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Wounded Warrior Project Gets Veterans the PTSD Treatment They Need

Nearly half of all WWP participants live with symptoms of two or more mental health issues.
Helen Massy
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Helen Massy

Although post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can affect anyone from any background and any walk of life, statistics indicate PTSD is more common in people who serve or have served in the military.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is slightly more prevalent among veterans compared to civilians, according to the National Center for PTSD. About 7 in 100 veterans will experience PTSD at some point in their lives. Contrast that figure to the general population, where about 6 in 100 adults will experience PTSD.

Additionally, post-traumatic stress disorder is more commonly observed among female veterans, with about 13 in 100 people experiencing PTSD, while the rate among male veterans is approximately 6 in 100.

Post-traumatic stress disorder affects more people in the military due to several factors.

Military service exposes individuals to traumatic events such as combat and witnessing violence, which can be psychologically overwhelming. Prolonged exposure to these events, along with the high-stress military environment and limited control over situations, increases the likelihood of developing PTSD.

Additionally, the experience of loss, the stigma surrounding mental health, and challenges during transition and reintegration contribute to the higher prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder among military personnel.

It is crucial to provide comprehensive support, including mental health services and destigmatization efforts, to address and mitigate the impact of PTSD in the military. One organization that offers support is the Wounded Warrior Project (WWP).

Erin Fletcher, Psy.D., is the Warrior Care network director for WWP in Chicago. She explained that service members deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan in the past 20 years are more likely to have experienced multiple deployments and to have operated in combat zones longer than veterans of any prior period.

"America may no longer be at war, but the impacts of war and injuries can last a lifetime," she said.

As a nation, the United States owes these individuals support in addressing any lingering health impacts of serving their country, Fletcher noted. In this exclusive interview, she spoke to Giddy about what the Wounded Warrior Project does and how they support military veterans and service members who have post-traumatic stress disorder.

What is the Wounded Warrior Project?

Fletcher: We started in 2003 when a group of veterans and friends wanted to give back to the first wounded warriors returning from the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. This group filled backpacks with basic supplies, like socks and playing cards, and gave them to those recovering at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. The backpacks were so well received that the hospital asked for more.

Through this simple act of kindness, Wounded Warrior Project was born.

Today, we provide direct services to more than 200,000 injured, ill or wounded U.S. military veterans and service members who served on or after September 11, 2001. Our goal is to ensure they can achieve their highest ambitions. We also work to be a voice for our nation's warriors in Washington, D.C., advocating for issues that matter most to them. Many warriors participate in this effort, helping improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of veterans and their families.

I serve as network director of Warrior Care Network, a partnership Wounded Warrior Project founded in 2015 with four academic medical centers to provide better access and treatment for mental and brain injuries. The partnership develops and shares best practices that help deliver the highest-quality, evidence-based care to veterans at world-class medical facilities across the U.S.

How does Wounded Warrior Project help veterans?

We support injured, ill or wounded U.S. military veterans and service members who served on or after September 11, 2001. These wounds can be physical or invisible. We also help their families and caregivers by offering them access to many of the same services and programs available to warriors.

Three of the four most common wounds among those we help are mental health-related, according to responses in our 2022 Annual Warrior Survey. Three in 4 warriors registered with us self-report living with post-traumatic stress disorder. Similar numbers report living with depression, which we've found to have the most significant impact on overall quality of life.

About half of all Wounded Warrior Project warriors live with moderate or severe symptoms of two or more mental health issues. These numbers explain why mental health is a top priority across all our programs.

Veterans with mental health needs who turn to us often say they've already tried other programs or treatments but did not get their desired results. We work with them to reduce the guesswork around what to do next and help personalize their path to suit their goals and comfort level. We connect each warrior to programs, services and peers who can best help meet their current needs.

What support and services can you offer?

Since every veteran's journey and experience is unique, Wounded Warrior Project offers a variety of programs and services that address invisible wounds, support mental wellness and bridge gaps in care. For warriors managing PTSD, we provide resources to reduce and address the impact that past trauma is having on their lives.

We don't just offer clinical options. While our Warrior Care Network intensive outpatient treatment program is highly effective, we know some veterans are seeking nonclinical ways to address their mental wellness.

Adventure-based learning is the foundation of Project Odyssey, a 12-week mental health program that helps warriors and their families manage and overcome invisible wounds. It begins with a five-day mental health workshop alongside a group of peers, often set in nature.

Participants are challenged to step outside the comfort of their everyday routine while learning new skills for communication, emotional regulation and connection. Wounded Warrior Project follows up for 12 weeks to help participants implement those skills into their daily lives.

For warriors who do not feel ready to discuss mental health face-to-face, we offer weekly 20-minute emotional support calls. Participants are paired with dedicated, empathetic listeners who provide a judgment-free space to work on personal growth. These calls are audio-only. For some, this extra layer of privacy makes this format more comfortable and easier to engage.

Support does not end when a program is complete. We help participants stay plugged into ongoing support to help transfer their new knowledge and skill sets into their home, work and personal life. For example, we offer events and peer support groups to help warriors build trusted connections with like-minded people who have similar experiences. These events also help reduce isolation, which is a factor and behavior common among those dealing with PTSD.

No individual organization can address all care and support needs in the veteran community. Wounded Warrior Project works with other military and veterans service organizations to expand resources for those seeking support. Among those partners are organizations like Boulder Crest Foundation, which specializes in post-traumatic growth. By working together, partners like this help us provide a broader and more complete range of services.

How can people support a loved one with PTSD?

Post-traumatic stress disorder can have a significant impact on the family members of individuals who are affected by the disorder. It can be hard to know what to do and how to support someone you know who has PTSD.

Family and friends are crucial players in PTSD recovery, particularly spouses and partners. Knowing your most intimate partner has your back can be one of the most powerful support tools when working on your mental health.

Too often, veterans tell us they are hesitant to talk openly about post-traumatic stress disorder because they fear their loved ones will get scared or not look at them the same. Wounded Warrior Project offers resources to help warriors and their partners connect, communicate and build a vision of what life together can look like going forward.

One way to help a loved one who has PTSD is to help identify their "blind spots." Watch for what seems to trigger them, then discuss so they can learn about themselves. An essential element of these discussions is timing. Suppose a veteran gets panicked in crowds or detaches while the kids are being noisy at the dinner table. It may be best to wait until later in the day, when you both feel present and able to listen, before discussing their reaction.

You do not have to solve anything in the moment. Instead, listen. It might be difficult, but your willingness to stick with them through uncomfortable conversations is a powerful way to show you care. It demonstrates your commitment to being part of their life. Hearing someone out and not walking away when it gets tough can be curative.

Finally, offer to be involved in treatment. At Warrior Care Network, a veteran's family is given opportunities to learn the terms and techniques used in treatment. This helps them not feel like outsiders to the healing journey.

What is the take-home message you give to warriors?

I have three key messages for people to think about regarding PTSD:

  1. Treatment works, but everyone's path to healing looks different.
  2. Open conversations about mental health help people feel less afraid to discuss and learn about their options. Too often, people feel ashamed to admit they want help. This is particularly true among men. A judgment-free conversation with a family member or close friend can be a huge first step in healing and growing in the wake of trauma.
  3. If you think someone is struggling emotionally, let them know you care and are available to talk. They may turn you down initially, but offering to listen is like opening a door that may be the lifeline they need down the road.