Anthony Ameen is a combat veteran. Having served our country from 2002-2010 as a US Navy Hospital Corpsman, Anthony is the recipient of the Purple Heart, the Navy/Marine Corps Achievement Medal with Combat Valor Distinction and two Good Conduct Medals. For the past seven years, he has lived with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as well as chronic pain from the injuries he sustained overseas.
As part of the 2nd Battalion/7th Marines – 1st Marine Division, Anthony was stationed in Afghanistan in July 2008. Attack was imminent at all times. On the front lines, he and his Marines knew the dangers that existed. They faced daily firefights as their station was highly watched by the Taliban.
On July 21, 2008, three and a half months into his deployment, the situation was even more concerning and tense. He and his unit were setting up a Taliban ambush. While the mission was successful, the Taliban planned a counter-attack. Anthony heard loud blasts, mortar and gunfire. As the Corpsman, his job was to provide on-scene emergency medical treatment. When radioed by his platoon sergeant to help an injured Marine, Anthony acted fast.
Twenty yards away, Anthony could see the extent of one of his comrade’s injuries and started running to him, oblivious of anything but saving the wounded man’s life. Leaving the safety of his four-man element formation, Anthony stepped on an improvised explosive device (IED). Straightaway, he knew he had lost his left foot. His left leg was numb and his left wrist was crushed. His ring and middle finger from his left hand were dangling. Anthony held onto them so they wouldn’t fall off or become lost. His right leg, shattered between his knee and ankle, looked like a wet noodle.
The pain was indescribable. As his teammates immediately applied tourniquets to his limbs, he and the severely wounded Marine were transported to an ambulance. His friend made the ultimate sacrifice to our country that day, and there isn’t a day when Anthony does not think of him. Every time he puts on his leg and each step he takes, he is reminded of him.
Anthony’s injuries required immediate attention. A Navy physician was the first to administer the medications ketamine and morphine to stabilize him. He then underwent his first of 32 surgeries. He woke to see his left leg wrapped in gauze and bandages. As he tried to grasp the fact that his left foot was amputated above the ankle, he noticed one of his closest Marine friends standing at his bedside. To have a familiar face present at the worst moment in his life was powerful. He knew he was not alone.
Flown to Landstuhl, Germany, Anthony spent two days with other injured marines in the largest military hospital outside of the United States. These were the most horrific days of his life. His pain was not close to being under control. The excruciating suffering was beyond anything he could have fathomed, and it was more than he could handle. While loaded on pain medications that did nothing to relieve his pain, Anthony found himself screaming and cursing for help.
When he landed in the States, he was initially taken to an Air Force hospital in Virginia. This was the first time he received relief from the pain. Anthony spent 48 hours awaiting transportation to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. It was in Texas that he would finally be reunited with his parents and siblings. When his mom and dad saw him for the first time, Anthony still had dirt in his ears and on his face and neck.
For the next eight months, Brooke Army Medical Center would be his home. He would undergo 18 surgeries. Anthony had four amputation revisions to his left leg, reconstructive hand surgery on his left hand that also saved his nearly detached fingers and procedures focused on salvaging his right leg.
Anthony had irrigation and debridement treatments to clean, remove dead material and flush out his wounds. He unfortunately developed methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), which is a bacterial staph infection resistant to many antibiotics. Doctors even tried placing a rod in his right leg between the knee and ankle to help with the infections, but that quickly became infected and had to be removed.
With every new surgery came more medications, higher doses to current prescriptions and further physical therapy. Soon Anthony was taking a cocktail of methadone, morphine, pregabalin, IV dilaudid, percocet, vicodin, gabapentin and fentanyl. For a few hours each day, Anthony participated in physical therapy. He worked tirelessly on stretching, mobility and agility. Core exercises were imperative in helping him re-learn to stand and walk straight again.
Five months into his recovery, Anthony attended a memorial for his fallen friends. While he still wasn’t able to walk, he was determined to stand and salute the 19 Marines and one Sailor who lost their lives during his unit’s deployment. The day of the memorial, with the help of his friends from his unit, he stood up and saluted each of the fallen. It was his way to pay the ultimate respect and tribute to those who lost their lives fighting alongside him.
Learning to walk again was a huge challenge. Besides getting comfortable with his prosthesis, Anthony had trouble standing due to the pain and subsequent issues with his right leg. He was required to wear a special brace, a Taylor Spatial Frame (TSF), which he would need for 18 months. He hated it. The traction device was bulky and caused a dull, unrelenting bone pain. Each day, Anthony had to adjust the struts to bring his broken bones back together. While the TSF worked wonders and is the only reason he can now walk on his right leg, it created an excruciating sensation that made him sweat and made his stomach churn. Because of his motivation to get out of the wheelchair and walk as much as possible, he was lucky to have the apparatus removed after eight months.
