Virginia Republican Party Chair John Whitbeck joins us in studio, and we get an update on Congress and D.C.'s "Death with Dignity" bill from D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton.
Compared with previous wars, soldiers in Iraq and Afganistan are receiving more effective battlefield medical care, and as a result, a large number of service members are now surviving war injuries and facing a future that includes missing limbs and/or use of prosthetic devices. Kojo meets three veterans to hear how physical activity and sport competitions can aid their physical and psychological recovery after the loss of a limb.
- Dan Berschinski Captain, U.S. Army
- Bryan Anderson Sergeant, U.S. Army (ret.)
- Kirk Bauer Executive Director, Disabled Sports USA; Vietnam Veteran
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5, at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. An insider's perspective on war. Things happen fast on a battlefield, and, in an instant, your life can change forever, searing a moment into memory the sound of a boot hitting metal, fine dust raining down after an explosion, stillness in the midst of chaos. A decade into wars where terrorist groups favor improvised explosive devices or IEDs as a weapon of choice. Almost 50,000 service members have been wounded in action.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAdvances in battlefield medicine mean nine in 10 survive their injuries. And thanks to improvements in prosthetics, a lot of the roughly 2,000 American soldiers who've lost all or part of at least one limb have been able to thrive after returning home. Joining us in studio to talk about their athletic activities and their active lives is Dan Berschinski, currently a captain in the U.S. Army. He served as a platoon leader with the Stryker Brigade Combat Team in Kandahar province, Afghanistan, and was awarded a Purple Heart for his service. Dan Berschinski, thank you for joining us.
CAPT. DAN BERSCHINSKIThanks for having me.
NNAMDIAlso with us in studio is Kirk Bauer. He has been executive director of Disabled Sports USA for almost three decades. He was awarded two Bronze Stars for heroism and a Purple Heart for his Army service during the Vietnam War. Kirk, good to see you again.
MR. KIRK BAUERGood to see you, Kojo.
NNAMDIAlso with us in studio is Bryan Anderson. Bryan served two tours in Iraq and was awarded a Purple Heart for his service. He's currently an actor, athlete and author of a recent memoir co-written with David Mack. It's called "No Turning Back." He also works as a spokesperson for Quantum Rehab and USA Cares. Bryan Anderson, welcome to the studio.
SGT. BRYAN ANDERSONThank you for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIYou, too, can join this conversation. You can call us at 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or you can simply go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there. If you have questions for Dan, Bryan or Kirk about their experiences, give us a call, 800-433-8850. I'll start with you, Kirk. Each of you joined the Army at very different times. Kirk, what inspired you to serve?
BAUERWith my situation, it was just -- basically, I was a kid that grew up in Oakland, and I didn't have any great agenda. I think I had dropped out of college several times at that point in time. And so the Army was, in a way, a way out to see the world, if you will. And, Kojo, I got to see the world.
NNAMDIIn your case, Dan, what was it? What inspired you to serve?
BERSCHINSKII think my decision to serve was mostly based on the college I wanted to go to. I attended West Point, which that is a much harder question to answer why exactly I wanted to go there. But I admire the career of Army officers, and I thought it would be -- if not a full-time career, I thought it would be at least an interesting couple of years that would set me up well for the rest of my life. So that was my primary motivator.
NNAMDIWhat was yours, Bryan?
ANDERSONI was working in American Airlines, and after about three years of that -- I loved my job in American, but my daily routine of life was -- gotten so routine and boring that I needed something different. Me and my girlfriend at the time tossed around the idea of joining the military, and we figured out the Army was the best fit. I've always been an athlete, gymnast, and I always wanted to know if I could go through basic training and handle it.
NNAMDIWe'll find out more about how that gymnast thing came in useful later on. Since Vietnam, wounded veterans have been marking their "alive day," the anniversary of the day when they were wounded and survived. Tell us about that, Bryan. What do you think about it?
ANDERSONAbout the alive day?
ANDERSONWell, in recent -- or earlier interviews, I was saying that why would you want to celebrate the worst day of your life? But I kind of get it now that a few years have gone by. And, for me, it changed my life for the better. I mean, I may be missing three limbs, but I'm happier than I've ever been. I'm doing more things than I've ever done. And I'm creating a name for myself. So, you know, celebrating an alive day, to me, is kind of like another birthday or another excuse to celebrate.
NNAMDIHow about you, Dan? I bet your relatives didn't think of it as the worst day of your life. Your relatives thought your alive day was the day when you were given life, so to speak.
BERSCHINSKIYeah, you can certainly look at it that way. I'm not one to add anniversaries and holidays to the calendar. I think it's already a little crowded. I have enough trouble remembering my girlfriend's birthday and whatnot. So I don't make a very...
NNAMDIWhen is your girlfriend's birthday?
NNAMDIUh oh, he's trying to think, but go ahead.
BERSCHINSKIIt's in March. The alive day celebration itself, I just -- I think it's important. I think it's a great idea. To me, personally, it's not that important. That day, we lost two other soldiers. I lost one of my own soldiers. So I kind of use it more as a moment of reflection on what went on that day. In terms of my own life, I think that every day is a celebration of my survival, but it's -- to me, it's more about the guys that I lost that day.
