Serving Those Who Serve
By: Jennifer Silva, WWP Chief Program Officer
At Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP), we understand the greatest casualty is being forgotten. Watching the first wounded return home from the current military conflicts, our founders were inspired to help others in need. As veterans of prior conflicts, many of our founders knew firsthand the struggles of coming home and transitioning to civilian life.
They started WWP with the goal to foster the most successful, well-adjusted generation of wounded service members in our nation’s history – such an important goal that it was adopted as our vision statement. Their hope was that this generation would be welcomed home with open, supportive arms – a privilege veterans from prior generations were not awarded. What started in 2003 as a program to provide comfort items to wounded service members has grown into a complete rehabilitative effort to assist warriors as they recover from their service injuries and transition back to civilian life.
According to the 2017 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.
WWP was established on the principle of one warrior helping another. This is evident by its highly recognized and symbolic logo of one warrior carrying another. While not everyone can serve, everyone can support. Once these warriors are carried off the battlefield, it is our responsibility to carry them the rest of the way home, ensuring they accomplish every success in life they desire and deserve. WWP has a simple, yet vital mission: to honor and empower Wounded Warriors.
We know it is not just the warriors whose lives change after injury, but the families as well. And it is why our mission carries over to military families and caregivers. Although they may never set foot on a battlefield, the courage and sacrifices of these families are just as significant as the heroes they support. Just as our returning warriors come home to a new normal, so does every person in that service member’s family.
As WWP moves into 2018, we continue to live up to the solemn commitments we made during those early days of the conflicts. Through our work at hospital bedsides, we came to fully understand just how long the battle continues after warriors leave the battlefield. The more we learned, the more vital our mission became. We realized there was very little direct support in place for these young warriors and their families. Where we found gaps in service, WWP and our generous donors filled it. Not because we simply wanted to, but because we had to. If we didn’t fill the gaps with worthwhile and necessary programs and services, where would these warriors turn as they navigated the minefields peppered along the path of transition to a successful civilian life?
Since 2003, WWP has grown from one grassroots program of packing backpacks in a basement to a variety of programs uniquely structured to increase warrior connection, mental and physical health and wellness, financial wellness, independence, government relations, and community relations and partnerships.
We would never have been able to do this if our mission wasn’t seen as necessary and deserved by the entire WWP family and our passionate supporters. A mission started by six friends with a passion to serve has grown into a nationwide effort supported by a team of dedicated employees – almost half of which are veterans and caregivers. United by shared values, we accomplish our mission by raising awareness and enlisting aid for the needs of severely injured service members; connecting wounded warriors with each other and their communities; serving warriors and their families with innovative programs that will meet their growing needs; and empowering them to live life on their own terms.
As of November 2017, WWP serves more than 108,000 warriors and almost 26,000 caregivers and family members. The growing need for programs and services is evident. We know we have a great deal of work ahead of us if we want to achieve our mission, which is why we continuously pursue innovation in our programs, operations, and strategies to best honor and empower our nation’s deserving warriors and their families. To ensure our programs are meeting the needs and improving the lives of every wounded warrior, we began collecting statistical data from our registered warriors in 2010. Our Annual Warrior Survey is one of the most comprehensive and statistically relevant collections of data on veterans of this generation. Each subsequent survey provides updates to the previous year’s results, highlighting trends among registered warriors, comparing outcomes with other military populations, and measuring the impact of WWP services and programs.
Because WWP believes warrior-to-warrior support is so intrinsic in the recovery process, we focus on connection events as part of the Alumni program. Injured veterans who enroll with the organization are considered “Alumni,” referring to the belief that each person is from the same school of selfless service and sacrifice and shares common experiences that allow each to be there for others in ways unique to service brothers and sisters. This program helps veterans build relationships by providing opportunities to connect with one another, programs, and their communities. From recreational activities and sporting events to professional development and community service projects, there’s something for everyone. And because we understand the value a thriving family life can have on recovery, we also host many family- and spouse-focused events that help warriors get active in their lives.
Another opportunity helping to reduce isolation is the WWP Peer Support program. Peer support plays an important role in the recovery process as injured veterans rely upon one another’s learned experiences when managing day-to-day challenges. All WWP programs and services have an aspect of this support structure, while the Peer Support program is solely dedicated to ensuring every injured veteran, family member, and caregiver encourages one another in recovery, thus embodying the WWP logo of one warrior carrying another off the battlefield. At WWP, this is known as “living the logo.” For warriors, the logo is an undeniable symbol that reminds them of their resilience – and their passion for continued service.
Mental Health and Wellness
Our focus on Mental Health & Wellness addresses the mental health and cognitive needs of warriors returning from war. While post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and combat stress are common after war-time experiences, WWP approaches these issues from the warrior’s perspective. We understand the stigma attached to mental health, access to care, and interpersonal relationship challenges.
Our approach to meeting mental health needs of warriors is comprehensive. We challenge warriors to think about goal-setting and understanding their new normal. Many begin their journey with a multi-day veterans mental health workshop called Project Odyssey® – the name is derived from Homer’s epic poem about overcoming adversity and finding one’s way home. These themes mirror a veteran’s own journey to overcome the struggles associated with combat and transition to his or her new normal at home with family and friends.
The workshops are offered as all-male, all-female, or all-couples and provide outdoor, adventure-based, learn-by-doing missions that promote peer connection and healing using new tools to healthily cope with the invisible wounds of war. The experiences gained during the mental health workshops not only improve mental and emotional well-being but also help to recharge and rediscover self. We have conducted more than 190 Project Odysseys, serving more than 2,700 participants this year, with more than 97 percent reporting workshop satisfaction and 91 percent saying they gained valuable resiliency skills.
