For some soldiers, the hardest part is coming home. Sergeant Joe Washam was full of swagger and patriotism and he felt more at home in the military. In his mind, civilian life was years and worlds away and he knew he may never come back. A virtual simulation by WILL Interactive and provided to soldiers in North Texas by Allies in Service would help him on his journey. It wasn’t easy, but Joe is still alive to tell his story.
“My attitude was I’m either coming back A-Okay or I’m coming back with a flag draped over me,” Joe said.
He was a split second away from that flag draped coffin. Joe’s unit got a tip on a chemical weapons stash in an Iraqi building. Joe stood guard as a gunner in a Humvee along the street.
“The first team went inside the building and tripped something, they came out screaming it’s going to blow its going to blow,” Joe said.
Joe’s Humvee turned into a fireball.
“I just made a split second decision and opened the door and took off running, completely engulfed in flames,” Joe said. “I just ran blindly as fast as I could away from it all. I started reaching for my nine mil at my thigh and the skin on my right hand came right off when I reached for my nine mil.”
Joe woke up two weeks later at Brook Army Medical Center in San Antonio with third degree burns over 50% of his body.
“I really thought that was going to be it for me,” Joe said. “In my mind it was like they got me. The bad guys got me.”
At the time, it was scenario worse than death, a painful purgatory in a civilian world he though he left behind.
“Coming back incapacitated any sort of way wasn’t even on my spectrum to be honest,” Joe said. “For a while there I say I refer to myself I was a ball of hate.”
Sharon Sloan knows Joe’s story. She sees it play out every day. Her company, WILL Interactive, develops programs to help soldiers deal with depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The Army reports suicides are up 80% from 2004 to 2008. There were 16 suicides in January of this year alone.
“There are so many veterans out there suffering from post traumatic stress, from combat trauma, from other issues that are potentially suicidal,” Sloan said. “We can help those people.”
Dallas-based Allies in Service secured a partnership with WILL Interactive to give soldiers and their families free access to a cutting edge tool to help them reintegrate into the civilian world. The interactive movie helps soldiers fight this new war inside on the home front. They play out real world scenarios before they are forced to live them out and blow up.
“It’s in your face and it’s highly emotional,” said Sloan.
Soldiers, spouses and family members choose a virtual character. They follow the story line and decide the best course of action through interactive questions and wrong answers can bring deadly outcome.
“I call it the dark reality,” said Joe. “Whether it be suicide, divorces, domestic violence, alcohol abuse I think it gets right to the point. The feedback, the immediate feedback on it is just amazing also.”
Allies in Service believes these virtual simulations for veterans will change lives.
“There is a long term problem and these simulations are a part of that long term solution,” said Carly Brasseux with Allies in Service. “As a community, we really need to take a leadership role in making a personal connection to our veterans and families.”
Sharon Sloan knows it will change lives.
“We have been told in letters and emails and phone calls that we have saved lives,” Sloan said. “To telephone calls from spouses who have said you’ve saved my marriage you saved my family.”
Joe says he goes back into battle every day.
“For me my war will never be over and I will always be chasing ghosts,” Joe said. “My skin is never going to be just fine. I’m always going to have physical scars no matter how many surgeries I have.”
But with tools like this, Joe is winning the war inside. He married his high school sweetheart, has a beautiful young son and runs a successful business.
“Everyone’s war is different,” Joe said. “I think the only way for me at least is to have a positive attitude about it. I wouldn’t take any of it back.”