NNAMDIWhat does it mean to you, Kirk?
BAUERWell, I think, Kojo, I don't celebrate my alive day. I don't make a big deal about it. I'm a little bit like these other guys. But I think Bryan put -- made a good point. It was a life-changing experience for me. I knew nothing about disability. I knew nothing about, you know, rehab or hospitals. You know, I was a young kid of 27 years old. And so, for me, it was a life-changing experience because it opened a world to me that I didn't know about.
BAUERAnd I also, like Bryan, feel that it did -- it changed my life for the better. The people that I have met in the disability community and the military community are some of the finest people in this country, and I think it's what makes this country great. And so, for me, it's a life -- it was a life-changing experience and actually, looking back, for the better. I think I became a better person because of it. And so out of tragedy came, what I feel to be, triumph.
NNAMDIWell, you better leave your dates with me because I'll celebrate your alive days if you're not celebrating them. You can call us at 800-433-8850 or send email to email@example.com. Bryan, it's my understanding that, even though you cracked a joke almost immediately after being injured, you must have some bad days.
ANDERSONEverybody has bad days. But, for the most part, they're very few and far between for me. I wake up every day like it's a new day. And I do a lot of interesting things, and that helps a lot. I keep myself busy. I travel all the time. I'm literally in a different city every other week, working for, you know, Quantum Rehab, which is a mobility company, doing work with USA Cares, which is a veterans' organization, acting every once in a while. I am actually hosting my own TV show out of Chicago nowadays.
ANDERSONAnd, you know, it's really hard to have those bad days for me now. It's -- now, I've just gotten into, you know, my everyday life again. Once I've gotten out of the military, once I've been able to separate that a little bit, I really kind of started to run with it.
NNAMDII should mention that Bryan is -- lost both legs and his left arm. But you find humor in amazing things. You also credit smoking with saving your right hand. How come?
ANDERSONWell, the day I got blown up, I had both of my hands on the bottom on the steering wheel, my left leg curled up underneath my right leg and my right leg down driving. And the way you cope in Iraq with everything is you make fun of your situation. You make fun of everything, and you laugh at it. Well, I was looking at my buddy, Kenny, who was sitting next to me, and we were joking about our situation. And I know you're not supposed to smoke in military vehicles, but I did anyway.
ANDERSONI pulled my hand off the steering wheel. I reached out, grabbed a cigarette. And as I went to go light the cigarette, the explosion went off. It was like as if me lighting the lighter triggered the explosion. The next thing I saw was the flash and then smoke and fire coming through the door, and then it was pitch-black because there were so much smoke inside the truck you couldn't see anything.
ANDERSONBut if I didn't have -- if I wouldn't have taken my hand off the steering wheel -- the whole bottom of the steering wheel was gone, along with my left hand. And my right hand is a little beat up, but I still have it.
NNAMDIViolating rules and smoking saved his right hand. Dan, I read where the doctors at Walter Reed are a little puzzled by you because you are able to set aside your trauma and move forward with humor and a little regret. How do you do that?
BERSCHINSKII think we all do it, Kojo. Bryan does it. I do it. Pretty much, all of the guys at the amputee rehab center where I work out here in Bethesda, Md., do it. It's just perhaps a trait of the type of people that join the service, or maybe it's what happens to everybody after a life-changing injury. But you are quite literally face with a choice to either accept your life as it is and move on and make the best of it or to lay in a hospital bed and just give up.
BERSCHINSKIAnd I think that most Americans, when presented with that sort of choice, decide to move on with it. Granted, some are more competent at moving on with it, maybe recover a little bit faster, get on with their life, but pretty much everyone, I think, is, especially when you're inside of a really strong support network, such as the one that we have of wounded warriors here in the D.C. region and nationally. We make a choice. It's a conscious choice. And you move on, and you make the best of it. And you have a good life. I really don't see any other alternative.
NNAMDIDan, I should mention, lost both of his legs. Kirk, when were your darkest days?
BAUERI think it was in the hospital. But, again, you know, mimicking what these guys said, one of the best ways to deal with this stuff is through humor. I mean, you know, you've got -- you know, at some point, you've got to laugh at the situation and move on. And, you know, whenever we're out to, you know, try something crazy, like climb Kilimanjaro or ski down the slope too fast, you know, our saying around the Vietnam guys is, well, I've already got one foot in the grave, so, you know, what do I got to lose, you know?
BAUERAnd, you know, it's just a way to deal with, you know, a situation that, for most people, might -- they might consider it intolerable, but, you know, you get through it. And humor is one of the ways to do it, and I think sports is one of the ways to do it, you know?
NNAMDIIndeed. Kirk lost his left leg. How did the Kilimanjaro thing go for you? I heard you did it in, what, eight days?
BAUERWe did it eight days. You know, our moniker is we had three guys -- two double-leg amputees and myself, a single leg -- so we had one good leg between us. And thank God it was my leg. And, you know, three wars, two generations, the youngest was 26 -- I was 62 -- and we all made it to the top. It was a fantastic experience. But I think it shows what kind of generation these young men are and women are in this military because they are some of the greatest people I've ever met. And they get through it, just like Dan and Bryan did.
