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Wounded Warrior Project survey results

Former soldier advocates for change

Forty-three percent of respondents have a TBI. Courtesy of Wounded Warrior Project

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Earlier this month, the Wounded Warrior Project released the results of its fifth annual alumni survey. The results were tabulated based on feedback from more than 21,000 veterans, making it the largest sample of injured servicemembers since 9/11.

While much of the research reflects the challenges that wounded warriors face, it also shines a light on the level of care they receive from the Veterans Administration and the flaws in the entire system.

"Wounded Warrior Project's annual survey allows us to listen to our warriors and identify gaps in existing services and support, providing us with a real opportunity to help the VA improve the system's delivery of care," said Jeremy Chwat, chief program officer for WWP.

"It's gotten better and we are hoping that is going to continue to get better ten years from now," offered Josh Renschler, a wounded warrior who spent almost six years in the Army before sustaining serious injuries during a 2004 deployment in Iraq with the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team.

Renschler, an Olympia resident, was left with a broken back, a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder and his road to recovery was long and laborious.

"At one point I was basically homeless. I had left the military and then lost my first job and was waiting on disability claims while going to the VA for medications," he said.

In 2009, Renschler was placed into what he describes as a cookie cutter, six-week program at the VA where 90 percent of the information given didn't apply to him. At the height of his frustration he left the program but continued to take pain medication in an "attempt to live an almost normal life."

"If you are going to claim care is being provided, the care needs to be tailored to individual veteran's needs in order to be effective," Renschler said. "It's that simple; but the system is overloaded."

For example, the WWP survey showed that the top five reported injuries and health problems experienced during post-9/11 service include sleep conditions, post-traumatic stress disorder, back, neck and shoulder problems, depression and anxiety. Furthermore, 43 percent of the respondents have a TBI.

The WWP estimated that just over 50,000 servicemembers have sustained physical injuries since 9/11, that another 320,000 have experienced a TBI while on deployment and as many as 400,000 additional servicemembers live with the invisible wounds of war including combat-related stress, major depression and PTSD, according to Amanda Jekowsky, public relations senior specialist with the WWP.

So with such a widespread variety of issues and so many in need, it is no wonder that the VA is overloaded - but the question remains, how can veterans get the treatment they need from this system?

"We figured out (he and his wife, whom he credits for helping him) that you need someone to navigate you through the healthcare, someone to advocate for you - especially those suffering from cognitive disability," he stated. "The VA is trying to treat way too many people with not enough resources and sadly, that often means the overuse of medication, which will take away the symptoms but not treat the deeper issue."

A related statistic revealed that 42 percent of the survey participants had difficulty scheduling appointments with providers when seeking mental healthcare, while closer to 50 percent had trouble scheduling appointments with providers when seeking physical healthcare.

It is because of his own experience and that of his fellow warriors, that Renschler, who spends much of his time serving as a peer mentor, is also working alongside the WWP in Washington, D.C. advocating for changes in Congress, the VA and the nation to improve the support and care that the veterans receive.  

"These folks are out there swinging bats for us and it is important to know that ... and to know that you can join them at the plate," Renschler added. "From my perspective, the VA has the ability to provide the care that can leave these veterans thriving, but it will take a complete restructuring of the entire entity to accomplish that goal."

"Our advocacy efforts and policy priorities are directly informed by the survey's up-to-date data on the concerns of injured veterans and their families. Hearing from so many of our warriors every year allows us to strengthen WWP's 20 programs and services, and ensure that we are collaboratively developing solutions to close the gaps between our veterans' needs and what government programs currently provide," Chwat stated.

Other key findings from the survey provided insight into other aspects of a wounded warrior's life ­- from finances and living arrangements to education and unemployment.

To see the entire 2014 WWP survey, go to http://goo.gl/IajkMQ.

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