RISE is proud to partner with the Wounded Warrior Project to bring RISE West 2023 attendees this special panel made up of U.S. military veterans who will share their stories of personal triumph, leadership advice, and thoughts on how organizations can help provide veterans with better access to care. The panel discussion will take place at 9 a.m. Wednesday, August 30, the final day of the RISE West 2023 conference.
For Sal Gonzalez, a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps who was injured in Iraq in 2004 and is now a recording artist in Nashville, his experience with the military health care system was mixed. While the VA system was good at providing amputees like himself with adaptive devices and helping them walk again, it did a terrible job explaining and supporting his mental health needs. He didn’t truly understand what post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or a panic attack meant until he actually had one.
“There is a lot of stigma around mental health,” Gonzalez (pictured right) said during a recent interview with RISE. “If someone says they need help, they get kicked out of the military right away or taken off their duty right away. They usually stick it under the rug for as long as they can until they get to civilian life, and then they don’t want to talk about it because they’ve spent so long hiding it.”
Gonzalez, a member of the Wounded Warriors Speak program, will share his health care experience and how the Wounded Warrior Program and music helped him heal, during a RISE West 2023 panel discussion on serving the veteran population.
The Wounded Warrior Project, now in its 20th year, aims to honor and empower veterans and active duty service members of the U.S. armed forces who incurred a physical or mental injury, illness, or wound co-incident to their military service on or after September 11, 2001. The organization provides programs and services that address mental health, financial wellness, career counseling, physical health, long-term rehabilitative care, and peer and community connection.
Results from the organization’s most recent annual warrior survey find that of the 165,000 post-9/11 wounded veterans registered with the program as of April 2022:
- Seventy-six percent live with PTSD.
- Seventy-six percent live with anxiety.
- Seventy-four percent live with depression.
- More than two in five cited issues with getting care at the VA, such as inconvenient hours and a lack of understanding around benefits.
- More than two in five report experiencing barriers to getting care for physical injuries or health problems.
- Among those who were offered a telehealth appointment, 89 percent reported that they used telehealth at some point in the past 12 months. Twenty-one percent said they used it once or twice a month for physical care, and 3 percent used it once or twice a month for mental health care.
- About one in five reported that they were not offered a telehealth appointment in the past 12 months. When asked if they would have utilized telehealth if offered, 64 percent reported that they would.
- More than three in 10 need aid and assistance from another person due to service-connected injuries or health problems and need an average of 55 hours of care per week.
- However, nearly half who need aid and assistance are not receiving it.
- Most reported that they feel isolated (78 percent), lack companionship (71 percent), or feel left out (73 percent).
John Boerstler, (pictured right) chief veterans experience officer, Veterans Experience Office, Department of Veterans Affairs, who at one time in his post-service career worked as a program manager with Wounded Warrior Project, will moderate the discussion and speak on how the private sector can work with VA and Wounded Warriors to refer patients to benefits and options for care. Boerstler intends to ask the panelists about their transition from military to civilian life, what they learned during that time, and which channels were most successful or difficult to help access health care or mental health care.
Panelist Danielle Green, a U.S. Army veteran, became a member of the Warrior Speaks team last year after working with VA for 12 years. One of the biggest issues she has faced as a female veteran is that institutions don’t look at women as veterans. Instead, they automatically think of them as the spouse of veterans.
“I’ve had to educate people that women are on the frontline as well,” said Green, pictured right. “I’ve been in the system for 19 years. VA has improved, but at the very beginning, getting my female needs attended to was almost non-existent…As a female veteran, it’s getting better, but if you’ve been to one VA, you’ve been to one VA. They are all different.”
Nick Morrison, a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, who will also serve on the panel, agreed with Green’s comment about the differences in each VA center. When he first returned from Iraq, VA didn’t know what to do with him because he didn’t suffer physical injuries that could be seen. His injuries included PTSD, a traumatic brain injury, and nerve damage in his leg. While he did receive some mental health therapy with the VA, Morrison said the comprehensive mental health care that he received came from the Wounded Warrior Project.
“I’d say that the majority of my healing, my care, my path to move forward came from Project Odyssey [an adventure-based learning program with a multi-day mental health workshop component] and the Wounded Warrior network,” said Morrison, pictured right.
Morrison said he hopes the panel will provide RISE West attendees with a glimpse of what it means to serve and come home, and their stories will help improve the health care for future veterans. “My hope is that for the next generation that comes down the pipeline, they meet a health care system that is more ready to serve them or better ready and equipped to handle their needs for when that time comes because it will happen again unfortunately.”