NNAMDIIf you've worked with wounded warriors as a therapist or a volunteer, we'd love to hear about the experience. Call us at 800-433-8850 or send us a tweet, @kojoshow. Kirk, each of you is more physically active than a lot of people with all of their limbs intact. How did being in good shape before your injury and remaining athletic help you recover both physically and mentally?
BAUERWell, one of the things that I've learned in working with Disabled Sports USA and the programs that they run is they really need to be fit. We have to be more fit than the non-disabled population to participate. We use anywhere from 100 to 200 percent more energy when we do something. And so, you know, my message to the amputees and to others with disability is your challenge is to become more fit, so you can be still be active and still lead a full and enriching life. And I think these two young men are perfect examples of that. Is it -- Dan, you just did the Marine Corps Marathon?
BERSCHINSKII did, yeah. I did the Marine Corps Marathon this past Sunday.
NNAMDIAnd the week before that, he did the Army 10-miler, correct?
BERSCHINSKIIt was a warm-up, correct.
BAUERAnd, you know, Bryan has been on our Grand Canyon rafting trips and some of the other stuff. And so it is a way to deal with the disability, but it also opens up a tremendous opportunity. When I go bike -- and I bike with one leg -- but I can go out into the Pennsylvania countryside. And, you know, you're going by the cow fields and the cornfields, and it's so beautiful. It's a whole -- you know, it's a whole world that opens up when you get involved in sports and recreation. And it's, again, a way to -- for us to, you know, live life to its fullest.
NNAMDIBryan, you mentioned earlier that you were a gymnast in college. How did that play a role in your rehabilitation?
ANDERSONWell, I -- going through rehab, all the therapists kept telling me, oh, you know, being a gymnast can help you out throughout this process. And I was like, I don't see how. I'm not understanding...
NNAMDIThat was a long time ago, huh?
ANDERSONIt was. It was 2006.
NNAMDIAnd you had been a gymnast, what, eight years before that?
ANDERSONRight. And I was just like, I don't see how it's going to happen or how it's going to work. But then the first time they put me up on prosthetic legs, I was just standing there. And they were like, you're not even holding on to anything. And I'm like, am I supposed to be? And my therapist comes up, she's like, let me try something. And she pushed me, and I kind of, like, waddled back a little bit. I mean, I was on shorties. I mean, it wasn't -- I didn't think it was anything all that impressive. But they did. There were like, you know, I think you have balance.
ANDERSONYou have -- you know where you're at. And I'm like, okay. And I didn't realize, until after I left Walter Reed, how much being gymnast actually helps me. I do walk a lot -- not a lot, actually. I walk when I feel like it, going to bars, feel like standing up, you know, I'll put them on. But I use a chair a lot. And the way that I see the world now is as my own personal jungle gym. I'm amazed at what my body can still do and how I can maneuver it. And I do amazing things, even in a wheelchair.
ANDERSONEven in a hotel room, if I'm lying in bed and I want to go turn the air down, you know, I don't necessarily need to get in my chair. I flip between the two beds, bounce onto an office chair, use that momentum to roll against the wall and hit the button. And then I do it all back to get back to bed. So it really does help me, and it keeps my life exciting.
NNAMDIYou're doing parkour is what you're doing.
NNAMDIIt seems like it. And, Dan, you were a member of the cycling team at West Point before all of this occurred. And as we mentioned, you just finished the marathon, and you just finished the Army 10 mile. What next?
BERSCHINSKII don't know, Kojo. I am kind of concentrating on the non-athletic things right now. I'm in the midst of retirement and hopefully going to grad school next year, so that's taking up a lot of my time. But I definitely find athletic endeavors to be a relief, kind of a way to get away from the disability for a moment. And to me it's also just a part of my life. I grew up always playing sports, always being physically active, not being a particularly good athlete at anything, really, but always enjoying -- at least trying.
BERSCHINSKISo I ran a lot and did a couple of triathlons and then did the cycling team at school. And I just enjoy getting out there and having that part of my life, not necessarily back but still be available, just mentally knowing that I can still get out and participate in a road race and, you know, feel the wind against my face is really nice. So I plan on keeping that up.
BAUERAnd I'd like to add to that, Kojo, if I could. You know, what Dan points out is a perfect example of what this sports program does for these guys and the way they adapt. He used to be a cyclist. Well, now, he's a hand cyclist because both of his legs are missing above the knee, and he's got very short stumps. In one case, he's got -- he's at the hip. So it's very difficult for him to use the legs, but he can use his hands.
BAUERAnd so what, you know, one of the things that technology has brought to the field is it's opened up a whole area for people to participate in sports and recreation. There is a device that enables, literally, a triple amputee to go skiing down the mountains and, you know, to do a Marine Corps marathon and a hand cycle, scuba diving, water skiing, rock climbing. All of those sports and many more are made available because of the adaptive equipment that they can use to overcome that barrier.
NNAMDIWant to talk about that after this short break. When we come back, you can still call us at 800-433-8850. If you have already called, stay on the line. We will get to your call. If you or a loved one were injured in combat and would like to share your story, we'd like to hear from you, 800-433-8850. We're talking with active veteran amputees. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with active veteran amputees. Bryan Anderson served two tours in Iraq. He was awarded a Purple Heart for his service. He is currently an actor, an athlete and author of a recent memoir, co-written with David Mack. It is called, "No Turning Back." Bryan Anderson also works as a spokesperson for Quantum Rehab and USA Cares. Kirk Bauer has been executive director of Disabled Sports USA for almost three decades. He has -- he was awarded two bronze stars for heroism and Purple Heart for his Army service during the Vietnam War.
