Saturday, August 25, 2012

America's Allied Wounded Warriors

The following story does not contain any tips for travel but is inspired by some significant things I learned during my recent trip to the Czech Republic, and will likely resonate with anyone interested in the issue of wounded warriors or the ongoing U.S. military presence in Afghanistan.

As a journalist, I have always been aware that the United States was not alone in the ongoing operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Knowing that in theory, however, does not necessarily make one think about the non-American troops that are not just serving alongside U.S. military personnel, but being killed and maimed like them as well. I was exposed to this largely unknown phenomena and gained some insights into it when I visited the Czech Republic in July. Since then, I have been moved to begin writing a book on the subject with the working title Allied Soldier and to begin telling the story of the things I saw and the people I met. (Shown here is a Czech soldier guarding the presidential palace in Prague.)

There are, in fact, currently more than two-dozen nations serving with the United States in Afghanistan, including Great Britain, France, Germany, and the Czech Republic. This is, moreover, the first time the Czech Republic has been involved in hostilities since World War II and it faces many obstacles to providing adequate support for its soldiers severely injured as a result. One of these hurdles is that many of the nation's citizens do not understand the value of supporting either the war in Southwest Asia or the veterans wounded in it. Another is that the Czech government does not have either the resources or the breadth of experience of larger, wealthier nations like the United States, which can draw upon the lessons it has learned in the many conflicts with which it has been involved over the past six decades.

Two years ago, a number of concerned Czech citizens founded REGI Base Foundation, an organization dedicated to providing critical resources and support for wounded warriors that goes beyond what either the government or their families are able to do. Its centerpiece will be REGI Base I, a state-of-the-art medical facility currently under construction outside of Prague in the village of Svémyslice that, when it is completed, will be able to house up to 16 veterans undergoing treatment and serve the needs of up to 35 outpatients per day (the facility is shown here as it appeared during my visit). The intent of its founders is that it will include modern diagnostic equipment unavailable anywhere else in the region, be able to provide rehabilitative care onsite, and serve as a clearinghouse of information on physicians and clinics worldwide to which it can send wounded warriors in need of specialized care.

Inspiration for both the name of REGI Base and its mission is Chief Warrant Officer Jiří "Regi" Schams, a Czech special forces soldier who was horribly wounded on March 17, 2008 (shown here shortly before his injury). On that day, he was part of a 13-person multinational team that was conducting outreach operations to the civilian residents of a particularly dangerous province of Afghanistan when it was attacked by a suicide bomber. Four of the other personnel in the squad were killed outright, including two Danish civil affairs soldiers and the group's Afghani interpreter, and nine were wounded, including Schams, who was incapacitated by the blast. It initially appeared as if he had suffered some relatively minor injuries and a concussion. Before long, however, it became apparent that a piece of shrapnel had entered the back of Schams' head and burrowed its way through his brain almost to the front of his skull.

At first, there did not appear to be much chance that Schams would survive. But to the surprise of everyone — including his doctors and his family — the phenomenally tough special operations soldier managed to stabilize and pull through. That brought its own host of problems, however, for the injured veteran, who suffered extreme neurological damage and was thereby confined to a wheelchair, initially unable to speak, and plagued with vision problems that force him to perpetually keep one eye closed.

Following his return to the Czech Republic, Schams received the best medical care that his government could provide, and enjoyed the attention and support of his former comrades-in-arms and family members, particularly his mother. But resources available to him were inadequate for dealing with his condition, and his recovery was slow and very limited; for the first two years after he was injured, Schams believed he was in the middle of a nightmare from which he would eventually awake, something that severely retarded his progress.

In 2010, a Czech entrepreneur named Hynek Čech met Schams through a mutual friend and was horrified to discover that the wounded warrior was living alone in a high-rise apartment building that he could not even exit on his own (Schams is shown here with REGI Base co-founder Hynek Čech, right, and Kent Wills, author of a story about the wounded veteran titled a "A Soldier for Life").). His situation improved a little when friends would visit or take him somewhere, when he would stay with his mother on the other side of town, or when he would go for an annual two-week course of therapy at a nearby military hospital, but was still far from ideal. At both his and his mother's apartments, for example, the elevators are barely large enough to accommodate a wheelchair and can only be accessed via flights of steps — making it difficult for him to come and go even if someone is helping him. He also has trouble using the toilet or bathing without assistance.

