Former Soldier fights for Wounded Warriors

Story and photo by David Altom, Kentucky National Guard Public Affairs

Additional photo courtesy Sgt. Cody Stagner, Bravo Battery, 1st Battalion, 623rd Field Artillery

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Improvised explosive devices – such as the one that destroyed this Kentucky Army National Guard humvee in 2005 – are the most common factor in the physical and emotional injuries that define many of today’s Wounded Warriors. (Photo courtesy Sgt. Cody Stagner, 1st Battalion, 623rd Field Artillery)

FRANKFORT, Ky.  – After ten years of war in Afghanistan and eight years in Iraq, the U.S. military’s role in the global war on terror is one of the longest in our nation’s history; depending on how you do the math, Vietnam lasted between 10-12 years, so we are fast approaching that dubious distinction.

And while there are some similarities between these two historic events, there is also an important difference – how we treat our Wounded Warriors.

“What the Army and our society as a whole have learned is that we as a nation leave no Soldier behind,” said Col. Charlie Jones, J1 director for the Kentucky Army National Guard.

“‘I will never leave a fallen comrade,’ is reflected in both the U.S. Army Warrior Ethos and Soldier’s Creed.  This doesn’t mean just overseas,” said Jones, a Veteran of the Iraq War. “That means here at home, too.”

Indeed.  To that end, the Kentucky Guard now has case workers working every day to address the needs of returning troops, from dealing with physical injuries and PTSD to reintegration issues and researching resources to bring some sense of normalcy to their lives.

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Kristen Wentz is a former U.S. Army captain who now uses her combat medical experience to fight for Kentucky's Wounded Warriors. (Photo by David Altom, Kentucky National Guard Public Affairs)

The Army Wounded Warrior Program (AW2) – a part of Warrior Transition Command and the  U.S. Army’s Medical Command – has the mission of developing, coordinating, and integrating wounded, ill, and injured Soldiers, Veterans, and their Families and caregivers in order to promote future success in the force or in civilian life.

“Our motto is ‘As long as it takes’,” said AW2 case worker Kristen Wentz.  “Where the VA typically tracks a Soldier returning from combat for five years, we track our Soldiers forever, for as long as they need us.”

Wentz is not your typical case worker.  A registered nurse by profession, she is a former active duty captain who served in Baghdad as an emergency room nurse.  She now uses her medical training – and her wartime experience – to fight for her wounded brothers and sisters in uniform.

“When I first started here I had about twenty cases,” said Wentz.  “I’m up to thirty-five right now, out of nearly five hundred in Kentucky alone.”

There are currently more that 8,500 Soldiers in the program nationwide.

All of the Soldiers in AW2 have to be rated through an Army medical board where an evaluation is conducted to determine their status as a Wounded Warrior.  Wentz and her team get cases from the Warrior Transition Units at Fort Campbell and Fort Knox.   Sometimes they come in from other sources, such as coordinators and case workers at the VA and self-referrals.

Injuries vary, according to Wentz.  Physical trauma from improvised explosive devices are the most common, as are wounded incurred by small arms fire.  Post traumatic stress is another part of the returning Soldier’s reality and it is rampant.

Not all of her cases are combat injuries; some have been put on Wounded Warrior status because of a serious injury from an automobile accident, for instance.

Kentucky’s AW2 program has offices in Frankfort, Lexington, Knox and Campbell, but they have clients in every region of the state.  While the AW2 works with the VA, the level of care is more focused on the Soldier’s needs.

“It’s case management work, but it’s completely personalized and more specific,” said Wentz.  “We have different phases to the process.  There’s the management phase, which is contact them every thirty days, then we progress them as needed.  They can be fine for a while, then suffer a major life event and go back to phase one again.”

“I’m a local contact for the Soldier,” she said.  “Many of our guys, especially those with PTSD or serious brain injury, have trouble navigating the system.  Rather than have them organize all these phone numbers, it’s my job to help them.”

Success is sometimes hard to define. The main goal is to help the Wounded Warrior gain independence.

“We want them to become independent, but we don’t want it to be overwhelming,” said Wentz.

If you or someone you know need assistance, contact Kristen Wentz at her office 502-607-1302, cell 859-285-8479 or email her at kristen.wentz@us.army.mil.  If you have a service or program that can help the troops, she’s open to that, too.

Click here for more information on the U.S. Army Wounded Warrior Program (AW2).

If you think you or your organization has something to offer, click here for the AW2 Community Support Network.

Click here for the official AW2 blog.

Click here for the AW2 Facebook page.

Click here for the Kentucky Army National Guard Health Services Facebook page.

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