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Invisible Wounds: First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden Announce Nursing Initiative to Care for Veterans With PTSD

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April 11, 2012 marked the one-year anniversary of the launching of Joining Forces, an initiative led by first lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden that champions wellness, education, and employment among military service members and their families -- opportunities they all have earned many times over.

In honor of the anniversary, Mrs. Obama and Dr. Biden visited Philadelphia and The University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing to announce a new coordinated effort with more than 500 nursing schools to address post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD) and traumatic brain injuries (TBI) among our veteran population.

Addressing a crowd of more than 1,000 nurses, military personnel, faculty, staff, and students, the first lady said, "Nurses are the front line of America's healthcare system... and because of your hard work, three million nurses will get the training that they need to better support our men and women in uniform and their families."

By signing a Joining Forces pledge, nursing schools around the country have committed to "educating America's future nurses to care for our nation's veterans, service members, and their families facing post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, depression, and other clinical issues."

Mrs. Obama and Dr. Biden certainly came to the right partners for their initiative.

While every member of the health care team needs to be attuned to the possibility of PTSD and TBI, nurses must be particularly prepared to serve our military and their families with expert clinical care and innovative research on these most serious disorders.

Soldiers with visible, physical wounds are easily recognized as wounded warriors, the casualties of far-flung wars that hit home when soldiers return. But the "signature injuries" of the wars fought in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade -- PTSD and TBI -- are largely invisible.

Nearly 50,000 soldiers have been wounded, many of them severely, in Iraq and Afghanistan and the invisible wounds of PTSD and TBI affect a staggering 1 in 6 of our veterans. The symptoms of PTSD -- re-living the traumatic event, avoiding situations reminiscent of the event, feeling numb and emotionless, or feeling relentlessly agitated -- can be terrifying.

Recognizing and treating these often-hidden injuries frequently starts with the nation's nurses, now 3 million strong and the largest component of the health care workforce. Nurses historically have been attuned to the needs of the whole person, their family, their community, and their interactions with their environments -- all components of identifying and treating PTSD and TBI.

While our Department of Veterans Affairs and our VA Hospitals are working hard and serving so many men and women after they return, Mrs. Obama said that "many of our veterans don't live in military communities or near VA hospitals." She explained that it is imperative that health care professionals, and especially nurses, around the country in non-VA Hospitals also be prepared to identify and treat PTSD in their veteran patients. It is our collective responsibility to not just celebrate but to also care for our veterans after their tours of duty.

It can be difficult for individuals not involved with health care to know how to support our veterans living with PTSD. One creative effort led by two South Jersey civilians is called Bands of Brothers. With a goal of raising awareness and support for veterans with PTSD, Steve Holtzman and Lou Faiola, in partnership with the Pennsylvania VA Medical Center, have begun a project that invites 12 veterans to form three different music bands that will play together and ultimately perform at a battle-of-the-bands-style concert in September at Philadelphia's World Cafe Live. Their journey of practicing, performing, and healing together will be filmed and documented so as to relieve some of the stigma that may come by being diagnosed with PTSD. Holtzman's background in television production and Faiola's work with the Cherry Hill School of Rock provide an experience and creativity that will provide a professional and safe space for some musically talented veterans to come together and raise awareness about these invisible wounds. They remind us that we can all do something to help care for veterans with PTSD.

The first lady ended her speech in Penn's Irvine auditorium with a final message to veterans: "No matter what you are going through, America will be there for you and your families. If you need help, don't be afraid to ask for it."

Following the call of our first lady, let's all, medical professionals and beyond, do our part to be there for our veterans as they have been there for us.