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'Real Warriors' campaign works to save lives

WASHINGTON (AFNS) -- Members of the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury "Real Warriors" campaign are working to deliver the message that resources and tools are available for veterans seeking treatment for invisible wounds of war.

"My mission through the Real Warriors campaign is to let our noncommissioned officers, enlisted personnel and our officers know that we can't leave anyone behind in the field of battle," retired Army Maj. Ed Pulido said during a Nov. 9 "DOD Live" bloggers roundtable.

Centers of Excellence officials launched the Real Warriors campaign to promote building resilience, facilitating recovery and supporting reintegration of returning servicemembers, veterans and their families. The program also works to combat the stigma associated with seeking psychological health care and treatment.

Major Pulido, who lost a leg to a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2004, said having post-traumatic stress doesn't mean something is wrong with you.

"There is no way the images of that day and the traumatic injury I received from that blast are going to go away," he said. "But what we can do is understand it, live with it and know that if you have any emotional episode about that experience, that it is healthy. It's part of your healing."

Army Capt. Joshua Mantz of the Real Warriors campaign said Defense Department officials from Secretary Robert M. Gates on down, have made incredible strides over the last few years to break down any barriers associated with stigma, but it is up to servicemembers to make the step to come forward.

"It becomes a matter of personal pride," Captain Mantz said. "No soldier wants to be injured, whether that wound is seen or unseen. Too many soldiers and people are led to believe that (post-traumatic stress) is caused by seeing blood and guts and gore on the battlefield, and I can tell you that has very little to do with it."

He said the part of post-traumatic stress that sticks with servicemembers tend to be "emotional burns," and that too many are carrying that with them after experiencing combat. Often, he added, it takes family or friends to speak up to help them realize they have post-traumatic stress or other invisible injuries of war.

"The family's absolutely critical," he said, "because the spouse or the children can serve as the first line of defense in picking up on some of the more subtle symptoms."

Major Pulido noted that his wife recognized that he had traumatic brain injury after watching a report on television and asked him to go seek help.

"As hard as it was for me to admit that my memory was gone in some regard, the cognitive skills that I was so well-versed in the past were suspect," he said, "I had to take that first step, and then I was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury."

Major Pulido said he believes many great resources are available for servicemembers, and that the Real Warrior program is just one of them. Individual counseling is the first step, he said, and finding peer-to-peer support systems also is important.

"I think that you also have to have (your) family do their own counseling," he said, and he added that for a holistic approach, group counseling as a family is a good idea.

Ken MacGarrigle from the Veterans Affairs Department's office for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, added that VA has "vet centers" that provide individual, group and family counseling to all veterans who served in any combat zone.

Captain Mantz stressed the value of building resilience before servicemembers experience emotional distress and giving them the ability to bounce back from adversity when it occurs in addressing the problem of military suicides.

"If we can build the resilience of our soldiers ... so that in the deepest throes of their depression, they pick up the phone instead of pulling the trigger, we've taken our first step towards victory," he said.

Captain Mantz added that it's important for peers or family members to step in to help servicemembers who suffer from the invisible wounds of war.

"We as leaders need to reach out to our young soldiers and prove to them that we genuinely care," he said. "It's all about persistence, literally taking that guy by the hand and delivering him to the right person."

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