In the News
Honor heroes on the homefront this Veterans Day
By Dava Guerin and former Rep. Bob Clement (D-Tenn.)
The Hill, November 11, 2015
We’ve been privileged to be part of the lives of some of the most catastrophically injured young men and women who have lost arms, legs, and so much more fighting terrorism. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that there have been 50,000 service members wounded in action in Iraq and Afghanistan since the War on Terror began. Nearly 4,000 have died, more than 1,000 lost limbs, 320,000 suffer from traumatic brain injuries, and 250,000 have post- traumatic stress disorder. It is estimated that 22 commit suicide every day.
We’ve seen first-hand the sacrifices of mothers, wives and other dedicated caregivers who have given up everything to be by their loved ones side during many years recuperating at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. With less than one percent of the country serving in the military, few Americans realize the struggles wounded warriors face, and even less about the jobs that their mothers and wives will face for the rest of their lives caring for them.
That needs to change. As a nation we should demand better. The VA’s efforts have been negligent in providing healthcare services for our veterans. And while Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), a champion of military families, introduced the “Women Veterans and Family Health Services Act of 2105,” in an effort to give our nation’s heroes and their families the support they have earned, it will take more than a piece of legislation to turn things around.
Take for example the struggles that Marine Major Eric Burkett and his devoted wife Melissa have endured for nearly four years.
At the end of March 2012, Major Burkett left for his 4th deployment in less than seven years. He was part of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit. He was heading to Africa to take part in a joint combat training exercise called “African Lion.” He knew first-hand the risks involved with deployments. On April 11, 2012, just 13 days into his mission, Melissa, herself a former Marine, was informed that Eric had been involved in a helicopter crash that resulted in two fatalities-- two of his brother Marines. His right leg was mangled and his ankle dislocated. He also had problems with vision, a puncture wound through his right hand, shoulder and lung issues, and a traumatic brain injury.
In July 2012, Eric was discharged from the hospital and was transferred to rehab status. Melissa picked up their four young children from Pennsylvania to bring them back to Walter Reed to live together in Building 62, the facility that provides small, two-bedroom apartments for the outpatient wounded, ill or injured service members. Melissa and Eric share one bedroom, and their four kids sleep in cramped bunk beds in the other.Sadly for Eric, in August, 2103, the doctors decided that his right leg had to be amputated below the knee. After almost a year of rehab, Melissa thought there would finally be an end to her nightmare when she learned on January 30, 2014 that Eric would require a total knee replacement of his left leg. The operation initially went well. Just when she thought Eric was on the mend, Melissa learned that he contracted the deadly bacteria—MRSA. Nevertheless, he was given another knee and moved to outpatient with an intravenous line of powerful of antibiotics.
Sadly, if Eric’s condition worsens, he may need another amputation.
Melissa not only takes care of Eric, but home-schools all four of their kids. She has remained by Eric’s side through multiple surgeries—one amputation, one knee replacement (which was repeated more than once due to infection) on the only leg he had left, rebuilding of his leg muscles, among many other surgical and medical procedures--all while working on her kids’ homework, cooking dinner, and cleaning the apartment.
Wives of wounded warriors such as Melissa are a special breed. Unlike mothers or fathers they have a choice of whether to stay by their wounded warrior’s side, or leave because of the strain of caring day-to-day for their injuries.
This Veterans Day every American should not only say “thanks” to our brave service men and women, but their heroic caregivers, too. Better yet, reach out to them directly. Offer them the gift of time and caring. Demand from our legislators that they support Murray’s bill and actively engage in the issue. Volunteer and contribute to reputable non-profits that directly offer services to families and caregivers without high overheads and executive salaries. Mentor a wife or mother. It’s really that simple.
One doesn’t have serve in the military to appreciate the sacrifice of the heroes on the home front who selflessly care for their wounded warriors. As a nation we have to do better, and we must do better.
Guerin is co-author of, “Unbreakable Bonds: The Mighty Moms and Wounded Warriors of Walter Reed,” along with Kevin Ferris. Clement served in the House from 1988 to 2003 and retired as a colonel from the Tennessee Army National Guard.