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NEWS | Aug. 9, 2021

Veteran’s Story Inspires Growth and Healing for Returning Warriors

By Cmdr. Kris Hooper, Navy Region Southeast Reserve Component Command Fort Worth

AUSTIN, Texas (July 25, 2021) – In 2004, retired Senior Chief Hospital Corpsman Byron Rowe was mobilized in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom where he served initially with the Iraqi Intervention Forces participating in the Battle of Fallujah.

While assigned to the headquarters element of an advisory support team (AST), he was responsible for leading teams of Navy corpsmen with Marines assigned to coalition battalions fighting in some of the most intense urban warfare since World War II.

His corpsmen provided medical support in the field, sometimes under fire, while teaching Iraqi forces combat medicine practices and techniques. They also coordinated follow-up medical care for serious casualties and the return of the remains of coalition soldiers killed in combat.

The group’s day-to-day task of identifying deceased soldiers and processing their remains was particularly difficult and emotionally draining, resulting in combat stress each sailor had to cope with while performing their duties.

Once their tours were over, de-mobilized active duty Sailors returned to their regular commands and Reserve Sailors to their civilian lives. Some had physical injuries, but even more faced psychological challenges from their experiences that could go unnoticed initially by even close family members and friends, and untreated for years.

Many, including Rowe, faced suppressed emotions and haunting memories in a completely different environment where they didn’t have the common bond of experience shared with fellow service members who could relate.

“We fix the obvious injuries our Sailors and Marines have that we can see on the outside, but often don’t fix the things we can’t see, painful things they may be going through on the inside,” he related.

“I had trouble transitioning back at work and re-connecting with my family, the people I loved most in the world,” said Rowe. He described how he couldn’t even focus on the simplest tasks at work and became reclusive, eventually turning to alcohol as a coping mechanism.

Rowe, a 26-year veteran, served as the keynote speaker and guest singer for the national anthem during the Returning Warrior Workshop (RWW) hosted by Navy Region Southeast Reserve Component Command Fort Worth (RCC Fort Worth) July 23-25 at the Renaissance Austin Hotel in Austin, Texas.

His presentation, while humorous at times, exhibited a vulnerability and honesty encouraging Sailors and their family members to open up and get the help they need.

Rowe currently serves as a Veterans Outreach program specialist with the Vet Center, a readjustment counseling organization in the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Veterans Health Administration, and has always believed in the importance of giving back.

He is grateful to participate in the RWW program because it was directly responsible for putting him on the path to recovery.

“I believe I owe my sobriety, the survival of my marriage, my career, my happiness and wholeness to this program,” said Rowe. “If I can help some other returning service member or their family in even the smallest way, I’m happy to do it.”

Returning Warrior Workshops are a component of the Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program (YRRP) designed to help ease the transition of Active and Reserve Component Sailors returning from deployments and individual augments.

They provide returning Sailors with the opportunity to reconnect with their loved ones, share their experience with others who also returned from mobilization, and learn about many valuable resources available to assist them with reintegration.

Commander, Navy Region Southeast Reserve Component Command Capt. Mark Hofmann thanked attendees for their service during his welcome presentation and encouraged them to seek assistance if needed. “I hope you leave this RWW feeling appreciated and with contact information for service providers available to support you, having learned a little bit more about yourself in the process,” said Hofmann.

Personnel Specialist First Class Natashia Handley of RCC Fort Worth attended the RWW to help with any travel, pay, or administrative issues the returning warriors have experienced and to honor them for their service.

Handley expressed the sentiments of other staff members by saying, “It’s really gratifying to see the returning warriors get a chance to relax and tell their story, knowing there are people here who care about them, support them and are happy to give them the recognition they deserve.”

The RWW in Austin was the first conducted in-person by RCC Fort Worth since the COVID-19 pandemic gripped the country and began shutting gatherings in March of 2020.

The support staff was grateful for the return to face-to-face workshops. “The pandemic further isolated our returning Sailors which is exactly what we worry about most,” stated table facilitator Kandi Debus from Navy Region Southeast’s Family Readiness Program.

Several resource organizations had representatives present to provide referrals including Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve (ESGR), Military OneSource, Psychological Health Outreach Program (PHOP), and Wounded Warriors.

Dallas Hale, an Air Force veteran and PHOP clinical counselor stated, “Once a client comes to us or is referred to us, our job is to determine what types of resources we can put them in touch with to best serve their needs, whether it be college or employment assistance, financial and mental health counseling, or a range of other support services.”

These services can help reintegrate Sailors from all walks of life, those with very different backgrounds and experiences.

Roxanna Carrillo, a Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program Specialist for RCC Fort Worth, has been involved with the program for nine years in multiple regions. Carrillo acknowledged, “Attendees often arrive unsure of what to expect from the weekend, and while each gain something different, they all depart with the common assurance they have a Navy family who cares about them, who wants them to speak up if they’re struggling, and who will assist them in seeking the appropriate programs and resources.”

LT Megan Roberts, one of the RWW attendees, volunteered as a nurse to serve aboard the Mercy-class hospital ship USS Comfort (T-AH-20) when it was deployed on short notice to New York City in March 2020 as the pandemic began to spike. She was deeply honored by citizens lining the piers in New York harbor holding signs to welcome the ship and the services it would provide in very uncertain times. Still, Roberts found it emotionally challenging to deal with the fact her deployment orders had no expiration date so they literally had no idea how long they would be needed or exactly what they would be doing. She was able to speak about the stress these unknown factors created and to process the experience with others in Austin.

Senior Chief Hospital Corpsman, Dawn Scheetz, attended the RWW in Austin with her husband as the culminating event of her 26 years of service in the Navy Reserve. She reflected on what it meant by stating, “The most important thing to me as a chief was to be able to provide guidance and resources to my Sailors who needed help. These Returning Warrior Workshops do the same thing. They are providing me with the resources I need to deal with anger issues built up over time. This was a really good way to finish my Navy career.”