Teamwork for our wounded vets makes the difference on this Memorial Day

In 2009, I met a young soldier at the old Walter Reed Army Medical Center who had suffered the loss of all of his limbs after an IED attack on his vehicle patrol in Iraq. I will never forget what he said as I visited with him that day. He told me, “If I could only get one hand, my life would be changed forever.” I asked him if he would be interested in learning about a groundbreaking arm transplant program that showed promise, and he assented.

The medical professionals at Johns Hopkins Hospital went to work, and through their extraordinary efforts, performed one of the first successful bilateral arm and hand transplants. A dedicated team of 16 surgeons volunteered their time for this operation. In the end, they gave this American hero not just one hand, but two. 

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My wife and I recently met again with this young man at Johns Hopkins, and we are ecstatic that his recovery progress is ahead of schedule. We are equally proud that like many service members, he has decided to “pay it forward” and is now mentoring and empowering fellow Wounded Warriors to focus on their recovery as they embrace life. This remarkable endeavor was only possible through the teamwork of military and civilian medical professionals who have dedicated themselves to care for those who inspire and protect all that we hold dear. 

Since 2007, generous and skilled members from the University of California at Los Angeles Medical Center and the Brooke Army Medical Center have partnered in a highly productive joint effort known as Operation Mend. Now, through the dedication of the medical staff at UCLA, Operation Mend has expanded its care to optimize healing — body, mind and spirit. On any given day, more than 80 significantly wounded from all Department of Defense military services receive care that will help restore the quality of their lives. The philanthropic collaboration of military and civilian medical professionals and academic healthcare researchers has ensured timely access for our Marines, sailors, soldiers and airmen to the most up-to-date technology and therapeutic advances in medical care.

The inspiring example of Operation Mend’s teamwork is a testament to the tremendous support our Wounded Warriors of all services receive from across the United States. I continue to be encouraged by those who pour their time, expertise and love into such a worthy and critical effort. Keeping faith is defined by our continued commitment to our wounded beyond any stopping point in our combat missions overseas. Years of war have taught us that comprehensive recovery plans for our wounded must enable these service members a successful return to duty or reintegration to the civilian community.

Likewise, funding and research are some of the most important areas of medicine that need to be supported and understood to ensure persistent and optimal care for our nation’s finest. Through teamwork, I am confident we can ensure our service members who have given so much will be provided continued care by the finest medical professionals our great nation has to offer.          

With the same commitment we maintain for our Wounded Warriors and those transitioning from military service, we pause today to reflect on the meaning of Memorial Day. Honoring the memory of the Marines, sailors, soldiers, and airmen who selflessly sacrificed for our way of life is what this day is all about. It is appropriate that we remember their families and pay tribute to all the men and women whose lives have ensured our greatest gift — freedom. They will forever remain in our hearts and minds.