WTB Soldiers take care of their own

By Suzanne Ovel/Warrior Transition Battalion on September 27, 2012

Balancing on a knee scooter, Sgt. Joey McGee helped other volunteers dig a ditch Sept. 14 to install electricity in a shed for a fellow wounded veteran.

The Charlie Company Soldier barely knew retired Sgt. Brian Roberts while he was in the Warrior Transition Battalion with McGee; the two met when their wives became friends. But when the call came that the Roberts needed help with yard work and other repairs on their new house, the McGees jumped in to help organize the work party and volunteer themselves. "It's pretty much to help a brother in arms out, to help a friend out," said McGee, who was wounded in Afghanistan in 2010. "There's not a lot that I can do, but I did what I can do."

Roberts, who retired from the WTB in June, likewise was wounded in Afghanistan more than two years ago. On March 22, 2010, Roberts' life changed drastically when an improvised explosive device detonated under his Stryker. Fifteen broken bones and other injuries led to the same number of surgeries; Roberts has even more surgeries to go before he can leave his wheelchair behind.

To help him out, about a dozen WTB Soldiers, along with veterans and other volunteers, joined McGee Sept. 14 and 15 at the Roberts' University Place house to build a concrete pad, an external ramp, inside ramps, a retainer wall for a well and more. They also cleaned up the yard from storm damage and improved the shed.

"Having the WTB come out and help is fantastic, it really is," said Roberts. "Having them come back and help out, it keeps the warrior ethos alive for me, keeps that battle buddy mentality (that) we take care of our own."

The work party got its start after Roberts' wife, Sharon, had cleared much of the overgrown blueberry bushes herself, and then realized that she could use assistance with the rest of the yard. With her husband unable to do yard work, and many of his friends deployed to Afghanistan, Sharon reached out to their Army Wounded Warrior Program advocate to ask for outside help. Through him they connected with Rod Wittmier, program director for the Veterans Family Fund of America. For a yard cleanup that companies said would cost $3,000 to $4,000, Wittmier offered to help her for free. If she would find the equipment (which she did, through community donations), he would get the volunteers.

Although she only asked for help in the yard, "Rod came out and saw a bigger need than I saw," Sharon said.

He brought along help from both the WTB and the American Lake Veteran's Hospital, including volunteer Justin Downs. An Army veteran who served two tours in Afghanistan, Downs helped recruit other veterans to help out. "I feel like I can fix other people's problems better than my own," said Downs, who is living with post-traumatic stress.

Simply helping others, though, can help with ones' healing, said Bryant Melton, an occupational therapist with the VA and a volunteer with the work party.

"One of the hallmarks of recovery, one of the things they learn is that you don't really recover ... until you get out of yourself and help other people. It helps your own recovery," Melton said.

He said that when veterans work together, they naturally open up to each other, and in sharing their story, "now it's a positive thing that helps someone else."

That connection is at the heart of why Wittmier organizes events like this for Soldiers and veterans. He strives to prevent veteran suicides by creating a sense of community and rebuilding camaraderie and self-esteem. He said that volunteering does both.

"It just lifts their hearts, lifts their well-being, does amazing things."

As for Roberts, he said that the community support made him feel as though "people remember who you are; you are not forgotten."

"Emotionally, it's heart-wrenching to know there are people who are willing to spend some of their time to help me out," he said. "I hope to pay it forward."