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Healing Homeland Heroes

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Healing Homeland Heroes

May 25, 2010

By Hillary Hoffman for Scars1

For many veterans returning home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the hard work is just beginning.  In addition to the mental challenges inherent in returning home after months in a warzone, tens of thousands of veterans must also deal with significant physical injuries and subsequent scarring. 

Wounds run the gamut from shrapnel and bullet scars, which can be a cause for low self-confidence and depression, to loss of limbs and other severely debilitating injuries.  In general, homefront support for the men and women engaged in America’s overseas conflicts has been high over the past several years, but many civilian and military families feel that the government has not done enough to support the troops when they return home.

Michael Fletcher’s story offers hope that the system can provide veterans with the care they need.  In 2005, Fletcher lost his nose in a Humvee crash in southern Iraq.  After his initial burn wounds healed, he endured six surgeries and countless hospitalizations.  The end result is that Fletcher now has a brand new nose that he can breathe and sneeze through.  Doctors at Johns Hopkins undertook what they described as “one of the most complicated nasal reconstructions ever performed” to build Fletcher a nose out of bone, cartilage, skin, arteries, and veins harvested from other parts of Fletcher’s body.  As for the bill?  Fletcher’s military health insurance covered it.

Take Action
How can you help wounded veterans? 

  • Donate to or volunteer for a support organization. Find a partial list of organizations here.
  • Write to your Senator or Congressman and ask him or her to support governmental aid for rehabilitation of wounded troops.
  • Send letters and Get Well cards to VA hospitals. Find a list of facilities here.
  • But for every story like Fletcher’s, there are several more in which veterans don’t receive the care they need.  For example, soldiers may be told that their injuries are “not severe enough” to warrant federal aid.  Several volunteer organizations have pitched in to offer free medical care to veterans (Read more about some of these organizations here.).  In addition, groups such as the Wounded Warrior Project work to boost the spirits and confidence of wounded and disabled servicemen and women.  Now the US government is stepping up to the plate by funding new clinical research initiatives and passing new legislation to make it easier for soldiers and their families to get the support they need.

    The Armed Forces Institute of Regenerative Medicine (AFIRM) is an interdisciplinary network that encompasses both military and civilian institutions.  AFIRM is funded by governmental institutions at both the federal and state levels as well as by academic institutions.  AFIRM’s research has five major focus areas.  One of these is burn repair.  Keloid and hypertropic scarring due to burn wounds are among the most common military injuries.  AFIRM’s other priorities include wound healing without scarring, craniofacial reconstruction, limb repair and regeneration, and compartment syndrome, a condition involving swelling and inflammation after surgery or injury.  AFIRM was established in 2008 as a five-year project.  So far, progress has been remarkably rapid.

    Earlier this month, Army Col. Bob Vandre, program director for AFIRM, was quoted in the New Jersey news.  “After just two years, we already have 52 viable projects, with four in clinical trials and another 10 scheduled in the next year,” Vandre said.

    Scientists aren’t the only ones joining the effort to help military veterans.  This month in Washington, President Obama signed the Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act of 2010 into law.  The measure was sponsored by Senator Daniel Akaka of Hawaii and passed the Senate and House without amendment.  The new law is intended to ensure that families of veterans severely wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan receive the comprehensive support they need to provide their soldiers with home care. Hopefully, the new measures will be adopted rapidly and effectively by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

    Discuss veteran wound care in the forums.


    DermMatters blog

    Johns Hopkins School of Medicine


    Photo credit: The U.S. Army via Flickr 

    Related Links    

    Read our feature story about Army Researchers' Advancements in Regenerative Medicine

    Read about Dr. Robert Hale and his career as an army medical research specialist

    Read our feature story about hope for wounded warrior burn victims

    Read our feature story about civilian groups aiding wounded soldiers

    View a tribute video to wounded soldiers

    Read the full text of the Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act  

    Visit the Wounded Warrior Project website

    Read about Dr. Stephen McCartney and his career as a military surgeon

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