Army, Veterans Affairs working together on program to help needy
ARLINGTON, Va. — Rebecca Sides was utterly lost.
Her husband, Army Sgt. James Sides, a flight medic with the 571st Medical Company, Fort Carson, Colo., had suffered horrific injuries after the Black Hawk helicopter he was traveling in crashed into the Tigris River in Iraq on May 9.
Three other soldiers died in the crash last year, and James Sides was badly hurt: multiple bruises to the brain, a broken humerus, and a collapsed lung.
The medic was in a coma when Rebecca Sides rushed to his side at Landstuhl Army Hospital in Germany. There, doctors told her to consider removing James Sides from life support. The odds that her husband would emerge from his coma were not good, the doctors said.
But Rebecca Sides knew her husband. She knew he was a fighter.
So she said no to the doctors. And James Sides did come back, in a recovery doctors called miraculous.
But his recovery was a long, terrible struggle.
“I was totally helpless,” he said Friday at the Pentagon. “I could barely think for myself, barely feed myself.”
Meanwhile, Rebecca Sides was facing a struggle of her own. Her husband had been medically retired from the Army while he was unconscious. With Sides a civilian, the family’s familiar Army support structure was suddenly gone.
“We lost our [military] housing and our income,” Rebecca Sides said Friday. “I had to find another job, because my husband was no longer working. We had to move, and find new schools for our children,” who were facing their own struggle, their lives turned upside-down.
Rebecca Sides said she sensed that help was out there, but she had no idea where to turn. No one from her husband’s unit, which was still in Iraq, knew where to send her.
That’s when a brand-new Army program swooped in to help: “Disabled Soldier Support System,” a $1 million liaison project to link badly disabled soldiers with the many government and private programs already in place to assist them. The family was among the first helped by the program, which has been in development since last year.
“DS3,” as the program is called, officially kicked off Friday at the Army’s headquarters in the Pentagon in a joint announcement with the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The Army and the VA “have not always worked together as well as they should,” Anthony Principi, secretary of Veterans Affairs, said during the Friday presentation. “It’s time for the barriers to come down.”
The military defines “badly disabled” as a servicemember with a 30 percent or more disability rating, which includes injuries such as amputations, blindness, or disfigurement, according to Col. Jacqueline Cumbo, chief of the DS3 Task Force.
About 198 of the soldiers who have been injured in Iraq or Afghanistan fall into the category, according to Lt. Gen. Franklin “Buster” Hagenbeck, the Army’s Deputy Chief of Staff for G-1, or personnel.
But the program is designed to accommodate any badly injured servicemember, whether the wounds are combat-related or not, and no matter how long ago the person was hurt, Cumbo said.
Key to DS3 is a Web site, www.armyDS3.org, and a toll-free telephone number, (800) 833-6622, which are open to soldiers, veterans, spouses, parents, concerned friends and members of other services.
“Anyone who calls us, we’ll get help,” Cumbo said.
People who contact the DS3 office are linked with a “liaison staffer,” who will ask about the individual’s situation and guide them to the proper agencies for assistance. The staffers then follow through to make sure “customers” are, in fact, getting the help they need, Cumbo said.
The office also has coordinators on staff “who do contacts and outreach” to find soldiers who need help but don’t know where to look, Cumbo said.
Army officials are getting word of the program to every unit through official Army channels, and are hoping that word-of-mouth will make the program quickly expand.
Staff Sgt. Jerry Cortinas, a Special Forces soldier from Fort Bragg who lost his left arm in an accident with a rocket-propelled grenade in Afghanistan, said Friday that the DS3 process works.
The program, Cortinas said, “Supports soldiers 100 percent.”
James Sides agreed. “One phone call, and the answers were there,” he said.