NNAMDIAnd Dan Berschinski is currently a captain in the U.S. Army. He served as a platoon leader with the Stryker Brigade Combat Team in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, and was awarded a Purple Heart for his service. A lot of people want to talk to you. But, before we go to the telephones, Kirk, one of the things you started talking about -- I find kind of surprising -- is how quickly you're able to get wounded veterans out of rehab and onto the golf course or, as you mentioned earlier, the ski slope.
BAUERYes, Kojo, that's the beauty and the miracle about sports. Through our Warfighter Sports Program that Disabled Sports USA runs, we've served almost 5,000 of the most severely wounded in the war. And what we have found is, sometimes within a matter of months, we can get them doing something physical. And what that does is, whether it is being able to turn a ski or to get on a handcycle or a regular bicycle and go biking or to learn to swing a golf club, it makes them focus on the sport and not the disability. And it gives them a sense of personal achievement.
BAUERYou know, they've been hit. They're down. They need to redefine who they are, and this is the way to do it. So by -- literally, by turning a ski, they can say, okay, I have been able to do something on my own with this adaptive equipment. Now I know I can be active again, and I can take it from here. And we have a motto at Disabled Sports USA: If I can do this, I can do anything. And it's that whole sense of possibilities and hope that it instills. So sports like...
NNAMDIHow have prospects...
ANDERSONDo you mind if I add to that? I'm sorry.
NNAMDIPlease, Bryan. Go ahead.
ANDERSONAlso, one of things I thought that's amazing about that program is, when I was at Walter Reed, I went on my first ski trip after four months or something like that. And I realized -- I was sitting there. I was getting depressed. And I realized that the last four months I've been at Walter Reed and I'm watching all these wounded soldiers come back, which can be a very inspiring thing to see the soldiers' attitude, but to see how many people go through that, that can be kind of depressing in itself.
ANDERSONAnd then the whole year before that, I was at war, so I completely forgot about what real life was like. So that also gives you a chance to get out and experience life again and not war or not such a serious, you know, issue.
NNAMDIIt's an activity that you can get involved in. But both you and Dan say that you've benefited from the use of some really advanced prosthetics. But you say that relying on technology alone isn't enough. Why is simpler sometimes better? I'll start with you, Dan.
BERSCHINSKISure, Kojo. I'm perfect example of that with my level of amputations at the hip on my right side and a little bit above the knee on my left side. I literally have eight inches or so of both of my legs left total, overall. And I walked into your studio here today, and I'm doing that because of the combination of high technology prosthetics in the form of an Otto Bock X2, which I'm wearing on my left leg and also in the form of a very simple or simpler type of prosthetic in the form of an Ossur Total Knee on my right side, which is just purely a mechanical device.
BERSCHINSKIAnd for a guy like me with my high level of amputations, Walter Reed and the Military Medical System have done a phenomenal job of putting me back together and supplying me with every type of possible contraption that might, you know, put my life back to as normal as possible. So, for quite a while, I was using some very high-tech legs. And I was -- I think, for several months, I was the only person in the world with two of these extremely high-tech legs, motorized, batteries, gyroscopes, everything.
BERSCHINSKIAnd I was trying to walk that way, and we pursued it for about nine months. And I started to walk more than I was previously able to, but it just still wasn't enough, really, to be worthwhile, worth the effort. And then I decided to actually go on the completely opposite direction and go old school. I threw this Ossur Total Knee on. It's just a mechanical device -- kind of picture, like, a beefed-up door hinge. You know, it's either on or off. It supports me, or it's letting me walk.
BERSCHINSKIAnd that is really when I started to walk outside of the rehab clinic, when I started to walk in the real world. So on my left leg, I have the highest technology available, and on my right leg, I had a very simple, not necessarily low cost, but simple device in the grand scheme of things. And that is what has allowed me to walk. And then, also along with that, it's just being young, being strong, being physically active. I'm not overweight.
BERSCHINSKII have pretty good balance, just like Bryan does or guys who are the most successful walkers, I would say, or just natural athletes from the beginning. And so that is why it's a combination of both high-technology type devices and then also just having the guts to work out every day and to not, you know, sit at home and get lazy and get fat.
NNAMDIAnd, Bryan, you choose to use the chair rather that prosthetic devices.
ANDERSONSometimes -- most of the time, actually, and that's because I realize that I could do more in a chair than I can with my legs on. And I travel about 10 times faster than your average person, even able-bodied person, in the wheelchair. And I do that for a couple of reasons, one because I'm so high up. I started walking a lot, and I started getting skin problem. So I need to realize that I needed to pick and choose when I used legs.
ANDERSONAnd I started realizing that the only time I was wearing them was when I was going out to the bars or, you know, just whenever I feel like standing up and then sports-specific activities -- like, I snowboard with legs on. I do a lot -- I skateboard. I do a lot of sports with my legs on, but I don't necessarily need them. And I also like the fact that I don't need to rely on technology to survive.
