This Christmas, millions of American families will be welcoming servicewomen and men back home from military tours overseas. The tremendous drawdown of troops in the Middle East has many consequences on the global stage, not least for those returning home from harrowing battlegrounds. Some will return with catastrophic injuries, many of which have taken off arms, legs and other appendages. A return to America is long overdue, but upon their arrival soldiers will face a new challenge: that of assimilating back into civilian society. Each woman and man will face their own obstacles, but the challenge of mobility for those in wheelchairs is an often-overlooked trial of re-entering society as a non-military person.
The advance of weapons technology and increasing sophistication in combat medicine give rise to a simultaneous escalation of both wounded soldiers and survivorship. Protective gear has saved many American lives, and also increased the number of veterans returning from war with catastrophic wounds.
Blasts, especially those generated by improvised explosive devices (IEDs) are the cause of 65% of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) casualties (Defense Manpower Data Center 2007). Explosive devices produce a characteristic pattern of injuries: traumatic brain injury (TBI), blindness, spinal cord injuries, burns, and damage to the limbs resulting in amputation. Many military personnel are sustaining more than one of these wounds.
Protective gear worn in OEF/OIF has prevented many fatal abdominal or chest wounds but has shifted the pattern of injury to limbs, which are largely unprotected (Vick 2004; PBS 2007). As of July 2007, 911 amputations had been sustained during OEF and OIF , a significant portion due to IEDs (42.1%).
Physically disabled veterans will have to overcome obstacles involving transportation. They are not alone. At least 13 million Americans use a wheelchair, assistive cane, or other walking aid.
David Wood, a seasoned combat journalist, gives voice and magnitude to the returning troops in his ten-part series, Beyond the Battlefield. In it, he profiles the lives of many returned troops who have been marred by physical and mental disability. The statistics regarding military wounds are sobering.
The number of American soldiers who lost at least one limb in combat doubled from 86 in 2009 to 187 last year, while the number with multiple limb loss tripled, from 23 in 2009 to 72 last year. Those in need of blood transfusions of 10 units of blood or more (the human body holds a total of 10 units of blood) rose during that 12-month period from 91 to 165.
And triple amputees like Tyler Southern are becoming more common. Their ranks have nearly doubled this year from the total of all triple amputees seen over the past eight years of war, the Army said in its report, “Dismounted Complex Blast Injury.”
The federal government is flexing funds to manage the huge influx of injured military personnel; on October 1, the Veterans Administration increased its one-time Automobile and Special Adaptive Equipment Grant Program for service connected veterans from $11,000 to $18,900. This provision made it easier for war torn vets to receive financial aid intended to help pay for wheelchair accessible vehicles, wheel chair lifts and other potentially expensive aids.
It’s a small but important change from a government that is largely unprepared to welcome hundreds of thousands of citizens back to domestic shores.