Politics & Policy

21st-Century Candy Stripers

Severely wounded soldiers communicate with voice-activated laptops.

On the morning of June 21, 2005, Maj. (then captain) Charles “Chuck” Ziegenfuss was on a foot patrol north of Baquba, Iraq when — as he says — “I was blown up.”

A U.S. Army tank-company commander, Ziegenfuss was walking across a bridge with a few of his men on a bomb-clearing operation “when an IED exploded,” he tells National Review Online. “It went off about three feet from where I was standing, and literally blew me off the bridge and into a canal.”

Ziegenfuss awoke four days later at Walter Reed Army Medical Center physically broken, in pain, and beginning to struggle with the reality of what had happened to him: The nerves in his left wrist were severed, and the wrist itself was broken. A portion of his left hand was missing down to his wrist. His right hand and the remainder of his left were badly swollen. The skin on his left forearm from his hand to his bicep was gone. Both eardrums were blown out. His eyes were damaged. One of his lungs was bruised. Shrapnel had ripped into his face. And his groin and thighs — which had absorbed most of the blast — were shredded, burned, and full of shrapnel.

That’s when Patti Patton-Bader, president of Soldiers Angels (a nonprofit group that has sent tens of thousands of care packages to deployed troops since 2003), stepped in.

“Patti asked me what I wanted,” says Ziegenfuss. “I asked her if there was any way I could get my hands on a laptop so I could continue communicating with my soldiers and blogging.”

Simply getting his hands on a laptop would not be enough to get him back online. So Soldiers Angels bought a computer for Ziegenfuss, and they located and purchased hands-free voice-activated software that would enable him — and similarly wounded servicemembers — to communicate with friends and family around the world.

“The greatest generation had candy stripers who would write letters for wounded soldiers [unable to hold a pen],” says Ziegenfuss, who today serves as assistant professor of military science at Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s Army ROTC battalion. “This generation has voice-activated laptops.”

Ziegenfuss’s laptop was the first of 2,000-plus computers with voice-activated software that have since been purchased by Soldiers Angels and presented to severely wounded soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines in a Soldiers Angels’ program known as Project Valour-IT (an acronym for Voice-Activated Laptops for OUR Injured Troops).

According to the Soldiers Angels website:

Operating laptops by speaking into a microphone or using other adaptive technologies, our wounded heroes are able to send and receive messages from friends and loved ones, surf the ‘Net,’ and communicate with buddies still in the field.

Project Valour-IT has also been a “blessing” for Cpl. Alan “Doc” Babin Jr., a former combat medic with the Army’s famed 82nd Airborne Division in Iraq.

On March 31, 2003, Babin was severely wounded in the abdomen and upper torso by small-arms fire. He nearly died stretched across the hood of a gun truck for several hours before being evacuated. Nearly five years and more than 80 surgeries later, Babin is “able to stay in touch with friends because of his laptop, which keeps him from feeling isolated,” his mom, Rosalinda Babin, tells NRO.

“When he’s in bed or going for inpatient procedures, he takes along his laptop and watches movies or listens to music,” she says.

Music has always been one of Alan’s passions. Even though the music doesn’t always agree with my ears, I just praise God and thank Him for preserving Alan’s life. I sometimes even manage to dance a little which puts a smile on Alan’s face before he rolls his eyes and shakes his head at me.

Lt. Col. Jim Riley (U.S. Army, ret.), a member of the Soldiers Angels board of trustees who also serves as the organization’s “Medical and Wounded” liaison, says, “Probably the single biggest non-medical therapy that the American people can provide to these young heroes is the ability to communicate. Whether they are blinded, have lost their hands, whatever it may be, they want to be able to tell their buddies they are alive. They want to talk to friends and family.”

Wounded soldiers also “need to begin the process of healing by reconnecting with the rest of the world,” says Riley. “Taking online courses, researching, even playing computer games that stimulate the mind and memory for some of those who have suffered brain injuries or neurological damage [as a result of their wounds].”

According to Riley, “Project Valour-IT works closely with the U.S. Department of Defense’s Computer/electronic Accommodations Program [CAP].” Soldiers Angels provides the computer, and CAP often provides the adaptive software. Additionally, DoD caseworkers at the various medical facilities often identify possible laptop recipients and forward the information to Project Valour-IT.

Last year, Project Valour-IT launched its first fundraising drive: Organized in large part by a number of independent milbloggers with a goal of raising as much money as possible for the purchase of laptops for wounded troops. They made over $230,000, purchasing 330 laptops.

The second annual fundraising competition kicked off this past Monday, October 29, 2007. Donors may compete by joining Army, Navy (and Coast Guard), Marine Corps, and Air Force teams at soldiersangels.org.

The fundraising competition will end November 11, Veterans Day. The need will continue as long as America is at war.

A former U.S. Marine infantry leader, W. Thomas Smith Jr. writes about military issues and has covered war in the Balkans, on the West Bank, in Iraq and Lebanon. Smith is the author of six books, and his articles appear in a variety of publications. He blogs at The Tank.

A former U.S. Marine infantry leader, W. Thomas Smith Jr. writes about military issues. He has covered war in the Balkans, on the West Bank, in Iraq, and in Lebanon. ...

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