More than 500 athletes, from 14 nations, are competing right now at the 2016 Invictus Games in Orlando. Despite their diversity, these competitors share a common bond — they bear the wounds of war, having fought alongside each other in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Through the media, an international audience will be moved and inspired as these athletes overcome their injuries in these games. For some, the injuries are very apparent — amputations, the scars of extreme burns and multiple operations. Yet for many more, hidden wounds like traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress (PTS) can be just as debilitating.
Recognizing this, the Invictus Games Symposium on Invisible Wounds was hosted by the The Bush Center just hours ahead of the game’s opening ceremonies. There, former President George Bush was joined by Prince Harry, founder of the games, to shatter misperceptions about veterans and empower them to succeed.
“There is no reason why people should be hiding in shame after serving their country,” said Prince Harry.
A veteran of Afghanistan, Prince Harry went on to say that “veterans are not ticking timebombs” and he is hopeful that the games will demonstrate that and, by example, encourage veterans to seek treatment.
President Bush, who is the honorary chairman of the games, said that part of the problem is the way we label medical issues, like PTSD.
“We don’t view post-traumatic stress as a disorder. We view it as an injury. If a troop has an injury, he thinks, ‘I can get this fixed.’ If he thinks he has a disorder, he’ll think, ‘People will shun me. I’m not going to tell my commanders because they will treat me differently.’ ”
Athletes were on hand to echo these points. Among them was medically-retired U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Randi Gavell, who shared her powerful story of recovery from TBI and PTS.
She was injured by a truck-bomb blast in Iraq, in 2006; however, she was not diagnosed with her invisible wounds until 2008. She was reluctant to receive care or admit she needed help. She was angry, confused and battled with alcohol, and bad relationships.
“I wasn’t me anymore; it was devastating and something had to change.”
In 2009, Gavell sought help and through the Warrior Transition Unit was introduced to adaptive sports. She found herself with others who knew what she was going through — they were fighting the same battles.
She was no longer alone and became more willing to receive professional mental health care.
Gavell left the audience with the following to ponder:
“Although you cannot see invisible wounds, please do not disregard the pain of those struggling through them. Oftentimes, they take the longest to heal.”
A number of panels were held throughout the afternoon, including discussion by medical and policy experts who presented the scale and scope of invisible wounds.
While more than 53,000 Americans received physical injuries post-9/11, many more — upwards of 300,000-plus sustained TBIs, which can result in loss of cognitive skills and constant pain.
And while there are treatments available for TBI and PTS, there is still much research to be done, which was emphasized by speakers like retired U.S. Army Gen. Peter Chiarelli, who is now the CEO of One Mind, which looks to radically accelerate the development and implementation of improved diagnostics.
Beyond this, there is also a great need to make sure that medical providers — particularly in more rural areas — understand how to treat veterans when they do seek care. And as Rachel O’Hern, executive director of Quality of Life Foundation, stressed — the family needs to have a role in the warrior’s care. She herself is a caregiver to an amputee.
“The check box on a care plan needs to go from ‘informed family’ … to talk with family about what they want to see going forward.”
Also there was Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald who discussed the vital need for more mental health professionals. He hopes to be able to create more residencies but will need additional support from Congress to do so.
With Invictus being an international competition, a number of coalition nations attended and contributed to the symposium, including Paul Warren, an amputee and captain of Team Australia. Bronwen Evans, the CEO of True Patriot Love Foundation, offered a Canadian view of the issues.
There were more than 300 attendees at the symposium, including military and government leaders, medical providers, and organizations serving today’s veterans and their families, like TAPS, Headstrong Project, Team Red, White and Blue, Got Your Six, and the Bob Woodruff Foundation.
Arnold Fisher, from the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund, offered this promise to our injured, ill and wounded heroes:
“If you come back broken, we will honor you, we will cherish you, we will help you get well.”
The 2016 Invictus Games aim to do just that.