NNAMDII picked up that sense both from you and Dan.
BAUERAnd I think, though, at the same time -- and I've seen it, you know, from 41 years ago when I got hit -- actually, 42 now -- and now is -- the technology has been a tremendous help. But there's also that aspect that Dan talked about. You have to -- and it's a real challenge to become and stay fit. And that's good for every -- anybody that's out there, not just people with disabilities. But we do have to be more conscious of our fitness levels and all that 'cause it puts more of a demand.
BAUERBut even in Bryan's case, you've got a situation where he's using a state-of-the-art wheelchair that is lightweight and very sports-oriented. And so these kinds of devices are also very helpful. So, you know, when I first put my leg on, you know, 42 years ago, I literally -- it weighed over twice what this leg weighs, and it had a design that was very similar to what you see in the museums of the Civil War, believe it or not, Kojo.
BAUERAnd so going from that, you know, with the big, heavy strap and wool socks and all this other stuff, the technology has enabled the fit to be much better, so the -- and more comfortable and not chafe your skin as much. And that's all due to lightweight and space age material. So it starts there, and it goes, you know, from that.
NNAMDIYou've seen prosthetics change a lot since you were wounded.
BAUERNothing short of a revolution in prosthetics. When Disabled Sports USA started, we did one sport skiing for one disability amputations. Now, we're doing close to 30 different sports, with adaptations, for every single type of disability, including, you know, partially -- partial quadriplegic, four limbs off. You name it, we can get them involved in golf, in cycling, in skiing, in water skiing, sailing, scuba and even rock climbing, so it's been nothing short of a revolution.
NNAMDIA lot of people would like to talk to you. I'll start with Wheelchair Pete, who is at Walter Reed in Washington. Wheelchair Pete, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PETER "WHEELCHAIR PETE" LANCASTERWhat's happening, fellas?
ANDERSONOh, God. Peter Lancaster, what's going on?
LANCASTERWhat's the good word?
ANDERSONNot much. How are you doing, man?
LANCASTERYeah, well, I just -- I'm driving to the Comfort Company's Seating Symposium 'cause I was at Walter Reed, and I heard you guys are there. And, Kojo, these are two of the most courageous -- they just get the job done with the best attitude, and they're inspiration for all of us.
LANCASTERAnd that's all I really wanted to say. I just -- you said to call, so I called.
ANDERSONWell, I'd like to say something real quick. That man that's on the other line right there, he serves all the wounded warriors at Walter Reed and Bethesda with their wheelchair prosthetic -- or wheelchair needs, and anything that they need to get done. He's the man. He doesn't care, you know, how long it takes him. He gets the job done. And I want to thank you, Pete, for everything that you do.
NNAMDIWheelchair Pete, thank you so much for calling.
LANCASTERAlrighty. Take care.
NNAMDIKeep on keeping on. We move on to Paul in Silver Spring, Md. Paul, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. Hi, Paul. Are you there?
MR. PAUL HOLLANDI'm sorry. Is that me?
NNAMDIYes, that's you, Paul.
HOLLANDWell, hello, fellas. My name is Paul Holland. I work with the Washington Area Wheelchair Society as a volunteer. We collect donated wheelchairs for distribution to low-income fellows, not necessarily vets, mostly civilians. But probably two or three times a month, I'll get a phone call from a young fellow looking for a sports chair, and I just very seldom ever get them donated. I'm wondering how I could hook up with you and your organization to maybe -- when you get your new chairs, what do you with your old ones? Could -- would you get them donated for our program?
NNAMDIGood question. Bryan, what do you with an old sports wheelchair?
ANDERSONGood question. Normally, I throw it in the closet, and I keep it for spare parts in case I break something on my new chair or something like that. But, yeah, I'm absolutely sure that we could probably work something out to where wounded warriors that are not using their chairs anymore could donate them or something. Do you have a website?
HOLLANDUnfortunately, we don't. We're too...
NNAMDIPaul -- what I'll do, Paul, is I'll put you on hold, and our call facilitator will take your information. And we'll make sure someone calls you back, Paul.
HOLLANDWell, I sure appreciate it. And, fellas, thank you for your service.
ANDERSONI appreciate that. Thank you.
NNAMDIAnd thank you for your call. We got an email from Ritha (sp?) in Ellicott City, Md. "Thank you so much for covering this topic about our wounded warriors. I have two questions: What has been the difference between getting active relatively early in the rehab process versus over a year or several years after an injury? And are programs like Disability Sports USA (sic) funded by the military, the VA, or other government agency? Or are they funded some other way?" Kirk?
BAUERKojo, those are two very good questions. And what we have found, number one, on the first question is that if you -- the earlier that you get a person involved in sports activities, the more successful and quick the rehabilitation. And we were -- you know, we have data now that shows that. We have a survey that was done by Harris Interactive polling firm about two or three years ago, and it showed that the general disabled population, many of which do not get involved in sport activities, had half the employment rate of the wounded warriors coming out of our sports program.
BAUERAnd they attributed that -- in the questionnaire, they attributed that to their participation in sports. So, definitely, it makes the difference, and we can show it statistically. The second question -- can you repeat this?
NNAMDIFunding, the question of funding, whether Disability Sports USA -- who funds it?
