By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Aug. 28, 2008 — When an airman is seriously injured in combat it is not only their life, but also their family's, that is suddenly turned upside down. While the airman is whisked away for critical medical care, it is the family that must juggle the housing, child care and financial arrangements necessary to be by the airman's bedside during recovery.
For many, the experience is at best chaotic, and at its worst, a nightmare.
More than 440 airmen have been wounded in combat since the start of Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom. Of those, about 80 are considered seriously injured. For them and their families, family liaison officers with the Air Force Survivor Assistance Program are on the front line of wounded warrior care.
"The family liaisons are the key to taking care of the family. That is very critical, especially when the person is first wounded," said John Beckett, the Air Force Survivor Assistance Program manager. "They are the link between the family and the Air Force."
For example, one airman, deployed to Afghanistan, was badly burned and evacuated to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. But his distraught wife could not get to his bedside.
She was afraid of being deported.
The airman's wife was not a U.S. citizen, and was living in Mexico at the time of his injury.
She had submitted paperwork for entry into the country to be with her husband, but it got lost somewhere in the bureaucracy. Further complicating matters, she didn't speak English, couldn't drive, and had a three-year-old child to care for.
At that point, Air Force family liaison officers stepped in, found her documents and reunited her with her husband. The liaisons also found her a place to stay, enrolled her in English classes and arranged for child care. Then, they took her to driving school, where she earned her license.
Beckett's office, located near the Pentagon, is the first to begin overwatch of the care of seriously wounded airmen. Airmen and their families fall under the care of the Survivor Assistance Program as soon as they are injured and remain in the program until they are either returned to duty or discharged.
"If You Need to Call Me, Call Me"
Beckett is himself a 20-year veteran of the Air Force. A former senior enlisted man, he is still taking care of airmen nearly two decades after his retirement.
Beckett meets each seriously wounded warrior in the hospital and encourages them to call his cell phone any time. While his office has a toll-free number, Beckett tells them to call him directly.
"I think it's important that they can get a hold of me instantly. I just like them to know that," Beckett said. "I'm not kidding. If you need to call me, call me."
But while Beckett's office oversees the Air Force's efforts, the practical application of care for the airmen and their families is the result of a nationwide network of commanders, family liaison officers, Airman and Family Readiness Centers and Wounded Warrior Program consultants.
Liaison officers are not full-time staff assigned to an official wounded warrior office. Instead, they come from the ranks of those who are injured, often from the same units and same jobs as those of the injured airmen.
When a liaison officer is needed, commanders simply ask for volunteers who then commit to spending the next several months helping airmen and their families navigate through a bureaucratic and confusing medical and disability system.
A liaison officer is assigned to the family as soon as the airman is evacuated from combat, Beckett said. The officer works on every issue from housing and transportation, to child care, benefits and pay. The first few weeks are intense. But for the liaisons, it's fulfilling work, Beckett said.
"It's a way for them to give back to the Air Force and to show support for fellow airmen," Beckett said. "It's a sense of duty. It's like being a good wing man for a fellow airman."
Unlike the Army and Marine Corps, which have entire units dedicated solely to the care of wounded servicemembers, airmen remain assigned to the units from which they deployed. And, the Air Force tries as soon as possible to return wounded airmen to the unit's base, or a nearby facility, rather than relocate entire families, which can cause other problems.
For example, one airman owned a home near his base in Arizona. He was hurt by a bomb while deployed and sent to recover at Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas. His wife quit her job to be with him during his recovery, even though they relied on her income to pay the mortgage.
She was the airman's primary caregiver, cooking and caring for him and helping him to keep medical appointments.
"There was no place she would rather be," Beckett said. But, the couple faced losing their home.
With the help of the liaison and the Wounded Warrior Program, the Air Force Aid Society stepped up to help with the mortgage payment. A private donor also pitched in alongside several others in the community of Randolph Air Force Base, near where he was recovering. The bills were paid and the house saved.
Returning the wounded to their units and communities also keeps support systems in place for the airmen and families, Beckett said. Most transitional support comes from the local Airman and Family Readiness Center on base.
At the centers, airmen and their families are educated on veterans' benefits, job opportunities and other transitional assistance. Representatives from Veterans Affairs, the Labor Department, Social Security, Tricare and others occupy space at the centers and serve as a one-stop shop.
"There's a lot to be said if you can keep your people assigned to their own units because they still have that connection," Beckett said. "To a lot of airmen, that unit they belong to -- that's their family. That's their Air Force family."
Planning for the Future
As their initial needs are met and wounded airmen begin working through recovery, liaisons and representatives from readiness centers begin educating them on what happens next in their recovery process and careers.
Air Force leadership has promised to retain airmen, if possible, and to place them in jobs that accommodate their permanent disabilities. So far, about 60 of the 440 seriously wounded airmen have requested and been allowed to stay on active duty.