BANGOR — You don’t have to have a body part blown off in battle to be a wounded warrior.
Michael Dacanay has cancer. Jerry Hirzel broke his back sledding. Bret Galloway suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.
The Navy is trying to get word out about its Safe Harbor program of nonmedical assistance to seriously wounded, ill and injured servicemembers and their families. First, it just wants sailors and Coast Guardsmen, like Hirzel, to realize they’re eligible.
He didn’t think of himself as a wounded warrior. A boatswain’s mate, he was on arctic patrol in January 2012 aboard the Seattle-based Coast Guard cutter Healy. While sledding on liberty in Nome, Alaska, he flew over a bump, slammed down hard, jabbed a bone into his spine and lost feeling below the waist. After several surgeries, he can walk again, somewhat, but is limited physically, in pain, having memory problems and life has been turned upside down for him and wife Jacqueline.
“When I first heard about (wounded warriors), I thought it was for people who lost a limb,” he said, speaking as a panelist Monday at the inaugural Wounded Warrior Family Symposium at
Naval Base Kitsap. “I felt I’m not even in that group. I don’t deserve that.”
The program’s goal is to return service members to active duty or, if that’s not possible, help ease them back into the community. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert last year gave that responsibility to Navy Installations Command’s Fleet and Family Readiness Programs. It provides support in recovery plan development, pay and personnel issues, lodging and housing adaptation, child care, transportation, athletic reconditioning, education and training benefits, respite care and transition assistance.
Aid is for life.
“This is an enduring meeting,” program director Ed Cannon told about 50 people at the symposium. “This is not take care of you today and get rid of you.”
Three hundred twenty-eight sailors and Coast Guard members signed up for Safe Harbors in 2013, raising the total to 1,288, Cannon said. Thirty-eight percent have cancer, 25 percent PTSD, 6 percent brain disease and 4 percent stroke.
Panelists were urged to tell their stories and suggest how the program could be improved.
Hirtzel said he’s having an identity crisis. After nearly 10 years as a boatswain’s mate, he still thinks like one but can’t perform like one. Nerve damage and rods and screws in his body keep him off boats.
“There’s no motivation to go to work anymore,” he said. “I don’t do anything. I can’t run. My body hurts. My Coast Guard career is over. Now it’s just a waiting game (until separation is approved by the medical board).”
Galloway faces a similar problem. While deployed in 2004 to Afghanistan, he was near a vehicle that blew up and experienced PTSD and a traumatic brain injury. Anxiety prevents him from performing as a Navy aviation electrician’s mate anymore, and superiors don’t know what to do with him.
“The command has a total disconnect, and there’s no way for you to totally get through to them,” he said of those who think he’s just trying to get out of work. “They don’t want to deal with it.”
Dacanay, a Navy culinary specialist, suffered frequent chest pains and visited Navy facilities that insisted it was nothing serious. He couldn’t stand the pain any longer and went to a civilian hospital. Tests found a softball-sized tumor on his liver. It was removed and he was deemed cancer-free. Three months later, it returned. He recently completed chemotherapy.
Asked how they’re dealing with it, wife Noribelle said, “We’re hoping for a miracle.”
“It’s one day at a time,” added her husband, who has served 12½ years.
Capt. Thomas Zwolfer, Naval Base Kitsap commanding officer, promised the Navy would take care of them.
“You’ve been there, you’ve paid your dues, and your family members have, too,” he said. “You’re in exactly the place you should be here today, and we’re here to help.”