BAUERYes. Disabled Sports USA has conducted now a sports rehabilitation program, which is called -- now called Warfighter Sports for eight years with the wounded warriors coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan. And the vast majority of that is private sector funding that is given by individuals, donations, corporations, foundations. They are the ones that enable us to offer our sports program free of cost to the wounded warriors.
BAUERSome people are surprised to hear that, and that they will -- isn't, you know, isn't the military doing this? Well, the military is helping out. But, you know, they're really focused on the medical care. And as these two gentlemen have indicated, they get some of the best in the world. But the idea of putting somebody on a plane and flying him out to Vail to go skiing is not really on their agenda, so that's where we get in and actually do that kind of thing.
NNAMDIAnd, Dan, as our emailer indicated. "Do you think that because you got out to physical activity fairly soon after your injury, it helped? Do you think, had you delayed it a bit longer, it would have been more difficult?"
BERSCHINSKIYeah, I think it has, without a doubt. And I'd like to actually -- Kirk mentioned this earlier, the benefits of physical activity in getting our wounded veterans out as quickly as possible. One thing that he did not mention, that I think is quite possibly the most important aspect of physical activity, actually, is that my first real big trip outside of Walter Reed -- I spent four months as an inpatient. But in March of 2010 -- so I was wounded in August of '09. In March of 2010, I went out to Vail, Colo. to go skiing for a weekend, my girlfriend and I.
BERSCHINSKIAnd that was my first big trip outside of the Washington, D.C. region. And I actually wasn't very good at skiing back then. At the time, I thought I was very much healed and recovered and strong. But, looking back on it now, I was incredibly weak. I could barely stay awake all day. But what that trip really taught me was that I can get on a plane, fly three hours across country, stay in a hotel room, maneuver around Vail in the wintertime in a wheelchair, on and off public transportation, get to a ski slope, get on a sit-ski and go up and down a mountain.
BERSCHINSKIAnd so, while the skiing itself was fun -- and I look forward to doing it again in the future -- more than anything, it just taught me that I, as an individual, as a newly disabled person, could get out and live a fairly normal life. And I think that is a tremendous impact that these athletic and travel programs have for our wounded veterans. It's not so much about which sport you play. It's just getting out there, getting outside of your comfort zone and traveling. That, in and of itself, is huge. And I think that that played a tremendous role in my recovery.
BERSCHINSKIJust several months after going to Vail, my girlfriend and I actually went down to South Africa for the World Cup for two weeks of traveling in a foreign country, and it was phenomenal.
NNAMDIHow about you, Bryan, same thing?
ANDERSONI agree with him 100 percent. And as far as getting them up out of bed quickly and getting to doing something, I agree with it. 'Cause, for the first two weeks I laid in the bed, and the therapist came up and said, all right, we need to get you up, start moving around, get in the wheelchair. And I'm like, I just got blown up. Can't you just let me lay here for a while? And they're like, no, no.
ANDERSONAnd I completely understand and what Dan said about, you know, him going on that first ski trip, as well as with me in my first ski trip, I thought I was fairly healed. And I thought I was pretty strong, too. And now, looking back, I know that I wasn't because, you know, the things that I do now. But you're absolutely right. It shows you that you can go do whatever you want.
BAUERI think Bryan's comments are absolutely right on, and so are Dan's. I mean, they've had a life-changing experience. What they need now is experiences that let them know that they can lead a normalized life again and do it with their families. One of the things about the Warfighter sports program, Kojo, is that we include the family members in the activity, so they both learn the activity with their wounded warrior and are able to see the progress of the wounded warrior.
BAUERWe had a -- and, you know, you're talking about picking any sport. We had a young gentleman, Carlos, who is a triple amputee from Puerto Rico. And so when we approached him about skiing at -- in Breckenridge, Col. last year, he said, you know, skiing, I'm from Puerto Rico. We don't do snow out there, you know?
NNAMDIDo you think I'm a Jamaican bobsledder or something?
BAUERAnd so we said, okay. Well, just try it. Just go out there. So we took -- he brought his wife out. And, starting on Monday, he was on the chairlift on the very first day of skiing, and first time he'd ever been skiing on snow. And his wife was learning how to ski by Friday of that week. It was a week-long event. He and his wife were skiing together. And he said the experience of skiing with his wife together was what made everything what -- you know, such a wonderful experience because that showed them that they could do things together.
BAUERThey could get back into "normal," in this case, abnormal 'cause he'd never skied before. And they did it in five days. And that's the kind of quick, you know, experience that turns people's attitudes around and gives them that hope and expectation for the future.
NNAMDIWe've got to take a short break. If you've already called, stay on the line. David, Chris, Ty, (sp?) stay on the line. If you would like to ask a question or make a comment for any of our active veteran amputees, call us at 800-433-8850. Send us a tweet, @kojoshow, email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with our active veteran amputees. Bryan Anderson served two tours in Iraq and was awarded a Purple Heart for his service. He's currently an athlete. He is author of a recent memoir co-written with David Mack called "No Turning Back." He works as a spokesperson for Quantum Rehab and USA Cares. And he was just regaling us with some of the stories about his budding and rising acting career. That's some funny stuff.
