GREENVILLE — Clemson University researchers are teaming with Greenville Health System (GHS) doctors and Upstate Warrior Solution and Veterans Administration professionals to advance an innovative collaboration to bring peace and stability to the lives of combat veterans.

U.S. Army Soldiers from 2nd Platoon, Company A, 1st Battalion, 2nd Infantry, 172nd Infantry Brigade, Task Force Blackhawk, bow for a moment of silence to honor their fallen comrades before leaving on a mission outside the wire of Combat Outpost Yosef Khel in Afghanistan.

U.S. Army Soldiers from 2nd Platoon, Company A, 1st Battalion, 2nd Infantry, 172nd Infantry Brigade, Task Force Blackhawk, bow for a moment of silence to honor their fallen comrades before leaving on a mission outside the wire of Combat Outpost Yosef Khel in Afghanistan.
Image Credit: U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Ken Scar, 7th MPAD

The struggle of today’s combat veteran to assimilate back into civilian life has been well documented, but this collaboration, “Coming Home: Key Transitions for Warriors and Families” harnesses the collective brain power of experts to help find answers to those challenges.

Health care professionals and researchers address topics ranging from recreational therapy to using blood pressure as part of a post traumatic-stress disorder prevention strategy and powerful firsthand testimony to the mental and physical tolls of war by combat veterans.

This collaboration makes perfect sense considering Clemson’s rich military history, said Provost Robert H. Jones.

“Our relationship with our veterans is an important part of the fabric of Clemson University,” he said. “Clemson is dedicated to support our returning veterans through education, research and outreach. We pride ourselves on being veteran-friendly.

“More than that, we love having veterans. We’re proud of our military past. We’re proud of our ROTC programs,” he said. “We see veterans who come back to get higher education as focused, dedicated, experienced — they’re on a mission. They bring significant talents and experiences that find a way into the fabric of our society and our economy and improve the success of this nation. It’s happening now. The unfortunate thing is this comes at a significant cost.”

Retired U.S. Marine Corps Maj.Gen. Mastin Robeson presents the opening remarks at the symposium "Coming Home: Key Transitions for Warriors and Families."

Retired U.S. Marine Corps Maj.Gen. Mastin Robeson presents the opening remarks at the symposium “Coming Home: Key Transitions for Warriors and Families.”
Image Credit: Ken Scar

That cost is measured in the anguish combat veterans suffer as they simultaneously attempt a return to a normal life while processing their experiences at war, said retired U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Mastin Robeson, chairman of the board of Upstate Warrior Solution. The nonprofit mobilizes the Upstate South Carolina community around veterans to offer guidance and restore them with a sense of purpose.

“For 34 years, I was pretty effective at training young men and women who came off every street corner in America,” he said. “They became special because of what happened to them after they came into the military. We convinced them that they could run through brick walls. And they did. The problem is, when you convince somebody that they can run through brick walls and they come home, there aren’t any brick walls to run through.”

He noted that three ingenious leaps forward in medical and institutional technology have greatly increased the number of wounded warriors coming off the battlefield: The combat application tourniquet (CAT) — a simple tourniquet carried by every service member that can quickly stop the bleeding of major wounds, even amputated limbs; blood clotting agents; and the “Golden Hour,” a strategic formation of aircraft that guarantees evacuation from the battlefield in less than an hour.

“Historically, 80 percent of those who died on the battlefield died from bleed-out,” he explained. “Think about that. That is a significant number of wounded, who in prior times would come home in a box, that are coming home looking for care.”

Those numbers make collaborations between academic, welfare and health institutions aiding American’s veterans more important — and more urgent — than ever before, he said.

Retired U.S. Army Maj. Jim Capobianco relates frank descriptions of his experiences in Iraq, juxtaposed with the struggles he saw his soldiers go through back on the home front.

“Our veterans are idealists,” he explained. “They believe in their mission, their country and their unit. The military does things inside each one of its exercises to foster that esprit de corps. You sing hymns, you have creeds, you do ceremonies like spur rides and expert infantry badge testing, you have mottos — millions of things to foster the belief that there’s purpose and identity.

Retired U.S. Army Maj. Jim Capobianco gives a presentation at a gathering of health care professionals, academics and military experts.

Retired U.S. Army Maj. Jim Capobianco gives a presentation at a gathering of health care professionals, academics and military experts.
Image Credit: Ken Scar

“Then they go to war and all of a sudden the things they believed in don’t make sense. The concept of bringing freedom and democracy to the Middle East where people don’t understand it, don’t value it, seem not to want it — seems sophomoric when you’ve been there for about a month. All of a sudden the military doesn’t have the same meaning. It’s an extension of the government. It’s corrupt.

“Then you question yourself: Am I a good person or a bad person?”

Capobianco parallels Ernest Becker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “The Denial of Death,” in which the author confronts man’s refusal to confront his own mortality to an unrealistic posture of invincibility that many soldiers adopt in the war zone.

“We deny our own death and create this symbolic image to save ourselves from our own mortality,” he said. “Veterans do this, but on an exponential scale. Everybody’s the lead character in his or her own movie: Rambo didn’t die, John Wayne never died, I’m not going to die. That attitude does not survive first contact.

“It doesn’t matter how good a soldier, a sailor or a Marine you are. Shrapnel doesn’t care how fast you can run two miles or how many pull-ups you can do. Sometimes it’s just about being in the wrong place at the wrong time — and you’re done.”

All those seeds of inner conflict can be very difficult to root out once a service member returns home, particularly since coming home might not be what they imagine it to be, said Capobianco.

“Every veteran creates this ideal image of what life is going to be like when they get home. I call it the fantasy of home. These things don’t materialize. Family members do the same thing. Both parties set themselves up for failure.”

Partnerships between varied institutions will be the key to bringing all veterans in need the help they deserve.

“We have several faculty members at Clemson who’ve dedicated their research to how we can facilitate this transition. We know that for our research to be effective we have to have partnerships,” said Jones. “We’re very proud and excited about the new partnerships we’ve developed with Upstate VA, GHS and Upstate Warrior Solutions.”

Robeson echoed those sentiments, emphasizing that these types of collaborations will be vital on the road ahead.

“Without collaboration, we lose the synergy of organizations that can put great minds together and come up with great solutions,” he said. “We’ve never had a war that produced so many wounded that came home before. What the warrior is looking for is: give me a home, give me a job, and, most importantly, give me purpose. The only way to deliver those three is community.”

Michael Riordan, CEO of GHS and a former Marine, pledged the hospital’s support to the approximately 100,000 veterans in the Upstate.

“What we want to do is support that population and we do that through great partnerships like this one. All the resources we can bring to bear, we will continue to do it,” he said.

Capobianco said,“Veterans need you. They won’t ask you, but they need you.”

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