Čech began looking into what could be done on behalf of Schams and other wounded warriors and soon came to the conclusion that the only thing that would work is a completely new, private organization that both supplemented the available treatment and services and went beyond them. It was this realization that prompted him to help conceive of and become one of the co-founders of the REGI Base Foundation.

One of the very first thing the fledgling organization did was to take Schams to a special neurologic clinic in the Black Sea city of Odessa, in the Ukraine, so that he could be tested by a top specialist in brain injuries (that doctor had, ironically, served in a Soviet military field hospital in Afghanistan from 1982-84, during that nation's ill-fated occupation of the country). After being examined and receiving additional CAT scans, the medical staff at the facility recommended that Schams be sent to a military rehabilitation center in the Ukrainian city of Saky. He spent six weeks at the facility and, as a result of the treatment he received there, his speech improved significantly.

That was the limit of what could be accomplished for Schams in either the Czech Republic or the Ukraine, however, and the staff of REGI Base realized they needed something better. So, in January 2012, Čech traveled to TIRR Memorial Herman in Houston, Texas (shown here), where a dozen Romanian soldiers had recently received treatment for traumatic brain injuries, and the costs for this had apparently been covered by the U.S. government. The best that hospital representatives were willing to do, however, was to give REGI Base a quote of nearly a half-million dollars to treat Schams — something that closed the door on help for this allied soldier.

Despite this frustrating setback, REGI Base has continued to move ahead in its attempts to provide help for both Schams and other critically-injured soldiers.

“Our fundamental idea is to create a unique complex that will combine rehabilitation, accommodation, and 24-hour assistance for soldiers who have returned from overseas missions but who cannot be adequately cared for by their families or friends," said Čech (shown here at his office in Prague). "Our first priority is to provide 365-day-a-year service to soldiers who cannot be fully treated at home or by the government. The Czech Republic currently has more than 500 soldiers deployed in Afghanistan and, as something tragic can happen at any time, we need to be ready to provide special care when it is needed.”

Čech also emphasized that, once it is established, it is his intent that the facility will serve as a regional rehabilitation center that serves the needs not just of military personnel from the Czech Republic but other nations as well, including the United States and other NATO nations. Ultimately, he said he would like REGI Base to have branches worldwide and to established reciprocal agreements that would allow military personnel to receive the treatment most appropriate to them at facilities in any of the participating nations. And going beyond medical care, Čech is also actively lobbying in his country for legislation that would help provide jobs for discharged Czech veterans and working on a project to provide special insurance benefits to them.

During my visit to the Czech Republic, I met with Schams and his mother; Čech and his staff; Schams former commander, Major Pavel Ruzicka, currently second-in-command of the Czech military police corps; Special Operations Group members who served with Schams (most of whom cannot be mentioned by name or photographed because they are still on active duty and involved in classified operations), and Deputy Minister of Defense Michael Hrbata (who appears with me here in his office at the Ministry of Defense). Hrbata in particular has been a champion of REGI Base, as has his boss, Defense Minister Alexandr Vondra — who gave the initial "green light" for the veterans organization — and the two of them have done everything in their power to garner support for it from the government and amongst the Czech people.

What really struck me during my visit, in fact, was how everyone concerned was doing everything in their power to help Jiří Schams and soldiers in a similar situation, but how so much more was needed (Schams is shown below as he appears today). REGI Base has got a handle on what those additional measures are, and when I visited the site of the clinic under construction and heard about all the great things the foundation wants to do, my response was, "Let's get this done! What do you need?"

As with almost anything big and complicated in the modern world, of course, what REGI Base needs is funding. It has thus far raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for its facility outside of Prague and, in the course of moving ahead with it, has just added a third level to the main building. It needs millions more, however, to complete construction, purchase expensive diagnostic equipment, and get treatment for Schams at TIRR Memorial Hermann in Houston. In the meantime, the war continues, billions of dollars go every day toward its prosecution, and, every week, more soldiers, allied and U.S. alike, join Schams among those who will need a lifetime of care as the price for their sacrifices.

No comments: