The USO’s Iraq Legacy: A Decade of Evolving Support for America’s Troops

This week marks the 10th anniversary of the United States’ invasion of Iraq.

While American forces have been out of that country for more than a year, the legacy of the war is still sorting itself out.

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USO photo

With the absence of a draft, the conflict pushed America’s all-volunteer force to bear its greatest burden to date, with multiple deployments becoming a large concern on the home front. While the death toll was comparatively low when pitted against previous American conflicts, the extent of the injuries – both mental and physical – were unlike anything the country had openly dealt with before.

But while warfare evolved, one thing didn’t change. Through the last decade, the USO was by the side of our troops on the battlefield and their families at home.

We were there providing millions of phone calls home.

We were there delivering the comforts of home to desert battlefields.

We were there with a video connection to the delivery room when babies were being born.

We were there when the dread of losing a loved one came into focus in the form of a temporary casket being transferred on the tarmac at Dover Air Base, Del.

And we were there when America’s heroes returned, hosting happy homecomings at airports for the majority of troops who made it back unscathed and providing programs for others to deal with the physical and invisible wounds of war. To better confront these issues facing wounded, ill and injured troops, the USO conceived and constructed two Warrior and Family Centers to help them and their families both recover and get on the right track to rewarding lives and new careers.

Thanks to the generous support of the American people, the USO was always by the side of our troops and families during the Iraq War. And we’ll continue to be there, wherever they go.

–Story by USO Story Development

A New Site for Wounded, Ill and Injured Soldiers

The USO Warrior and Family Center is missing its final beam!

Last week I had the honor of joining servicemen and women, donors, construction representatives, and USO staff to enjoy the topping out ceremony for the new USO Warrior and Family Center in Ft. Belvoir, Virginia.

Most topping out ceremonies celebrate the completion of the building’s structure, a milestone for the construction team. Our ceremony was more than that. We weren’t just celebrating the halfway mark of the building’s construction. We were celebrating what the new center will be for wounded, ill and injured (WII) troops, their families, caregivers and families of the fallen.

Come January, the large skeleton of the USO Warrior and Family Center will be transformed into a place where our country’s WII troops can go to escape the hospital, relax, and have fun during their journey to recovery.

The USO Warrior and Family Center will offer a caring environment where the healing that has begun, can accelerate. It will be a focal point for support; a place of respite and recreation; a place of normalcy to bring family together; and a place to prepare for a happy and fulfilling life ahead.

The final beam is placed into the USO Warrior and Family Center.

As I saw the final beam lifted into the sky and lowered into place atop the center, I couldn’t help but smile as I envisioned the center being utilized by WII troops every day. Many of the proud faces around me were delighted, too, and I thought they must be thinking the same thing.

Did you know?

  • Since the conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, more than 40,000 troops have been visibly wounded began, and more than 300,000 troops suffer from invisible wounds.
  • Only 12-14% of WII patients are injured in combat.
  • Many WII patients are injured during training.

The Fort Belvoir USO Warrior and Family Center:

  • Inside: communal kitchen, dining area, game room, theater, classroom, business center, study areas, community room, therapeutic enrichment room, respite lounge, and more.
  • Outside: grill area, terrace, and healing gardens
  • This center is designed for warriors to have easy access and mobility throughout these spaces.
  • The USO Warrior and Family Center in Ft. Belvoir is the first of two centers specifically for our nation’s WII troops. The second center will be built near the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, MD.

To join the USO in supporting these heroes please visit www.uso.org/oec

- Sarah Camille Hipp, Communications Specialist

Invisible Wounds, From the Battlefield to the Home Front: A Soldier’s Story

When 1st Sgt. Mike Martinez U.S. Army (Ret.) enters a room, most people might not realize they are in the presence of a two-time Purple Heart and Bronze Star Iraqi war hero.  A man who has sacrificed the ease and normalcy of everyday living for a lifetime of memory loss and hospital visits. And while he depends on the aid of a cane to stabilize his movements, it’s not until you start talking to Mike that you get a real sense of the extent of his injuries.

“When I got hurt, I reached down deep because I knew I was going to be sent home.  I did everything I could to stay with my men but I was ordered to go home and it was the hardest thing for me.  But I knew I wasn’t right and I’d be putting my men in danger.”

