Chris Wolfenbarger spends every day of the year wanting to make a difference in the lives of veterans.
He does so because he has seen the horror and tragedy of war with his own eyes.
The 45-year-old Raymore resident serves on the board of directors for the Foundation for Exceptional Warriors, an organization founded by a friend to curb the growing number of suicides among military veterans across the country.
Wolfenbarger said statistics show that more current and former military personnel are now dying from suicide than in combat operations.
On average, 22 veterans commit suicide daily across the United States as a result of isolation, PTSD, and depression. This is compounded by the 'go it alone' attitude warriors develop on the battlefield.
“Think about that number,” Wolfenbarger said. “It’s ridiculous.”
Almost five years ago, Wolfenbarger came face-to-face with a suicide bomber who detonated an improvised explosive device that was intended to take his life. He almost joined the list of those killed in action.
A real estate appraiser by trade, Wolfenbarger enlisted with the U.S. National Guard in 2006 at age 38 — an age when many military members choose to leave the service.
But in an effort to better aid warriors and others in need, Wolfenbarger elected to join the military to become a medic. He was inspired by the National Guard’s recovery efforts in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
“I had time that I could give back,” he said.
Wolfenbarger was recruited in Cass County by Sgt. First Class Nathan Russell out of Harrisonville’s armory.
“I was pretty clear that I wanted to work stateside emergencies, so he put me into a medical National Guard unit,” he said.
While Wofenbarger was teaching a combat lifesaver course to the 1141st Engineer Company before the unit was to deploy to hunt IEDs in northeastern Afghanistan for a year, he was pulled aside by the commanders and asked to go along.
“They said that all those boys I was teaching that class to — they didn’t have any illusions that they would bring them all back,” Wolfenbarger said. “But if they could get someone with my age and experience in their E-4 medic slot, maybe I could make a difference.”
Wolfenbarger was moved to take the offer.
“I never had viewed myself as a combatant or someone who had any vein of heroism in my blood,” he said.
“But having the ability to effect change for their deployment was desirable to me, so I went home and talked to my wife. She empowered me to go with them.”
He went, and while on a routine mission on Feb. 12, 2010, Wolfenbarger’s convoy approached a civilian driving a white Toyota Corolla.
The Route Clearance Buffalo that Wolfenbarger was riding in pulled up so the Americans could tell the driver to move out of the danger zone.
“I looked out the window and told him to move,” Wolfenbarger said. “He looked at me and detonated the bomb.”
Wolfenbarger looked into the young man’s eyes in the seconds before he was knocked unconscious and suffered a severe concussion.
The attack also caused traumatic brain injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder and long-term neck and shoulder problems for Wolfenbarger.
The suicide bomber died.
Wolfenbarger was treated and returned to his unit about three weeks after the attack to finish out the deployment.
In October 2013, Wolfenbarger was medically retired from service for combat wounds. He was also awarded a Purple Heart.
Two years after the incident, video of Wolfenbarger’s attack surfaced on the Internet.
The entire event was captured by the Taliban to use as propaganda, Wolfenbarger said.
After returning from war, a friend, Sgt. Ronny Sweger, founded “The FEW” as an organization to help soldiers ease back into society and to build relationships with other survivors of war.
Sweger, a 40-year-old Bristow, Okla., native, served in Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa with the U.S. Army Special Forces HALO before he was honorably discharged due to injuries in 2009.
Wolfenbarger also believed that saving the lives of veterans must be an utmost priority, and to directly support the organization, he became an associate of The FEW in 2012.
He was promoted to a senior associate, and then this year, was asked to serve on its board of directors.
The foundation’s focus was on soldiers who had served at the tip of the spear in combat.
The FEW defines “exceptional warriors” as the “operators” within the Special Operation Forces community, those heroes recognized by the Department of Defense for valorous actions, and the warriors who have been wounded in combat.
“We get them on an event with other veterans — with members of the community who are patriotic-minded — and it creates a multiple point-of-contact support network for them. It works,” Wolfenbarger said.
The organization assists in the healing of wounded veterans and their families, regardless of the era in which they served, by providing therapeutic recreational and sporting events.
Dozens of veterans participate in events each month all over the country. Right now, hunting-themed events are in full swing because of the season.
Wolfenbarger hopes to afford the opportunity to 250 veterans in 2015.
