FORT BELVOIR, Va.— On Sept. 11 as bikers circled the outlying highways and flags flew at half staff 20 miles away from the nation’s capital, organizers at Fort Belvoir in Virginia cut the ribbon for the Army base’s new traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post traumatic stress (PTS) center.
The 200 assembled guests heard stories of recovery from severely wounded veterans and learned how the absence of government assistance had necessitated the privately funded $11 million center—which has been gifted to the government.
And there wasn’t a single lawmaker there to hear it.
Arnold Fisher, the honorary chairman of the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund, which built and funded Fort Belvoir’s “Intrepid Spirit” National Intrepid Center of Excellence (NICoE) center from private donations, lamented the absence, yet again, of elected leaders at Wednesday’s event.
“We have not had one visit from members of Congress or the cabinet,” Fisher told the crowd.
Fisher, known for his blunt style and fiery personality, roused Wednesday’s audience with talk of how his organization and the Fisher family, long-time military benefactors, have for years been stepping in to support veterans where the government has failed.
“Many people ask us, ‘Why do we have to build these institutions?’ ‘Isn’t this the government’s responsibility?’ Fisher told the crowd. “Why yes it is,” he said.
Fisher joked that perhaps the military is better off without the government’s intervention anyway. “And besides, we can build [these centers] in half the time, for half the cost, and twice the quality,” he said, evoking wide applause from the audience. But he conceded that his organizations can’t shoulder the total burden of this issue—not that they should have to when the VA is funded at $140 billion annually.
The Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund is currently working on a $100 million campaign to fund and create nine brain injury treatment centers for veterans nationwide. The centers are satellite locations based on the original 72,000 square foot NICoE facility at Walter Reed’s Navy campus in Bethesda, Maryland.
But the organization alone is incapable of meeting veterans’ needs.
“NICoE is not big enough to handle this tremendous load,” Fisher said.
The Fort Belvoir facility is capable of treating 24 men and women every two weeks. Contrast that with the hundreds of thousands of troops diagnosed with brain injuries sustained during the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars.
And after the across-the-board federal spending cuts known as the sequester reduced staff at the Fort Belvoir center, Fisher said the facility has recently been reduced to treating just 20 veterans every two weeks.
“I say to all officials, all government officials—all three branches—‘shame on you,’” Fisher said. “How can you, an elected official, explain the national disgrace to the Americans who trusted you? It is betrayal that we as a nation stand for,” he said with regard to the sequester cuts.
Organizers later Wednesday morning revealed that First Lady Michelle Obama was scheduled to make a surprise visit to the facility that afternoon.
But the news did little to change Fisher’s outlook.
“Her coming will publicize this facility and what we do and it’s necessary for this kind of national project,” Fisher said in an interview. But he quickly turned the conversation back to his anger over the sequester cuts. “You are talking to one angry American.”
Fisher said he had no plans to even be in attendance when the first lady arrived.
“The way I feel right now, I don’t think it would be a good idea,” he said.
Though Fisher’s strident comments lambasting the government drew much applause and a standing ovation Wednesday, it was the personal stories of recovering veterans who took the spotlight at the ribbon-cutting event.
Before the center began operating, patients received treatment at the base’s hospital. But now, veterans such as 25-year-old Shenae Mitchell have the opportunity to use gravity treadmills in the center’s new physical therapy area, receive testing at the center’s sleep lab, and soon they will be able to utilize a vision therapy team and neuro-ophthalmologist.
The center has already helped Mitchell and many other veterans recover and restart their lives.
When Army Specialist Mitchell entered Fort Belvoir’s new traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post traumatic stress (PTS) center in June 2012, she was in a wheelchair and uncertain of her condition after being struck by 1,000 pounds in an accident in Afghanistan.
“Oh, God, you have no idea. I was just a little broken thing coming in here,” the truck driver said with a shy smile Wednesday as she looked up at the ceiling of the pristine new lobby of the center.
Mitchell says she is incredibly grateful for the treatment she received, which included physical therapy, speech therapy, medication, and other treatment for moderate brain injuries, and is eager to start the next phase of her life.
“Now, I’m all strong, ready to go back to work… I have more self-confidence. Now I feel like I can do anything,” she said.
Other veterans were on hand Wednesday to express profound thanks for the center’s existence.
“Now I see a rainbow of hope from a place of darkness,” Sergeant Major Robert Haemmerle told the crowd.
The next ribbon-cutting ceremony for a center is planned in October for the facility located at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. There, some 80 patients have already been treated in the first two months of operation.
Organizers expressed pride in their accomplishments thus far, but conceded on Sept. 11 that there is much work still to be done for today’s veterans.
“A heartfelt ‘thank you for your service,’ is no longer nearly enough,” said Martin Edelman, trustee of the Fallen Heroes Fund.