Shepherd Center’s SHARE Military Initiative helps military service members prepare for the future.
Sergeant First Class Chuck Wesson was thankful to have made it through four combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and a peacekeeping mission in Kosovo without sustaining a major injury. At Fort Campbell, Ky., he was not so fortunate.
On an afternoon in April 2012, Chuck was walking at night near his home base when a car plowed into him, then sped away. The accident left him paralyzed from the waist down.
Their interaction ultimately revealed something that would profoundly change Chuck’s life: He had, in fact, been injured in combat.
“I had accepted the fact I was in a wheelchair because of the accident,” Chuck says, “but other things were taking a toll. I was trying to cling on to who I was before I got hurt.”
That is to say that, after being discharged from Shepherd Center, Chuck struggled to retain information. He got angry easily. Large crowds made him anxious. He describes his life during this period as “a funk I couldn’t get out of.”
Raziano made a point to keep up with Chuck after he left Shepherd. He’d assured her everything was fine, but she recognized his struggles as the potential signs of traumatic brain injury (TBI).
So in fall 2012, Raziano went on a mission: She traveled to Chuck’s home in Charlotte, N.C., and persuaded him to come back to Shepherd Center and enroll in SHARE.
“SHARE is a comprehensive, specialized rehabilitation program for service members who have mild TBI and who may have fallen through the cracks elsewhere,” says Greg Bennett, who manages the program. “We take a holistic approach in helping these service members establish a plan to meet their goals.”
Such goals could range from managing panic attacks to sleeping through the night to returning to work or school, Bennett explains. It’s an outpatient program, but free housing is provided while they are in the program, on average for about 12 weeks.
Chuck is one of more than 160 injured service members who, since 2008, have passed through SHARE, which stands for Shaping Hope and Recovery Excellence. Most sustained mild TBIs, which can cause significant physical, behavioral and cognitive impairments. Symptoms include dizziness, migraine headaches, and problems with mental focus, vision, balance and anger management.
Because of their specialized needs, people in the SHARE Military Initiative are treated separately from Shepherd’s general patient population. The environment is modified to accommodate their individual limitations — no bright flashing lights or incessantly buzzing alarms for service members sensitive to such stimuli, for example.
Chuck says he particularly benefitted from the program’s speech therapy, which helped him with reading comprehension, as well as one-on-one counseling. “In the military, you put everything you’re dealing with in the back of your mind, and it stacks up,” Chuck says. “The counselor started digging and helped me deal with it all. I was able to gain some closure and started feeling better.”
SHARE participants also learn how to plan menus, shop for groceries and cook meals. They take outings to movie theaters, retail malls and sporting events. All of these activities help them learn to function on their own after they return home.
“It’s a one-stop shop for everything,” Raziano says. “We customize it for each person and try to address all of their needs.” Raziano focuses on the time after patients leave the program. She helps them transition and assimilate into the community, serving as a resource as obstacles arise. She also navigates the disability process of the military, helping veterans get the maximum benefits to which they are entitled.
“I am a safety net once they leave the hospital,” she says. “I make sure they continue to progress outside of the SHARE Military Initiative. The fact that we follow them after discharge is what sets us apart.”
Established through a generous 2008 donation from Atlanta philanthropist Bernie Marcus, the SHARE Military Initiative is sustained through private contributions — and is provided at no cost to service members.
“No one gets turned away,” says Jon Roxland, senior major gifts officer in the Shepherd Center Foundation. “Military insurance pays about 38 cents on the dollar for the cost of care. The Foundation must raise about $90,000 a month to keep the program running. So we rely on donations from corporations, foundations and individuals to support the initiative and its clients.”
Today, Chuck is at home living with his mother, but he’s making plans to get a place of his own. He also hopes to go back to school to become a counselor. And he firmly believes that participating in the SHARE Military Initiative turned around his life.
“I lost my job and my career,” he says. “On top of having an injury, not having a purpose or a goal was really difficult. SHARE was the best thing I could have possibly done. It made me a real person again — and a better person.”
