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NEWS | Dec. 21, 2011

AF Wounded Warrior Program at Randolph AFB helps Airmen transition, become self-sufficient

By Tech. Sgt. Chris Powell Defense Media Activity

For wounded warriors who are being medically retired, the fear of leaving the service can be a frightening reality. Unfortunately, there are many more hurdles they must face during their transition.

While the Air Force has many programs in place to help these Airmen, the Wounded Warrior Program care managers at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas, are there to assist them through every aspect of their transition and long after.

"For (Airmen) leaving the Air Force, it's all new to them, it's kind of daunting and they don't know what's at the end of the road," said Scott Hand, the benefits and entitlements representative for the Wounded Warrior Program. "We lead them through the process and make sure they know it's going to be OK."

According to Hand, care managers offer emotional support, medical and financial advice, and ensure the service members receive the full benefits and entitlements they deserve.

"Most of our wounded members are probably going to be meeting a board and probably be medically retired from the military," said Fred Zeithammel, one of the 24 care managers. "So you have to look at transition, jobs and things like that. But also there's the blow to the ego for some people. They're not working, their standard of living might go down, so you have those things to deal with."

The care managers work with the Airmen to complete a needs assessment to determine what kind of assistance they require.

"If they tell us they don't have any money, we'll go out to some of the local charities that provide that kind of assistance to them and we take care of that for them," said Zeithammel, who is a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel. "We're always working with them to make sure they're financially stable, that they have their medication and, if they're suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome, that they're going through their treatments."

Currently, there are more than 1,300 Air Force wounded warriors in the program, according to Hand. "In the first five years of the wars, we only had 63, and now we're adding between 35 and 40 new cases each month, so it's just growing," he said.

Latoya Parrott, a medically retired staff sergeant, said her care manager "made the process smoother and took a weight off my back knowing I had a security blanket I could fall back on if I didn't understand something or know what was going on."

Her care manager, Thomas Sansone, not only assisted her with her transition from active duty, but guided her through her move from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., to San Antonio earlier this year where she is now employed as a human resources assistant at the Air Force Personnel Center here.

"It was so helpful to have someone who was here and had hands-on experience with the city," Parrott said. "He guided me through where I should live, the best schools, how I could set up utilities, my health care and if I couldn't get a health care provider to see me in a (timely manner), he would call on my behalf, so it was less stress for me."

The care managers are able to do this because of their extensive knowledge of the Air Force and how many of the programs work. Many of them are retired military, and that experience helps the care managers better understand the situations the wounded warriors are in.

"Being prior military can help you relate to what they're going through ... it's kind of the camaraderie," Zeithammel said. "You can study being in the military all you want, but having lived it, gives you a good perspective and credibility with the service member."

Having that prior-military experience, not only helps the care managers serve the wounded warriors, but it allows them to help their fellow care managers as well.

"For example, one of our care managers was a paralegal and there are a lot of legal things that go on with a retirement, so we take his advice," said Sansone, who is a retired Air Force master sergeant. "We have a myriad of different specialties that come together so we can help everyone transition, whether they're Guard, Reserve or active duty."

At the end of the day, there's one thing the care managers are trying to do for wounded warriors - make them self-sufficient.

"Initially, it's to help them find resources but eventually, through education, it's to give them the tools to empower them to do it for themselves," Zeithammel said. "The goal is for our members to become self-sufficient, self-reliant and to know what resources are out there for them so they can make the calls."

Parrott believes the work the care managers are doing is invaluable to wounded warriors and hopes it will continue for a long time.

"This is something that needs to be here forever and continue to roll on because there are going to be Airmen after myself coming into the program who are going to need the help," she said. "If this program wasn't here, I don't know what I would have done or where I would be right now. I can honestly say that a program like this will change a person's life."

For more information about the Air Force Wounded Warrior Program office, call 800-581-9437.