Navy Safe Harbor program pairs injured with mentors to help get ready for next step
Navy Corpsman Petty Officer 3rd Class Redmond Ramos, center, races toward the finish line in this year's Warrior Games. After being wounded by an IED in Afghanistan in 2011, Ramos was enrolled in the Navy's Safe Harbor program, which provides lifelong assistance to injured or wounded sailors and their families. His case worker, Lt. Edward Valdez, told Ramos' mother he would be running again within a year. Valdez was on hand to see it happen. In addition to medals in swimming, Ramos won bronze in the men's 200-meter dash lower body amputation and mixed 4x100-meter relay open categories.
This report has been corrected.
After stepping on an IED in Afghanistan, Navy corpsman Redmond Ramos faced an agonizing choice a week later: have his shattered left leg amputated or try to save what was left.
With medication to dull the pain coursing through his veins, he heard the doctors at Naval Medical Center San Diego say the severe internal damage meant he would never run again if he kept the injured limb, that his active lifestyle would have to be heavily curtailed.
He told them to amputate.
But then, a man he had never met — Lt. Edward Valdez, of the Navy Safe Harbor program — entered the room. Navy Safe Harbor pairs Navy and Coast Guard sailors, whose conditions range from combat wounds to neurological disorders, with case managers for a lifetime of assistance in recovery, rehabilitation and reintegration.
Valdez told Ramos to take some time to think through such a major decision. He then spent countless hours with Ramos, providing emotional and administrative support as he weighed his options.
The third class petty officer ultimately decided to go ahead with the amputation two months later, but thanks to Valdez, he has no regrets. Instead of looking back, he’s looking forward, and not only is he walking, he is back to what he loves most — running competitively, surfing and diving.
It was the beginning of a unique military bond — enlisted man and officer — forged through a like-minded drive to succeed.
Navy Safe Harbor has 212 enrollees, along with 897 people who do not qualify for enrollment but get help from the program, according to Cmdr. Shauna Hamilton, a strategic team leader for Safe Harbor. Twenty enrollees are battlefield casualties like Ramos. Most are corpsmen. SEALs and explosive ordnance disposal specialists often take care of their own.
The other branches of service have similar programs with varying degrees of contact. What makes the Navy’s effort special is Safe Harbor’s lifetime commitment through their nonmedical care managers and the Anchor Program, which kicks in as the sailor’s condition improves and he or she no longer requires constant attention and can transition back to active duty or separate from the service and move home.
At home, they may be far away from a military hub and their care manager, so each sailor is paired with a volunteer active-duty mentor — or “anchor” — so Safe Harbor can keep tabs on them even as contact becomes less frequent.
Growing up in Fremont, Calif., Ramos was an athlete with a call to serve. He was torn between joining the military or becoming a police officer or a firefighter.
Both of his brothers were Navy corpsmen, so the military won. He enlisted 10 days after graduating from high school in 2007.
In January 2011, he had his first combat deployment as a replacement in the volatile Sangin district in Helmand province.
The 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, halfway through its seven-month tour, had been involved in some of the toughest fighting of the Afghan War and had lost “a few corpsmen,” Ramos said.
“No one can really prepare you for what you’re going to see,” he said by phone from San Diego.
When Ramos arrived, the unit was no longer raiding and taking compounds. Instead, they were focused on humanitarian efforts and constant patrols.
“The action had started to slow down,” Ramos said.
On March 26, 2011, Ramos and his squad were called to a farm where a Marine had stepped on an IED. As they got close to the Marine’s position, Ramos stepped on another one. Both men lived, and no one else was injured.
“My Marines took care of me,” he said.
Ramos was rushed to two hospitals in Afghanistan, then Germany for treatment before arriving at Naval Medical Center San Diego on April 2, 2011, when he met Valdez.
That first meeting showed the differences between the two men. Ramos, now 23, was a young combat medic, fresh off the battlefield. Valdez, now 29, was an older surface warfare officer who went from ships to being an advocate.
The case manager
The goal of a case manager like Valdez is to develop a comprehensive recovery plan for the servicemember and the family, based on what he or she hopes to achieve, said Navy Reserve Cmdr. Kimberly Kauffman, a Safe Harbor care manager at Naval Medical Center San Diego.
