Staying Power: Family Liaisons on Frontlines of Wounded Airmen Care
By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Nov. 25, 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.
Most airmen initially want to stay on active duty, Beckett said.
“Every wounded person I’ve met, when you ask them, first off, ‘What do you see for your future?’ they will always tell you, ‘I want to stay in. I want to be back with my unit,’” Beckett said.
As time moves on, some have to take a harder look at their options. That’s when a wounded warrior representative steps in and “paints a picture” of the airman’s work and financial options, Beckett said. Depending on their disability rating and type of discharge, the airmen must weigh the advantages of staying in the service or getting out and getting a job, or going back to school.
“A lot of times, it’s more financially advantageous in the short-term and the long-term to take that option (of getting out),” Beckett said.
Wounded warrior representatives do not try to persuade the airmen in any particular direction, Beckett said. They want the airmen and families to have as much information as soon as possible so that, as they heal, they can sort through the details and work toward a decision that best suits their needs.
“We engage early,” Beckett said. “If you wait until the person is going through the [board], that’s a little late to be giving them information. We want to have them very well educated before that process starts.”
The physical evaluation board process begins with a liaison assigned to help the airman through that process.
If an airman decides to separate from the service, or is deemed unfit to return to duty, the case is transferred to the Wounded Warrior Program based out of the Airman, Family and Community Operations Branch at the Air Force Personnel Center, Randolph Air Force Base, Texas. The program, launched in 2005, was originally named Palace HART, or Helping Airmen Recover Together.
Through the program, the airmen and families gain the support of a wounded warrior consultant who is a toll-free phone call away, in addition to their command and readiness centers already in their support chain.
The four wounded warrior consultants on staff are there to ensure that the airmen and families receive all of their benefits, briefings and other transitional assistance. The consultants ensure Veterans Administration claims are filed before the servicemember’s separation and begin helping them find a job, school or other training program.
To assist in the transition, the Labor Department and many civic and private groups partner with the Air Force to provide jobs for those injured and separating from service. Also, the Air Force works with airmen who want to enter the federal civil service, finding them jobs for which they are qualified and helping them through the application and hiring process.
Rebuilding After Service
One of the most critical pieces of the program’s oversight comes after the separation from service when the airman’s pay and benefits move from active-duty military to Veterans Affairs and they begin their lives as civilians.
The consultants keep in contact with the airmen and families for at least another five years, ensuring that benefits stay in place and helping out when needed. The program now tracks about 300 servicemembers, most of whom have separated.
Problems sometimes arise, usually with pay and benefits, when servicemembers transition into civilian life, said Yvonne Duker, chief of family operations for the Airman, Family and Community Operations Branch at Randolph, who supervises program consultants.
One airman’s disability claim was delayed and he subsequently missed making his house payment for a few months, Duker said. His claim was eventually processed and he made up the missed payments. But by then, the mortgage company had moved the home into foreclosure. When the airman contacted the mortgage company, he was told it was too late.
He called his Wounded Warrior Program consultant, who called the mortgage company and explained the problem, and explain that the airman was combat wounded. The mortgage representative called the airman and said, “‘We can work this out,’” Duker said.
Most times, once an agency or business learns that the servicemember is a combat veteran, it is eager to work out any problems, Duker said. Often, it’s a matter of the servicemember simply not knowing whom to call, she said.
“We don’t stop until we make it happen -- until we make that connection,” Duker said. “As far as muscle, we’re it. We advocate. We’re like dogs with a bone -- we don’t let go.”
Most of the 300 wounded that still are in the program are called monthly, but depending on their needs, they may be called daily or only quarterly, Duker said.
“We just like to follow up to see how their plans are going,” Beckett said. “We just want to make sure that they are taking advantage of the services that the country has available to them, and that if we detect a need somewhere … that we can intercede on their behalf.”
For example, one airman was out of the service for four years when the VA denied his claim for handicap modifications to his house. The program consultants contacted the VA and found an alternative program that the airman was eligible for that would fund the modifications.
“Let’s face it, the Veterans Administration can be an unwieldy thing for a person to navigate through once they get out,” Beckett said.
Sometimes it’s not just claims problems that crop up years later. The symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder can take years to manifest, and as many as 70 percent of those tracked by the program show signs of the disorder, Duker said.
“The member goes out thinking ‘I’m doing fine. I’m great,’” Duker said. “Then, all of a sudden, they’re having nightmares; they feel like they can’t handle their job. Then they call our office and say ‘I need some help. What are my options?’”
Beckett called his job working with the Air Force’s wounded the most rewarding that he’s had, and said that he has never had a bad day – at least not for long.
“If I ever think I’m having a bad day, I think of what some of these folks have gone through,” Beckett said.
He said he is inspired by how they confront their adversities.
“When I see somebody who has lost their vision and lost an arm, and who talks about how they can give back to the Air Force -- that’s inspirational,” Beckett said. “Look at what he’s already given up. And yet he talks to me about wanting to give back to the Air Force. It is amazing that somebody would have that kind of outlook.
“They focus on what they can do. They don’t focus on what they can’t do. That makes a world of difference in how they approach their recovery.”
(Editor’s note: This is the latest in a serious of articles about seriously wounded warriors who are returning to active duty).