Wounded warriors head north to Alaska

Wednesday, November 14, 2012 - 09:07
Christian Garrett, left, Army Master Sgt. Charles Buzzatto, center, and Paul Pace, right, discuss how fly fishing can help wounded warriors regain confidence and transition towards their next step in the Warrior Transition Battalion-Alaska Nov. 6. WTB-Alaska recently networked with Warrior Transition Battalion-Hawaii so that the wounded warriors could use the recreation unique to Alaska, and an additional trip will take wounded warriors from Alaska to Hawaii. Garrett is a life skills coach for the Warrior Transition Battallion. Buzzatto is the Soldiers Family Assistance Center Army Liaison. Pace is a the Warrior Outreach Coordinator Northwest for the Wounded Warrior Program.

The Alaskan mid-October weather is surprisingly nice as a man stands face to face with a moose. In most cases, such a situation could easily become dangerous. Both appear introverted and timid, keeping some distance. The man turns his back on the large animal, which then approaches him. It rests its head on his shoulder and the invisible barrier between them breaks.

The impact is significant; the man is a Soldier visiting an Alaska reindeer farm as part of a trip arranged by his unit in Hawaii.

Wounded warriors from Tripler Army Medical Center’s Warrior Transition Battalion-Hawaii medical command visited JBER’s Warrior Transition Battalion-Alaska to receive care only the final frontier could provide.

The visiting group included five Soldiers from the WTB-Hawaii, based out of Schofield Barracks, Hawaii. They visited Oct. 19 to 29.

“I thought the climate difference would be a lot worse, but the whole time it was really nice,” said Army Master Sgt. Jimmy Keen, WTB-Hawaii Operations noncommissioned officer. “The skies were clear so it was beautiful. For me, the adrenaline and the excitement kept me warmer. I don’t know how I would do if I was there for a whole three years, but there was never a time when we were cold during our visit. Sergeant Buzzatto provided a good packing list, and everywhere we went they had additional clothing and were able to keep us dry and warm and keep us comfortable.”

Army Master Sgt. Charles Buzzatto, Soldiers and Family Assistance Center Army liaison, was putting together something, which had never been done before.

“This is the first time it’s ever been done in Army history for the purpose of rehabilitation and healing,” Buzzatto said. “We’ve never done a partnership to exchange wounded warriors from one Warrior Transition Battalion to another. We essentially created our own Project Odyssey trip.”

Project Odyssey is a branch of the Wounded Warrior Project, a nonprofit organization.

“The program is designed to provide a trusting environment for wounded warriors to rehabilitate using nature and recreational opportunities,” said Al Giordano, deputy executive director of WWP. The organization has no official connection with the WTB-Alaska and WTB-Hawaii network.

Buzzatto said he saw the advantages to the project and put the concept into practice using Alaska’s unique environment. The Soldiers visited a number of locations across the Last Frontier, including Palmer and Wasilla. They rode on horseback and ATV’s, went fishing and fed and petted reindeer, buffalo and moose.

“It’s basically events we set up for healing, for both physical and psychological healing,” Buzzatto said.

Buzzatto, a native of Pittsburgh, explained events like fishing are helpful, because the opportunity teaches the patient how to continue living through their challenges.

The SFAC Army liaison made sure their schedule took full advantage of the visit. Among the most memorable events was a visit to a reindeer farm in Palmer, where the manager opened the facility to give them a private tour.

“The reindeer were standing far off at first,” Keen said. “Then we got feed and they came right up to us.”

Buzzatto said Project Healing Waters in Homer was the most important event they did.

“For us here at JBER, they are a constant supporter of our wounded warriors,” the liaison said. “They took them on a completely paid for trip down to Homer where they learned fly fishing, and how to tie flies.”

He explained that for many wounded warriors - for example those missing fingers, a hand or an arm - learning how to do things like tie flies through the disability is especially rehabilitative.

The trip wasn’t all recreation. The mission of the WTB is to help wounded warriors transition, whether it’s back into military duty or into separation for college or a job.

“We also did career-progression plans,” Buzzatto said. “It’s basically a goal-setting class. When you process in as a wounded warrior, you have to plan goals for when you get out of the military, whether that’s college or a job.”

Once the class was finished, the group went back into recreation with a class on archery techniques.

The events during their visit were sponsored by programs including Alaska Healing Hearts, Project Healing Waters and the National Wild Turkey Foundation.

The second visit, and the first time WTB-Alaska wounded warriors will visit Hawaii with similar goals, will take place in November.

“We’re looking forward to showing the WTB-Alaska our beaches and ocean,” Keen said. “We will do things like get them participating in a luau from setup to finish, and get them certified in scuba diving and surfing. The scuba diving is taught by the Handicap Scuba Association of America. It’s for paraplegics and people in wheelchairs. It’s really a tremendous program for military.”

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