemarie said. “To the public and my loved ones, they saw a Rosemarie who was put together and whole. I wore a mask with a smile that was always happy. But beneath the mask, I was angry, sad, lost, confused, and frustrated with myself.”
WWP Talk has helped Rosemarie find her new self.
“Wounded warriors struggle with being judged,” Rosemarie said. “The Talk program teammates are unbiased and breathe positivity and encouragement into your life. Sometimes talking is the first step to getting help. WWP Talk helped me understand that while I may be a different person, it’s not bad – I am new and improved. My life can still go on, and I can still do a lot of the same things I used to love and enjoy. I now wear a true mask of joy and laughter – they have become my prescription and medicine of choice. To those I am close to, I share the tears, anger, and truth of my recovery. Everyone needs unconditional support – WWP Talk was that for me.”
WWP salutes the service and sacrifice of those who have dedicated their lives to our great nation. Veterans comprise a wide range of our nation’s finest, from those who protect and serve on homeland to those who deploy to ensure the realization of freedom across the globe. Together, these brave men and women fight beside each other, enduring the same battles abroad and at home after deployment.
WWP stands ready to help warriors, their families, and caregivers with comprehensive support for mental and physical health, continuing education and employment assistance, and warrior outreach and reintegration into local communities.
About Wounded Warrior Project
We Connect, Serve, and Empower
The mission of Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) is to honor and empower Wounded Warriors. WWP connects wounded warriors and their families to valuable resources and one another, serves them through a variety of free programs and services, and empowers them to live life on their own terms. WWP is a national, nonpartisan organization headquartered in Jacksonville, Florida. WWP is an accredited charity with the Better Business Bureau (BBB), is top rated by Charity Navigator, and holds a GuideStar Platinum rating. To get involved and learn more, visit woundedwarriorproject.org. (Photos courtesy WWP)