We also assist warriors through one of our highly popular 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 90 percent reporting satisfaction with WWP Talk in 2017 alone. 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.
In addition to these programs, WWP has built an innovative collaboration between it and four top academic medical centers – Emory Healthcare, Massachusetts General Hospital, Rush University Medical Center, and UCLA Health. This partnership enhances access and provides clinic- and family-centered treatment to veterans needing care for PTSD, traumatic brain injury (TBI), and other related conditions. Warrior Care Network® provides more than 70 hours of clinical treatment in two- to three-week specialized outpatient programs. With a completion rate of 96 percent, Warrior Care Network is becoming an optimum model for treating PTSD.
Physical Health and Wellness
Designed to reduce stress, combat depression, and promote an overall healthy and active lifestyle, our Physical Health and Wellness program offers educational coaching programs that are even available in the comfort of a warrior’s home. This year, WWP served more than 700 participants through the coaching programs with 57 percent reporting improved mental and social functioning. Physical Health & Wellness has something to offer warriors in every stage of recovery:
Inclusive Sports: It’s about what you can do. Inclusive sports allow warriors living with cognitive, emotional, and physical impairments to engage in local, community-based activities to help overcome both visible and invisible injuries. Participating in inclusive sports is a great tool for learning to thrive. Through sports and recreation, warriors can spark deep-rooted leadership skills and challenge buddies in some friendly competition.
Fitness: Enhance physical fitness, no matter where you are on your journey. Making fitness a daily routine can change your life. Activities such as run/walk events, dancing, paddle boarding, cycling and rock climbing are great for reaching personal goals such as weight management, physical endurance, speed, strength, and an overall healthier lifestyle.
Nutrition: Fuel your body during recovery. Nutrition plays an important factor in well-being, especially when making new adjustments. By focusing on nutrition, warriors learn about the four major food groups, healthy food preparation techniques, and knowledge to promote healthy choices.
Wellness: Unite body and mind for overall wellness. Warriors can learn about healthy lifestyle behaviors and opportunities to participate in physical activities that embrace fun, leisure, and recreation. Active engagements in activities such as smoking cessation education, meditation, stress management, yoga, and scuba can unite mind and body for an improved lifestyle.
One of the better known Physical Health and Wellness programs is Soldier Ride®. Soldier Ride is a unique four-day cycling opportunity for wounded warriors to exercise and reintroduce the bonds of service to overcome physical, mental, or emotional wounds.
Soldier Ride began in 2004 when civilian Chris Carney cycled more than 5,000 miles coast-to-coast to support WWP and help raise awareness for injured veterans. The following year, several combat warriors who returned from Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) with visible and invisible injuries joined Carney for another cross-country ride. The trek across the nation proved to be a milestone on the journey to recovery as wounded warriors redefined their personal strengths and limitations. Despite facing many obstacles, the warriors refused to give up. They used the experience as a catalyst to show the public and themselves that with support and motivation, anything was possible. Today, Soldier Ride continues to inspire warriors to heal their bodies and minds. This year, almost 1,000 riders participated in more than 30 Soldier Ride events nationwide. It has become a gathering that connects American heroes to each other and their communities and provides the American public an opportunity to honor that service and sacrifice.
Long-term financial and medical support play a critical empowerment role in the recovery process, which is why we focus on Financial Wellness for our warriors too. We aim for warriors to have professional fulfillment in their lives – without being unemployed or underemployed, and having opportunities to pursue a meaningful career or own their own business. Warriors to Work® and Benefits Service help warriors achieve financial empowerment. Warriors to Work provides career guidance and support services to warriors registered with WWP who are interested in transitioning to the civilian workforce by matching their skills and experience to the needs of hiring managers. WWP career counseling staff work hand-in-hand with warriors to identify civilian career opportunities, translate military experience to resumes, provide interview coaching, and teach networking skills. WWP also partners with outside organizations to provide educational opportunities, improve job skills, and increase job search options.
Our Benefits Service program provides the tools needed to navigate the complexities of the Department of Defense (DoD) and Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Working closely with each agency, the Benefits Service team walks injured veterans, family members, and caregivers through every step of the transition process, ensuring claims are filed and processed correctly – the first time. This year, the Benefits Service teammates had 91 percent of submitted warrior claims approved through the VA, having an economic impact of $85.4 million for injured veterans and their families.
Despite more than a decade serving those who served, at WWP, we know we must constantly plan for the future. For many warriors, the battle continues long after they return from conflict, and they discover the help they thought they would receive doesn’t even begin to cover what they really need. That is why WWP is committed today and every day after to ensure our warriors live on their terms through the Independence Program. The program is designed for warriors who rely on their family or caregivers because of moderate to severe brain injury, spinal cord injury, or other neurological conditions. It is a team effort, bringing together the warrior and his or her full support team while creating an individualized plan for each warrior – focusing on goals that provide a future with purpose at no cost to the warrior and his or her support team. It’s designed as a complete, long-term partnership intended to adapt to the warrior’s ever-changing needs. Today, America recognizes the heroes who have selflessly served and sacrificed for this country, and WWP joins a grateful nation as we say thank you. This holiday season, we honor the men and women who have bravely worn the uniform and remind them they are not forgotten. Help us honor and empower these warriors as they redefine their lives after injury. Make a donation by visiting http://supportwwp.org/homeland.
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)