The Bayonet

Wednesday, Mar. 06, 2013

Medical hardship doesn’t have to end Army service

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While every Soldier would prefer to go through their military career without experiencing any medical hardships, many are not that fortunate.

Soldiers face the obvious risks of battlefield injuries, but can also experience more common medical issues like any civilian.

Fortunately for modern-day Soldiers, advancements in medicine and Army assistance have made it easier than ever to overcome these issues and continue to serve.

The Warrior Care and Transition Program exists to help heal wounded, ill or injured Soldiers and help put them on the path to accomplishing their goals.

Those goals can include retirement due to medical issues, but Staff Sgt. Danny Hill, who works with the Warrior Transition Unit at Fort Benning, said more and more Soldiers are choosing to make the effort to rejoin their units.

“Most of the active-duty Soldiers when they get healthy, they want to go back to their unit if they can,” Hill said. “But some, depending on their age or their injuries, might choose to take the medical retirement.”

The services WCTP and WTU provide are tailored to each Soldier’s individual needs, helping ensure each Soldier returning to his or her unit is ready to resume duty. “It all depends on the Soldier’s injuries, and what needs to be done to prepare them to go back to their unit ready to be fully functional, and ready to shoot, move and communicate,” Hill said.

Hill has seen firsthand the opportunities WCTP can provide for Soldiers whose military future may be in doubt because of a medical issue.

Hill was stationed in Iraq in May 2007, when an IED explosion hit the vehicle he was traveling in east of Baghdad.

The explosion threw Hill from the vehicle, severely injuring his back, and killed two of Hill’s fellow Soldiers, Spc. Jonathan Winterbottom and Spc. Victor Toledo-Pulido. With Hill unable to return to his previous duties as a Scout, he found a new assignment with the help of WCTP, and now works with the local Warrior Transition Clinic.

“I’m basically able to counsel and mentor other Soldiers,” Hill said. “Even though I’ve been through what I’ve been through, I think everything happens for a reason, and what happened has led me here. I’m able to carry on each day because I know I’m still helping Soldiers even though I’m not able to fight.”

And while WCTP frequently works with Soldiers who have been wounded in battle, the Army does not limit its assistance to only those who have suffered combat-related injuries.

Retired Sgt. 1st Class Jeffery Hughes had a more unique situation in 1989.

Hughes’ mother, Lucie Fay Hughes, was suffering from kidney failure, and Hughes was the only compatible donor. Hughes said he was not initially expected to be the donor for his mother, and that he had to go through the appropriate channels to have the donation approved by the Army.

“I wasn’t expecting a phone call, but my dad called me one day and said, ‘I’ve got to ask you a very important question. Will you donate a kidney to your mom?’” Hughes said. “I told him I would. I didn’t hesitate. We didn’t know what the process was, so I had to go here to the library and go into the regulations to see the steps. You can donate a kidney, but you have to go to your local surgeon general and you have to be counseled. You have to maintain standards to remain on active duty.”

In September 1989, with the Army’s permission, Hughes donated a kidney to his mother. After 30 days of convalescent leave, Hughes was back with his unit and 30 days later, he was required to pass a PT test.

Hughes passed the test, but said he never felt the same after the kidney donation.

“I think the hardest part of the test was the run and the sit-ups,” Hughes said. “I didn’t have a problem with the upper body strength part. Instead of feeling like I was missing something from when they took a small piece of my rib and my kidney, it felt like they put something in for about a year. It felt like I was carrying something around and I had a numb feeling there until that finally dissipated.”

Hughes went on to serve until 2001, when he retired after 20 years of service. During that time, Hughes said he never felt limited by his medical history. “I have no complications,” Hughes said.

“I don’t limit myself or do anything that I wouldn’t do if I had two kidneys. The doctor said there were two things I couldn’t do. He said to never jump out of an airplane and not to play contact sports.”

Hughes, whose mother passed away in 2004 from an aneurysm unrelated to any kidney issues, said that his experiences have shown him that not only can medical issues be overcome, but that the Army will work with even the most uncommon situations.

“Anyone with a medical issue that really wants to maintain the standards and stay in, the Army is right there for them,” Hughes said. I have been totally blessed with good leaders that have been supportive throughout my military career. There’s absolutely no reason that if a Soldier wants to maintain the standards, they shouldn’t be allowed to keep driving on and be allowed to be all they can be. I wouldn’t change anything if I had to do it all over again.”

And while the Army offers numerous programs for those who want to stay on active duty, it will also assist in the transition to civilian life if a Soldier so chooses.

“They also try to prepare them for the outside world if they get medically retired,” Hill said. “They have VA assistance, an education counselor, resume assistance and other things to help so that when a Soldier leaves the WTU, they are ready for the outside world.”

However, Hill said there are Soldiers like himself who are ready and willing to help any Soldier who wants to begin the process of returning to active duty.

“Now that I’ve been through some of the same things they are going through, I can help these Soldiers know where to go and what is out there for them, whether it be programs to take advantage of or medical treatment that is available.”

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