Augusta helps wounded warriors

I am grateful for the opportunity to answer questions some in our community have raised about the CSRA Wounded Warrior Care Project, our mission and what we hope to accomplish.

The CSRA Wounded Warrior Care Project is a fully funded local initiative to explore ways the Augusta area might better serve wounded warriors and their families. At the heart of our mission is an interest to serve the men and women who return from Iraq and Afghanistan with wounds and injuries, both of the type we can see and of the type we cannot see. Our troops returning from these war zones come home with physical, mental, emotional and spiritual needs that should be met with the best care available. The CSRA Wounded Warrior Care Project is exploring ways Augusta might direct, redirect and expand its capacities to provide that care.

Some have wondered if we have any connection to another organization, the Wounded Warrior Project, based in Jacksonville, Fla. We are in no way affiliated with them, but we have been in contact with their group. We support and applaud their efforts to take better care of our nation's wounded warriors, and we have been very encouraged by our initial conversation with their national policy advisor, and I am planning on meeting with another staff member next week. We look forward to learning how we might work together when it comes to improving the local care of wounded warriors. As I understand it, their goals and ours are not in any way opposed.

We are not raising money, but we know of organizations that are. Augusta's Uptown VA is currently No. 8 on a list of approved Fisher House projects. The national Fisher House Foundation has committed $1.8 million toward the $3.6 million project, which will be home to 21 families of wounded warriors. The construction of this second Fisher House for Augusta (the first one is home to seven families at Fort Gordon, and has a 98 percent occupancy rate) is critical to the care of wounded warriors as we know people heal quicker when surrounded by people they love.

When we first started investigating what our community already is doing to help the wounded warriors, we found an extremely successful and unique collaboration between Eisenhower Army Medical Center and the Uptown VA. The Active Duty Rehabilitation Unit at the Uptown VA is the nation's only facility of its kind within a Veterans Administration facility, and is a shining example of an existing effort that does indeed deliver the gold standard of care our wounded warriors deserve.

However, as former U.S. Rep. Doug Barnard and I - along with others enlisted in our efforts - have discovered, the Active Duty Rehabilitation Unit was built with 60 beds, but currently only half of those beds are funded or being used.

When we discovered that a U.S. Army specialist from Camden, S.C., who had lost her leg in an IED blast in Iraq had to wait at Walter Reed for physical therapy, we wondered why some of the wounded warriors crowded into that facility in Washington, D.C., might not be brought to Augusta for treatment and healing. This same specialist arrived at the Active Duty Rehabilitation Unit on a walker, and within three weeks was on her prosthetic leg full time. She is now preparing to run in the Army 10-miler.

This specialist is not the only success story at the Uptown VA. More than 400 active duty personnel have been treated by the unit on an in-patient basis, and more than a thousand have received treatment as outpatients.

We contacted U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson's office in March and began working with them on what we could do to raise awareness about Augusta's current work with wounded warriors. We were honored that Sen. Isakson brought the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee to Augusta for a field hearing. It was at this hearing on Aug. 28 that we heard over and over that the Active Duty Rehab Unit delivers the best and most aggressive therapy available.

Spc. Jason Capps testified that after he was injured in a bomb blast in Iraq, his wife, who works at a VA in Oklahoma, told him he must go to Augusta's ADRU because he would receive the top-notch care and resources that were available. Spc. Capps praised the care and compassion he gets in Augusta, and said every soldier deserves the same.

Augusta is unique not only because of the Active Duty Rehab Unit. We are also home to the Army's Southeast Medical Command, located at Eisenhower Army Medical Center. Brig. Gen. Eric Schoomaker, commanding general of Walter Reed and former commander at Eisenhower, testified at the hearing in Augusta that the sharing of resources, as happens between Eisenhower and our two other VA facilities, is the most cost-effective way to deliver care. He called on the leaders in Congress, the Department of Defense and the Veterans Administration to see to it that those who are so deserving always have the best medical care possible when and where they need it.

With 70 percent of returning troops from Iraq and Afghanistan coming from the southeastern United States, we envision Augusta as uniquely situated to play a larger role in service to our men and women who deserve our best.

In addition to local, state and federal leaders, we have met with representatives from the Medical College of Georgia, who might also play a larger role in wounded warrior care. The President's Commission on the Care for the Returning Wounded Warrior (PCCWW) has outlined a simple, six-step plan. The commission calls for the establishment of recovery coordinators to lead wounded warriors through their healing processes, assisting them with any and all needs along the way.

This recovery coordinator job description matches up very closely with the already up-and-running Clinical Nurse Leader Program at MCG's School of Nursing, and we are investigating ways this local program might receive national recognition as a model and conduit to train recovery coordinators.

The president's commission also calls for better treatment and prevention of post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, which are two conditions under study and being treated at MCG. We are interested in discovering and exposing ways our local researchers and caregivers might further collaborate with Eisenhower and the VA facilities in Augusta.

Our idea is simple: We want to better serve our wounded warriors closer to home. Augusta is uniquely situated to serve our wounded warriors, and we hope the community will join in and support our efforts.

The writer is executive director of the CSRA Wounded Warrior Care Project.