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'Wounded Warriors' Fosters Needed Support for Military Families

by on February 03, 2011 6:40 AM

With every job I’ve ever had, there were things that I liked to do and those things that seemed more like drudgery. At Penn State, I love meeting with students. Teaching class is fun. Grading papers is boring. I tolerate the number of meetings in my schedule. 

This week, I get to do something really cool. By the time my editor reads this, I will be on my way to Camp Lejuene, the largest Marine installation on the East Coast. 

Given my age, current physical condition and employment at Penn State, it’s probably pretty obvious that I have not enlisted in the military. I’m on my way to help those who help our Wounded Warriors.

Several years ago, the Recreation, Park and Tourism Department program at Penn State began offering a program for recreation personnel from military installations called “Inclusive Recreation for Wounded Warriors" (IRWW). Civilian recreation service providers from Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force bases all over the world come to Penn State to spend a week and to learn about how to adapt the recreation programs on base – pools, fitness centers, theaters, children and youth programs, hobby shops, outdoor recreation opportunities, and recreation events and programs. They come to learn how to design “inclusive” programs that encourage participation of individuals returning from the war zones as well as the other potential customers with disabilities (i.e., a child of a serviceman or woman). The program is funded by the Department of Defense.

The United States Census Bureau estimates that approximately 19 percent of the general population has some sort of disabling condition. That is a pretty significant number of potential customers for whom we in recreation can offer services.

State College has approximately 40,000 people (not counting the student population) – many of whom are retirees. In comparison, the community of Camp Lejeune has more than 180,000, including active-duty people, dependents, retirees and civilians. All of these “eligible users” may use the recreation opportunities available on base. Camp Lejeune covers 156,000 acres, including 11 miles of beachfront areas that host not only military training activities but also recreation activities.

Wars create broken people and broken spirits. The young men and women trained to fight our enemy are exposed to incredible risk of injury and damage, particularly with the way that wars are fought today. Unlike those old movies that depict war as people in one color uniform fighting people in a different color uniform on a warfront offering breaks for rest and relaxation, our soldiers are on alert 24 hours a day and are often at risk from bad guys who dress and talk like the good guys (including women and children who have been enlisted to support the extremism). Bodies and brains that remain on high stress with no opportunities for relief or for a break from the “fight-or-flight” response are forever changed. Explosive devices are designed to inflict the most human damage possible.  

Medical advancements have resulted in high survival rates for our ill and injured, but those survivors often return to their families and to their communities without limbs, with horrible burns, with brain injuries and without the ability to function interpersonally as they had prior to deployment. The people who come back to us are not the same. Simple “quality of life” tasks like going to a movie, enjoying a trip to the beach or sharing a picnic with family can become almost impossible because of environmental, transportation and social barriers.

Enter Penn State and the Recreation, Park and Tourism Management Department.

The response to the IRWW program has been incredible. The participants have taken their ideas and insights back to their installations and are looking not only at door-frame widths and ramps, but also at how they send the message to all potential customers that “you are welcome here.” Staff is learning to ask a person with a disability what support is needed to best experience recreation and leisure. During the IRWW training, they hear first-person accounts from speakers about how living day to day with an amputation or with a traumatic brain injury or post-traumatic-stress disorder impacts their recreation choices. The training involves developing action plans for their specific installations to improve customer service.   

At the end of this semester, we will have trained more than 300 participants, and still have a waiting list to get in. We are hopeful that the training project will be renewed. We receive e-mails and phone calls about changes they are making to meet the needs of those who are serving our country. We get pictures of innovations in adaptive equipment and programming ideas. Our participants have kept in touch, look us up at conferences and meetings and are proud of their efforts to make a difference. They are also excited about being a part of Penn State’s extended family. 

The folks at Marine headquarters have been especially proactive in their efforts to encourage and train the staff on the installations to be inclusive in their attitudes and in their services, most likely because of the dangerous work that they do. The next step in their effort to meet the needs of their soldiers is to invite trainers from Penn State to the installations to continue to provide direction and support for the service providers.   

Last fall, my colleague and co-trainer Tammy Smith and I piloted a program at Marine Corps Base Quantico based on our WAMMER model of inclusive recreation. WAMMER is an acronym for Welcome-Ask-Modify-Monitor-Evaluate-Refer. With the practical application of WAMMER, recreation and hospitality providers including Morale, Welfare and Recreation and Marine Corps Community Services staff (as well as other recreation and hospitality providers) will be better equipped to support the participation of all of their customers. We are now getting the chance to take that model directly to the installations.

I groan when I see a boring meeting on my schedule at work. Grading papers can sometimes be monotonous.  Having the chance to work with the amazing and dedicated staff who support our soldiers and sailors is one of those good things on my “to do” list.

Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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