Services include assisting with pay and personnel issues, child care, recreational and animal therapy, housing and furnishing needs, financial concerns, internships and education and employment. They focus on assisting families as much as helping the sailor.
Most of the case managers, who handle 15 to 20 cases at a time, are reservists on longer tours of duty; Valdez was the first active-duty nonmedical care manager. Valdez, who said he applied to the program because he had a desire to help people, is in his last year of a two-year tour with Safe Harbor.
Case managers are trained to know how to talk to people, from health professionals to commanding officers to the injured, and how to talk to servicemembers with traumatic brain injury or post-traumatic stress disorder, Valdez said. And they have to be prepared for the harsh questions, like: “Will someone love me?” or “Will anyone talk to me?”
Sometimes, there are no clear answers.
Since he took the job with Safe Harbor and started spending time in hospitals and around wounded troops, Valdez has seen servicemembers who’ve lost wives and friends because of their injuries; family members who try to cash in on benefits; and children who don’t understand and can’t relate to their injured parent.
“You see things you never thought people would do,” he said. “There’s always a dark side to everything.”
The humor, the bond
When Valdez met Ramos, he had been on the job at Safe Harbor for only four months. When he heard the sailor say he wanted an amputation, Valdez knew he had to intervene.
He told Ramos that many who step on an IED don’t get the chance to salvage a limb. He advised against a hasty decision.
“I was saying, ‘Just cut the leg off,’ ” Ramos said. “I know I would have regretted it if I had done it then. I always would have thought, ‘Was that the right decision?’ ”
Added Valdez, “Whatever he decided, I was going to stand by him. You want to make sure they’re doing it for the right reasons. We always say, ‘Wait and do it when you’re sure.’ ”
It was humor that sealed the bond between the men, Valdez said. Ramos, upon his arrival to the hospital, was jokingly hitting on the nurses. Ramos later got a tattoo on his right calf that features a hand pointing to his left leg that says, “I’m with Stumpy.” Valdez said it goes well with the American flag that Ramos fashioned to the prosthetic blade he wears to compete in running events.
Valdez saw a lot of himself in the young corpsman.
“He’s an outgoing person,” Valdez said. “He always wants to achieve. I’m the exact same way. We both look at the bright side of things.”
For Valdez, the hardest part about Ramos’ case was telling him he may not be able to go back to the military. He tried to assure him that transition to civilian life would not be a bad thing.
Ramos was very motivated to return to his active lifestyle and has refused to be defined by his injuries, Valdez said. The officer was with him every step of the way with jokes and encouragement, while making sure his family had a place to stay nearby and was reimbursed for expenses.
“Throughout the year of his recovery, we just made sure that the little things were correct and made sure that he was able to focus on his recovery and not worry about other things, like his pay or awards,” Valdez said.
As Ramos gained more independence, their contact became less frequent. Ramos still stops by the office to see Valdez every now and then.
“We’ve gotten pretty close,” Ramos said of Valdez. “I’m not asking for help now; now I’m boasting or gloating (about accomplishments and progress). I know he loves it.”
“I joke with him, ‘You’re like my son. I’m so proud of you,’ ” Valdez added with a laugh.
About a year after the IED blast, Valdez was at the Warrior Games watching Ramos compete. He won bronze in the men’s 200-meter dash lower-body amputation and mixed 4x100-meter relay open categories. He had never competed in a swimming competition, but won gold in the men’s single-leg amputee 100- and 50-meter freestyle events, and a silver in the men’s single-leg amputee 50-meter backstroke.
Ramos is separating from the military and plans to pursue a career in law enforcement or firefighting. He said he has the same goals as he had before his injury — a home, a family, a career helping people.
But his wounds have added some new goals. He hopes to compete in the Paralympics and trains constantly.
Valdez leaves Safe Harbor in December. He will pass his cases on to his replacement. However, he said the relationships with his sailors will continue.
Ramos said Valdez had a big impact on him as a person.
“If there’s a time when I question myself or feel useless,” Ramos said, “he tells me, ‘This is what you’ve accomplished this year.’ He’s been there the whole time.”
Due to incorrect information provided by the Navy, corpsman Redmond Ramos’ rank was incorrectly reported. Ramos is a 3rd class petty officer. Also, due to a reporting error, the number of battle casualties enrolled in the program was incorrectly reported. Navy Safe Harbor has 212 battle casualties and has assisted another 168.