By Trey Smith
A service member’s military journey usually consists of many stages. From the initial enlistment, to basic training, to deployments and different duty stations, to the transition back into civilian life – through it all, the USO is there for them every step of the way. And for service members who have been injured in the line of duty and are in the midst of a lengthy recovery journey – which can often take months or years – the USO continues to find unique ways to bring joy, comfort and support to help lift their spirits.
The USO Warrior and Family Support Center in San Antonio, Texas, recently did just that, providing wounded, ill and injured service members a once-in-a-lifetime experience – and a crucial break from their everyday life in recovery.
Why Wounded, Ill and Injured Service Members Need Support
From 2001-2018, more than 53,700 U.S. service members were officially listed as wounded in the major war zones of the Middle East. Of these injuries, many of them have been quite serious. Between 2001 and 2018, a total of 1,705 service members sustained lower and upper limb amputations during deployment. According to the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center, there have been more than 380,000 traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) among service members since 2000. Service members recovering from a TBI can struggle with seizures or PTSD after their incident, requiring continued medical care even after leaving the military.
And those diagnosed with invisible wounds can also face lengthy recovery periods. According to the Military Health System, in one year alone, mental health issues accounted for the largest total number of hospital bed days in the military hospital system, and the third highest total number of medical treatments for all active-duty members of the Armed Forces. In fact, while 3.5% of adults in the entire U.S. adult population struggle with PTSD, studies have shown that as high as 14% of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans suffer from PTSD.
We know that service members are willing – and often do – put their lives on the line in service to this nation. But what happens after they’ve been injured or fallen ill? Where can they turn to for support?
The USO is committed to supporting service members at every step of their military journey – including when they have been wounded or become ill while in service. When service members receive treatment or are in recovery, they can turn to one of four USO Warrior Centers, located in Fort Belvoir, Virginia; Bethesda, Maryland; Landstuhl, Germany; and San Antonio, Texas. Through these centers, the USO provides support to wounded, ill and service members, as well as their families and caretakers. USO Warrior and Family centers were built specifically to support wounded service members throughout every stage of their recovery, giving both them and their loved ones a place to visit in between medical appointments at nearby military medical centers.
Treatment can be intense, and recovery journeys can be long – and all of this can be made even more difficult by being far from home and loved ones.
That’s why it’s crucial for these wounded troops to receive support during this time in their service – and that’s exactly why the USO provided troops in Texas with a chance to boost morale and have a little fun.
How the USO Supported Wounded, Ill and Injured Service Members at the 16th Annual Seats for Soldiers
The USO partnered with the Dallas Mavericks, American Airlines and the Brooke Army Medical Center (BAMC) Soldier Recovery Unit to bring a heartwarming event to over 100 wounded, ill and injured soldiers from the Soldier Recovery Unit in San Antonio, Texas, as well as service members of the Texas Army National Guard at the 16th Annual Seats for Soldiers event at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas.
“Seats for Soldiers” is an annual event where Dallas Mavericks front-row season ticket holders donate their seats to service members in recovery. With the help of the USO, these service members were treated to an all-day, once-in-a-lifetime experience as a token of appreciation for those who have sacrificed so much by serving their nation on the front lines.
After a two-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, USO staff, volunteers and partners were excited to be back, once again, in support of our nation’s heroes at this exciting event.
The day began with service members, caretakers and USO volunteers boarding a flight from San Antonio to Dallas, which was provided by longtime USO partner American Airlines. American Airlines is committed to supporting service members and the military community, with flight attendants and pilots volunteering their time for this event. Members from the American Airlines team added to the experience by adorning the plane with American flags and decorative banners. Then, upon arrival in Dallas, service members were greeted with a hero’s welcome from airport staff to help kick off the special event with an expression of gratitude.
“When you connect the community to service members, you can show that the community actually appreciates the sacrifices and service members. And they not only appreciate it, but they honor them for it,” said Heather Krauss, executive director of USO San Antonio and Fort Hood. “I think that is a huge deal for a service member who is going through all sorts of phases of recovery.”
Before attending the basketball game, service members were taken to downtown Dallas to enjoy a dinner at a local steakhouse. Then, while attending the game, service members were treated as VIPs. Aside from sitting front row at the basketball game, these service members participated in fun games and competitions during the time-outs, quarter and half-time breaks, such as a luggage push, basketball “Connect 4” and a sandbag toss. One soldier won the sandbag toss and received a basketball signed by Dallas Mavericks players, and the experience seemed to have a profound impact on him.
“I can’t believe this night. It was the most amazing event!” he said. “I was nervous to get out there but thought, ‘why not?’ I can’t wait to get home to share this basketball with my son.”
It is important to note that for many of these service members, this basketball game was the first time they had been outside of a hospital – and military – setting in weeks or even months. Several service members had had amputation procedures, others were burn victims. Returning to the “real world” – and especially the civilian world – can be a challenging and nerve-wracking experience for wounded, ill and injured service members, and so participating in “Seats for Soldiers” was not just a fun event, but also a huge accomplishment for many who were perhaps apprehensive about venturing into public for the first time since their injury or illness.
For many of these service members, the event went beyond getting front-row seats and a signed basketball. Through this, they had an opportunity to bond with one another in a non-hospital setting, which can often include long, mundane and repetitive days of treatment, paired with difficulties that come with the everyday aspects of recovery.
This experience gave wounded, ill and injured service members something to look forward to while dealing with their recovery, and also connected them to each other and their local community.
It is also the thought and genuineness behind the gesture of the event, which serves as an expression of gratitude for what they have sacrificed in service to this country.
“I think it’s really important to keep these programs going so that they continue to understand that, yes, your sacrifice is important,” said Heather.
How the USO Supports Wounded Soldiers Beyond “Seats for Soldiers”
Morale-boosting events are just one of the many resources the USO provides wounded, ill and injured service members.
Recovery from various injuries and illnesses – whether it be visible or invisible wounds – can take weeks, months or even years, with service members recovering in hospitals or undergoing treatment for long stretches of time. This can be made to be even more difficult when a service member is going through the recovery process alone, far from home and their loved ones.
The USO keeps these challenges in mind when it comes to USO Warrior Centers, such as the USO Warrior and Family Support Center in San Antonio, Texas. Much like traditional USO centers, these centers offer service members and military families with a “home away from home,” providing the same offerings and programs such as comfortable couches, gaming systems, television and activity rooms, as well as USO-hosted activities.
However, unlike traditional centers, USO Warrior Centers are designed specifically with wounded service members and their families in mind. USO Warrior Centers are ADA-compliant, ensuring that all service members, regardless of where they are in their recovery journey, have access to the building. The centers also have have a fully equipped kitchen where service members can have a meal prepared by themselves or a caretaker, providing a nice break from the hospital setting.
The programs and activities offered at USO Warrior Centers were created with recovering service members in mind, offering classes such as sculpting, painting, drawing, crafting and more to give them a creative outlet, which can help in reducing stress and anxiety. These activities can also have therapeutic benefits for service members struggling with PTSD. USO Warrior Centers are also visited frequently by therapy dogs. These canines not only bring comfort and ease to service members, but studies show that interacting with animals can have an incredible improvement in one’s mental and physical health. And with mental and emotional health being listed as a top issue that military families face today, utilizing therapy dogs is just another unique way the USO extends support to recovering service members.
The USO was honored to support wounded service members by taking them to the annual Seats for Soldiers, and we are just as honored in helping them throughout every step of their military journey at our USO Warrior Centers.
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