Ward and Amy Taft Work to SHARE Their Story
Every morning in the Taft household, a weather report for the day is issued: Sunny, cloudy or stormy.
But the reports have nothing to do with what’s going on outside. Rather, they describe the kind of day Ward Taft is having.
Ward, a former hospital corpsman in the U.S. Navy, sustained a traumatic brain injury (TBI) during his 12 years of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. “I was around hundreds of blasts and had 15 periods of unconsciousness in three years,” he says.
When he returned home to Jacksonville, N.C., suffering from depression, headaches, moodiness, memory loss and trouble sleeping, a litany of military doctors could not pinpoint his condition. Each offered a different diagnosis and treatment, none of which was coordinated.
It was a frustrating situation and one that was causing a lot of strain on his wife, Amy, and their two daughters.
In fall 2011, Ward came to Shepherd Center and enrolled in the SHARE (Shaping Hope and Recovery Excellence) Military Initiative. Almost immediately, his outlook began to change.
“Shepherd was the first organization that treated us as a family unit,” says Amy Taft. “They treated Ward, me and our daughters. They explained to us, ‘This is what is wrong,’ and this is what we can do.’ For the first time, I saw a light at the end of the tunnel. I don’t know how long the tunnel is, but I know we’re going to make it.”
The daily weather forecasts in the Taft home are one example of a coping mechanism Ward learned through SHARE. The reports are a way to let Amy and their young daughters understand his mood and behavior and to reassure them that his demeanor that day has nothing to do with them.
Amy and Ward shared their story at the third annual “Service Above Self” golf tournament, hosted by the Brookhaven Rotary Club at Cherokee Country Club on May 13, 2013. The event raised over $60,000 for SHARE.
“Brookhaven Rotary Club is a key partner in Shepherd Center’s SHARE Military Initiative for service members and veterans who have sustained traumatic brain injuries,” says Scott Sikes, executive director of the Shepherd Center Foundation. “Rotary clubs around the country have the motto ‘Service Above Self,’ and Brookhaven Rotary members exemplify that motto.” SHARE serves military personnel at no cost to them or their families. Their care is covered by military insurance and contributions from the community. But it’s the program’s approach that Ward believes sets Shepherd apart from services offered by other organizations, including the Armed Forces. “The military wants you to be the same person you were when you came in,” he says. “Shepherd teaches you you’ll never be the same person, and that’s OK. They teach you to learn to cope with the new you, giving basic life skills to be successful and help with self-worth.”
After being discharged from the Navy following 20 years of service, Ward is slowly rebuilding his life and career outside of the military. A former paramedic, he recently completed emergency medical technician (EMT) coursework at a community college in his hometown. While he doesn’t think he could work in emergency situations, he hopes to use his skills in the medical field somewhere, or even teach.
In June 2013, Ward and his family spent the weekend in Williamsburg, Va., at the Busch Gardens theme park. “This would not have been possible two years ago,” says Ward, who used to be unnerved by crowds and loud noises. “We wouldn’t be where we are today without Shepherd Center.”
That explains why Ward and Amy decided to speak at the Rotary event. Both wanted to make others aware of the value of SHARE.
“We found Shepherd Center by accident,” Ward says. “Others need to know about this program. I wanted to reach out to service members who are feeling lost, hopeless, abandoned and settling for less than they are entitled to.”
Written by Sara Baxter
Photography by Gary Meek
Shepherd Center, located in Atlanta, Georgia, is a private, not-for-profit hospital specializing in medical treatment, research and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injury, brain injury, multiple sclerosis, spine and chronic pain, and other neuromuscular conditions. Founded in 1975, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the top 10 rehabilitation hospitals in the nation. In its more than four decades, Shepherd Center has grown from a six-bed rehabilitation unit to a world-renowned, 152-bed hospital that treats more than 900 inpatients, 575 day program patients and more than 7,100 outpatients each year.