MSGT Mike Martinez speaks about the challenges he faces in L.A.

Mike may have left the battlefield but he is still in the battle.  Every day he struggles with the lingering effects of post-traumatic stress (PTS) and traumatic brain injury (TBI).  He suffers from severe headaches, extreme eye sensitivity to light, short-term memory loss and delayed speech.  As Mike points out, he’s not the same man he was before his injuries.  But he’s reached a point in his healing where he can look himself in the mirror and say “This is who you are, deal with it.”  And that is exactly what he’s doing, and what he hopes to remind other service men and women coping with the effects of PTS and TBI.  To do that Mike has set out on the road to help the USO promote our latest PSA campaign ‘Portraits,’ which strives to educate the American public on a struggle that faces more than 300,000 returning service heroes – the invisible wounds of war.

You see, Mike served two tours in Iraq and on two separate occasions he was hit by IED blasts, the second of which cracked his vehicle in half and caused the severest of his injuries, which have now lead to his treatment for both PTS and TBI.  When you hear Mike tell his story, as I did one night at dinner, there isn’t any anger or bitterness, no regret for his sacrifices or the challenges he now faces.  There is only a deep sense of dedication and pride in being an American.  He doesn’t regret his service, only that the injuries he suffered prevented him from completing his mission.

First stop on Mike’s journey to educate the American public was Los Angeles, California, which was also where my path crossed with Mike and his wife, Maria.  The USO hosted a screening of our PSA at the Creative Artists Agency for the LA community and the Martinez’s graciously agreed to come out and share their story. Like the 50 or so people who gathered to hear their story, I was more than moved by it…I was changed.  In front of a room full of strangers, Mike talked about the explosion that sent him home.  He recalled being handed a phone so that he could call his wife and say goodbye.  Everyone, including Mike, believed that he wasn’t going to make it.  Thousands of miles away, severely injured and near death he called his wife and told her, “It’s been a good ride. Take care of our boys.”

But Mike was lucky, and today he is a husband and proud father of three boys – two of whom are planning to follow their Dad into the US Army – and a healing hero fighting his way back to living.  While the wounds he sustained in battle may not have claimed his life, the victory of his survival is a bittersweet one.  The simplest of tasks are now much harder for Mike. He depends heavily on his family for their support, patience and understanding.  His wife is constantly by his side, reminding him of important dates and taking him to his many doctor appointments.  She understands that the man who came home from war is not the same one who went away.  And for that, Mike counts her among one of his greatest heroes.  While he knows he’ll never be that man again, he also knows that every moment he has with his family is a gift.

If you ask Mike why he does it, what drives him to share his story, his reasoning is pretty simple. He wants his brothers and sisters in harm’s way to know that it’s okay to get help, it’s okay to talk about PTS and TBI and above all that they are not alone.  And to America he says:

“Think of freedom as a wall and standing on that wall is always a soldier.  Americans should pray that soldier never falls.”

But the truth is sometimes they do fall, and an even greater truth is, there is always another soldier ready to step up and guard that wall and we owe them so much more than our thanks.  Our troops need to know that we are there for them and their families when they need us.

PTS and TBI are realities of war, and as Americans we owe it to our men and women in uniform to get educated and build awareness about this growing crisis. To learn more about ‘Portraits’ and the invisible wounds of war please visit us online at www.usoinvisiblewounds.org. It only takes a moment to acknowledge a lifetime of sacrifice. – Sharee Posey, USO Sr. Communications Specialist

The Invisible Wounds of War

As 2012 begins, many of our troops and their families will be looking forward to a new year with new opportunities. But for some, a challenging task awaits them – tackling the invisible wounds of war.

Often difficult to detect and negatively stigmatized, these invisible injuries can cause longterm or permanent damage if overlooked. Hundreds of thousands of troops are living with post traumatic stress (PTS) and traumatic brain injury (TBI) and many more will be diagnosed over the next few years.

A handful of brave troops have shared with the USO their deeply personal stories and how their conditions have impacted their lives. We ask you to become educated and join us in making a difference.

Watch more videos and learn more at USOInvisibleWounds.org and join the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #InvisibleWounds. Get educated. Get inspired. Get involved.