NNAMDIDan Berschinski is currently a captain in the U.S. Army. He served as a platoon leader with the Stryker brigade combat team in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, and was awarded a Purple Heart for his service. Kirk Bauer has been executive director of Disabled Sports USA for almost three decades. He was awarded two bronze stars for heroism and a Purple Heart for his Army service during the Vietnam War.
NNAMDIThere are a number of people who have been waiting a while to talk to you. I'll start with Ty in Springfield, Va. Ty, thank you for waiting. Go ahead, please.
TYHi. Thank you for taking my call. I have a question. The program is about disabled vets who are transitioning, trying -- back to a purpose-filled life, and one of the things that gives purpose to life is working. And I have a question. What I've -- I have found in my own personal experience that, when disabled vets try to get positions with the federal government or get positions with the federal government, there really isn't any sort of support system there in terms of getting reasonable accommodations and sort of monitoring how you're treated.
TYAnd I was -- I'm trying to start a program that can focus on this area, and I was wondering if you all have any advice or any points of contact.
NNAMDIStarting with you, Kirk Bauer.
BAUERWell, first of all, I think that the situation is better than it has been. There are some factors that are -- that have come into play because of this war that are on the positive side, and one of those is the fact that the military and the government now look -- basically assess abilities. Instead of looking at the disability, they try to assess abilities and find a place for the person based on those abilities. And I think that's a completely different mindset, if you will, from it was during the time of Vietnam.
BAUERThey try to actually keep veterans into the military if they want to stay in and develop MOS's or job descriptions for them. And so that is a big step forward. Obviously, you're going to have issues dealing with accommodation when you get there. There are -- you know, both agencies are trying. The military and the civilian government are trying to accommodate people with disabilities, particularly veterans, and we see openness there.
BAUERBut, you know, those -- one of the things that I recommend is that you just be your best advocate and tell people what you need because, many times, accommodations -- and this has been shown in statistics -- accommodations are not expensive, that you can actually make accommodations quite reasonably. We had a guy who was a partial quadriplegic who was doing data input, and we figured out a one-handed software program for him so he could do -- the good hand he had, he could do the data input with that one hand.
BAUERAnd that cost, you know, several hundred dollars, not thousands of dollars to accommodate that person. So oftentimes, the accommodations are not that expensive.
NNAMDITy, sounds like a good focus for you. Thank you very much for your call, and good luck to you.
NNAMDIHere is David in Potomac, Md. David, your turn.
DAVIDWell, thank you very much. First of all, I want to salute these valiant people that you have on the show. This is a fantastic discussion with wounded warriors who've basically written a blank check to America and signed it with their lives. I'm a professional concert musician, and I've had the joy of doing several barbecue concerts at the Malone House at Walter Reed Army Hospital. I met a wonderful, wonderful soldier who had lost both of his legs and parts of his arms in Iraq. And he was in love with Beethoven.
DAVIDSo we basically set up a tribute to wounded warriors at the Kennedy Center, Beethoven Found: Tribute to Wounded Warriors at the Kennedy Center, which happened on June the 27th. And we brought about 250 wounded warriors and other military people to the concert. May 27, we're doing something really special. Where the gold cup is, we're going to be doing an event for 30,000 people and providing softball contests amongst wounded warriors. And we're going to be providing other, you know, sports activities that are going to be going on for wounded warriors during the day.
DAVIDOur goal is actually for Beethoven Found: Tribute to Wounded Warriors, our goal is actually a national wounded warriors day, and a national telethon, really, to raise awareness, as well as funding for wounded warriors across the country. So we salute you, Kojo, for having this fantastic discussion today with some of the most wonderful people in the world.
NNAMDIDavid, thank you very much for your call. Speaking of saluting, Bryan, you both -- and, Dan -- you both served in an all-volunteer force made up of about one half of 1 percent of the U.S. population. Not everybody agrees with the wars, but there seems to be nearly universal support for the people waging the wars. How do you feel about being singled out for attention, for salutes from strangers, from politicians, from celebrities alike, all because of your service?
ANDERSONWell, the way that I feel about it is, you know, a lot of people come up to me and say I'm a hero and all that, and I don't believe that I am because I feel that we all do the same thing, all the soldiers. Some of us just get the bad end of the stick or the different angle, but that doesn't mean they did anything different or more heroic than anybody else out there. But as far as our country and our support, I think it's incredible because I've been everywhere.
ANDERSONI've been all over the country, and it's not like it was at Vietnam when all the soldiers came home. Now everybody is behind us, and they respect the fact that, you know, we were out there doing something for us so that we can live free and do the things that we want to do. So, I mean, I really can't say anything except for the fact that I just really appreciate their support, and I'm thankful that our country is behind the soldiers.
NNAMDIDoes it -- is it sometimes embarrassing, Dan, to be singled out like this sometimes wherever you go?
BERSCHINSKII wouldn't quite say that it's embarrassing, but it can -- it's different. It's certainly different, and I'm 100 percent appreciative of the support that I personally have gotten and that all of my fellow veterans continue to receive. It's really great. It's made this whole process much more bearable. It is an interesting dynamic, though, Kojo. Sometimes you kind of just want to be left alone.