The trips are offered at no cost to the veterans. Travel and lodging are provided through donations and sponsors.
“The government can throw all the money they want at it and implement the big programs, but we believe you’re only going to help those warriors one at a time,” Wolfenbarger said.
Through an application process, service members who have been injured on the battlefield are selected to go on a free outing with other veterans of different military branches — and from a spectrum of combat theaters.
Essentially, they’re on a mission together.
“One of the benefits of hunting that we’ve seen — specifically for warriors — a lot of these guys were injured on the battlefield and their gun was taken out of their hand as they were put on the helicopter — and swept away and didn’t see any of their battle buddies again and didn’t have a gun put back in their hand,” Wolfenbarger said.
“When we stick them into a field with a bunch of other warriors — we are very specifically taking them back to that fork in the road and letting them move forward on their own terms. It’s unbelievably therapeutic.”
The FEW’s founder, Sweger, was inducted into the Oklahoma Military Hall of Fame Nov. 8. He also received another honor for his philanthropic work – the Maj. Gen. Douglas O. Dollar Distinguished Service Award.
The organization began helping veterans through other connections after Wolfenbarger spotted Drew Mitsdarffer’s vehicle driving along the Missouri 58/I-49 corridor.
“I saw his Vietnam veteran sticker and was like, ‘This is a guy I need to go talk to,’” Wolfenbarger said. “I cut off seven different cars to get behind him and follow him into the Belton VA.”
Wolfenbarger had a cancellation for an upcoming event and wanted to invite the Air Force vet.
Mitsdarffer, also a Raymore resident, declined the offer, but instead decided to host a weekend bird hunt of his own for four veterans with The FEW in Cameron in October.
“The warriors who were there were pleased, appreciative,” Mitsdarffer said.
Mitsdarffer has already decided to make the opening hunt an annual event for wounded warriors.
He also said he’s willing to take other veterans out on shorter hunting trips.
“One of them came back this past weekend from down south and went out with us Saturday morning to shoot,” Mitsdarffer said.
“It’s given me a lot of pride and pleasure to help these guys out. It’s all that I think about is how I can help these guys.”
2 CENTS CAMPAIGN
The Foundation for Exceptional Warriors believes that losing 22 veterans a day to suicide is 22 too many.
That is 660 every month and 7,920 every year.
Here is your opportunity to add your two cents.
The foundation’s 2 Cents Campaign is simple. By making a recurring donation of $13.20 per month, supporters will be donating 2 cents for every veteran lost to suicide each day.
WHY DO VETERANS COMMIT SUICIDE?
▪ The unemployment rate for veterans outpaces the civilian rate. “Recent veterans are more likely to be unemployed than their civilian counterparts. According to data released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in October 2011, veterans who left military service in the past decade have an unemployment rate of 11.7 percent, well above the overall jobless rate of 9.1 percent (M. Fletcher, Washington Post, Oct. 16, 2011).”
▪ Joblessness and downturn in economy may be adding to increase in suicides. “Senior Army officials speculate that the increase in Guard and Reserve suicides may also be part of a broader national trend driven by elevated levels of joblessness and a bad economy (G. Jaffe, Washington Post, Jan. 19, 2011).”
▪ Brain injuries linked to PTSD. “According to the New England Journal of Medicine, 15 percent of Iraq soldiers had concussions or other mild traumatic brain injuries while on active duty. Notably, these soldiers were significantly more likely to have PTSD three months after their return home than soldiers without brain injuries. Of soldiers who reported an injury that caused loss of consciousness, 44 percent had PTSD three months after returning home (Hoge et al., 2008).”
▪ Many in need don’t seek help. “According to the Army, only 40 percent of veterans who screen positive for serious emotional problems seek help from a mental health professional (Mental Health Advisory Team IV: Operation Iraqi Freedom, 2007). Statistics from the RAND Corporation are even worse, finding that only 30 percent of veterans with PTSD or depression seek help from the VA health system (Invisible Wounds of War, 2008).”
▪ Long-term consequences of unaddressed mental health needs. “Veterans with untreated mental health problems may face severe consequences to their overall health and ability to fully reintegrate into their communities, exacerbating the potential for chronic mental health conditions. Therefore, failure to intervene early and effectively could have profound long-term costs for the health of this generation of veterans, as well as for society (Testimony by the Wounded Warrior, 2009).”
Source: American Psychological Association