When he left Brooke Army Medical Center, the Navy sent Anthony to the Naval Medical Center in San Diego, Calif. He spent another year and a half undergoing more surgeries and physical therapy. While the Navy tried to address the emotional aspect of being a wounded combat veteran, Anthony resisted their approach. Like many returning veterans, trusting others disappears after combat. Talking to someone who had never seen what Anthony saw or had to do what he did irritated him. So it was easier to numb himself – within reason – with his pain prescriptions and alcohol, a sadly all-too-common happenstance among wounded combat veterans.
In fact, it wasn’t until he returned to his home state of Arizona that he fully began to cope with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is type of anxiety disorder that occurs after extreme emotional trauma usually involving the threat of injury or death. For Anthony, PTSD caused survivor’s guilt, nightmares, combat-induced insomnia, emotional numbing and avoidance as well as flashbacks. Claustrophobic, Anthony avoids large crowds and tight spaces because it makes him tense and feel “on guard.” Anything that reminds him of chaos – be it disorganization, loud noises or messes – triggers what he experienced in combat.
In his opinion, PTSD is just as detrimental to his ongoing health as the physical pain. Both have left him crippled at times, and both are significant factors in the well being of combat veterans. Thankfully, with the help of family and friends as well as the support of other combat veterans, Anthony has been able to healthfully cope with the traumas of war. He is feeling and doing much better.
Yet what Anthony never expected was a different type of battle he would have to fight returning home. As he signed up to receive the benefits he was entitled to, Anthony found himself denied Social Security benefits and Traumatic Servicemember’s Group Life Insurance. He was confused and outraged as to how this could happen. He kept appealing but continued to get nowhere. Frustrated, he reached out to former Arizona Congressman Harry Mitchell. With his support and help, Anthony won a congressional hearing. It took nearly two years for Anthony to secure the health care, financial and legal benefits he was owed.
Tragically, Anthony is just one story of the countless servicemen and women who have contributed and sacrificed on behalf of our country only to return home and fall through the cracks. For veterans to have to endure such unnecessary obstacles in obtaining benefits is incomprehensible. Realizing he wasn’t alone and that no organization existed to help or handle this issue is why Anthony founded Wings for Warriors.
Wings for Warriors is a nonprofit organization supporting combat wounded military service members returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan. Their mission is to provide necessary tools, insights and resources – such as guidance and counseling, travel assistance and public awareness events – for wounded veterans as they go through the recovery process and transition into new realities. Since March 2011, Wings for Warriors has helped 1,200 wounded veterans navigate and find resources in order to receive their needed and deserved benefits.
Anthony is proud of the work his still relatively small grassroots organization has achieved. “I get paid in high fives and hugs, and that is all I need. Hearing the words, ‘you saved my life,’ is why Wings for Warriors is here. I just feel lucky that I have been able to offer my fellow wounded veterans some help, support and hope.” He advises all veterans to do research. It is so important to know the benefits you are eligible to receive.
Anthony feels the military is still downplayed among the general public. More knowledge needs to reach the masses about the harsh realties of fighting in a combat environment, subsequent injuries and the overall recovery process a wounded veteran must go through to live a somewhat normal life again. This is why there must be better care and services available to this group of veterans.
The VA, while established to address the above, has serious flaws. The veteran needs to become first priority. In Anthony’s opinion, there is a significant lack of importance placed on being prompt. Those returning from war warrant proper and timely services and benefits. Anthony hopes change will occur, because those who fought deserve better.
Today Anthony’s days are centered on his family, nonprofit and career as a business development director. By finding new meaning and purpose in life, Anthony has been able to pull himself out of the darkness and away from the demons that plagued him for so many years. He has also come to accept pain as a daily part of his life. While still dealing with his injuries – such as chronic osteomyelitis in his right leg – Anthony no longer relies on medications. He just deals with the daily suffering.
While his road to acceptance and recovery continue on, his spirit to persevere and drive to help others has never been deterred. Anthony Ameen is a brave combat hero, a caring husband and wonderful father. He is motivated by making a difference for others. Despite his pain and all he has experienced, Anthony stays positive.
“I am a fighter and I am veteran. For the rest of my life, I will continue to fight – fight the pain, fight for veteran rights, fight to be happy.”
Wings for Warriors: wingsforwarriors.org
Facebook page: facebook.com/WingsForWarriors
Twitter page: twitter.com/Wings4Warriors