BERSCHINSKII told one of your producers a story about I had a Purple Heart emblem on the back of my wheelchair for quite a while. And one day I just took it off, and my girlfriend, Rebecca, was quite surprised at the fact that I had taken it off. And I said, you know, I really appreciate the fact that people come up to me on the street, and they say, hey, I saw the Purple Heart, thanks for your service and whatnot.
BERSCHINSKIBut sometimes you just kind of want to be yourself. And I know it sounds crazy to say it -- and I'm so thankful for the support I get -- but sometimes I don't want people to buy me lunch. I just want to buy my...
NNAMDII'll take it. I'll take it.
BERSCHINSKII want to buy my own lunch. And, you know, there's -- it's a huge dynamic. Greg Jaffe of The Washington Post had a -- had an article several months ago kind of exploring this dynamic, and it's too -- I don't know. I think it's very in-depth. We can talk about it for a while, and I don't want to take up your time. But there is certainly a fine line to be drawn between support and, you know, empathy and pity and what it all really means coming from the American population, so, I think, that's something worth thinking about.
NNAMDISometimes it gets a little complicated.
BAUERAgain, having been through the Vietnam experience, Kojo, I want to make a comment about -- on perspectives. What I find very refreshing is the fact that when I talk to people and people who support the wounded warrior program that we have, Warfighter Sports, whether they're for or against the war, they are supportive of the soldier, of the wounded -- particularly of the wounded warrior 'cause they feel they have sacrificed so much. And that's completely different.
BAUERYou know, in Vietnam, when, you know, protesters were against the war, they were also -- there was a very negative reflection on the soldier. And, you know, we were just trying to do our job. And so I find that very refreshing. And I do think that when you're struggling with disability and you're trying to redefine your life and you're coming back with, sometimes, depression and some pain and, you know, the things that go on in rehab, that it is nice to have people just say, hey, thank you. And we appreciate it 'cause it gives you a little bit of hope.
BAUERThe challenge, though, for America -- and that's individuals and corporations -- is to take that positive feeling and do something substantial. And I think that you heard it from the gentleman that talked about the Beethoven project, Disabled Sports USA, Tee it up for the Troops, Hope for Warriors. You know, give to those organizations that are trying to make a difference and, you know, do active hiring of people with disabilities who are from the military because they -- this is the full circle when they get back into jobs, and they get back into life.
BAUERAnd so my challenge is to take that support and make it mean something in a substantial way in your own life.
NNAMDISupport for vets is not the only thing that has changed in terms of our attitudes. Our collective cultural attitude toward amputees in general has shifted in a big way as well. In season three of "Mad Men," a raucous office party goes horribly wrong when a secretary runs over an account manager's foot with a running John Deere ride-on lawnmower. When the executives from the ad agency gather at the hospital, back in the day after the man's foot is amputated, this is their reaction.
NNAMDII guess things have changed significantly since that time. The notion that he couldn't golf again being the biggest loss of all in his life is one that we would now, today, find laughable. Here is Janet in Falls Church, Va. Janet, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JANETThank you very much. One, I want to say our son served two tours in Iraq. And the first time he came home, he was blown away by the support he received in the airport. And I told him that he could thank his father who had fought in Vietnam because they really educated the American public that if you have a problem with the war, you take that up with the politicians, but you respect the soldiers.
JANETThat's one. Number two, I'm the founder of the BRASS ski weekend up at Ski Liberty. And what had happened was I was at the Hartford event -- I'm an adaptive instructor, and I was so impressed. Kirk, you do a fabulous job out there. And I was there last year when you had about 30 soldiers from Great Britain, which was just...
NNAMDIAnd you got about 30 seconds left, Janet.
JANETOkay. To make it quick, Liberty does a great job of supporting the wounded warriors program. We have a wonderful weekend, and the entire town of Gettysburg offers everything. They donate the housing, the banquets and everything. So all I want to do is say thank you, Kirk, for a wonderful program and Gettysburg for supporting it. And, also, one of our wounded warriors is now a ski instructor.
JANETSo supporting the adaptive program. So keep them coming, and I think we have to do that long. Bye.
NNAMDIOutstanding, indeed. Janet, thank you for your call. Just quick, we got a Facebook question from Stephanie. "Have your guests been following the successes of wounded veteran J.R. Martinez on 'Dancing with the Stars'? He is awesome." Have you been following?
ANDERSONWell, actually, me and him were both up for that same part for the "All My Children," and he got it instead of me. But I would do...
NNAMDIThat's all right. You got "CSI: NY."
ANDERSONTrue, true, but he's got a solid part. But I followed him a little bit. And we run into each other every once in a while. And he's still doing great, and I'm still doing great. And we're both going to, you know, just keep pushing up and -- I don't know.
NNAMDIBryan Anderson, he served two tours in Iraq. He was awarded the Purple Heart for his service. He's currently an actor, athlete and author. His book is called "No Turning Back" with David Mack. Kirk Bauer has been executive director of Disabled Sports USA for almost three decades. He was awarded two Bronze Stars for heroism and a Purple Heart for his Army service during the Vietnam War.
NNAMDIAnd Dan Berschinski is currently a captain in the U.S. Army. He served as a platoon leader with the Stryker Brigade Combat Team in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, and was awarded a Purple Heart for his service. Gentlemen, thank you all for joining us. Good luck to you. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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