A Little White House Vision for America’s Wounded Warriors

By Mike Klein

Mike Klein, Editor, Georgia Public Policy Forum

The Little White House in Warm Springs is  a place where time stands still.

This was the Georgia home visited by Franklin Delano Roosevelt before and during his Presidency.  It was far away from the stress and pain of world issues, somewhere that Roosevelt could find solace, therapy for polio that stole his strong legs and the companionship of friends.  A stroke claimed the life of the longest-serving President in American history when Roosevelt died in his tiny four-poster bed on April 12, 1945 in Warm Springs.

On the world stage Roosevelt led his country out of depression and he led the free world against totalitarianism on two continents.  But it was in Warm Springs that FDR and others founded the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis.  You likely know it as the March of Dimes.  And it was here that FDR created a healing center for crippled children and adults.  Today that center continues to operate as the Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Each year the Little White House pauses to remember FDR on the anniversary of his death.  Thursday morning’s ceremony marked the public launch of the Georgia Warrior Alliance initiative that could transform Warm Springs with a bold strategy to combine public and private resources to serve soldiers and their families.  Camp Dream at Warm Springs hosted six groups of military families last year; some ninety families are here this weekend.

The physical results of war are painful and easy to see.  It is more difficult to measure the depth of damage to a soldier’s soul and to his or her family. About 6,000 military veterans commit suicide each year.  Divorce rates are 68% for soldiers who serve one overseas tour, 81% after two tours and 93% after three tours.  There is a need to help.  And there is a place in Warm Springs.

The Georgia Warrior Alliance project began about three years ago after a series of conversations that were started by Ross Mason and organized by the Georgia Public Policy Foundation and Senator Johnny Isakson.  Mason, who founded HINRI – the Healthcare Institute for Neuro-Recovery and Innovation. was paralyzed in August, 2007 after a bicycle riding accident.  Mason took his Warm Springs idea to dozens of Georgia military, business and philanthropic leaders.   The conversation soon attracted others like Scott Rigsby and General Larry Ellis.

Scott Rigsby

Rigsby is a Camilla. Georgia native whose story of courage is almost impossible to comprehend and he is perhaps the most remarkable athlete at any level that Georgia has ever known, bar none in any sport.  “My name is Scott Rigsby and I’m an Ironman,” Rigsby said Thursday at the Little White House where he spoke on behalf of the Georgia Warrior Alliance.

Rigsby lost one leg after a motor vehicle accident when he was 18 years old.  His other leg was removed several years later.  Five years ago Rigsby became the first double amputee using prosthetic legs to complete the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii – 2.4 miles swimming, 112 miles cycling and 26.2 miles running.  Warm Springs is where Rigsby learned to run after his second amputation.

Rigsby’s autobiography “UnThinkable” tells the story of his journey through tragedy, depression and recovery.  “Helen Keller said it best; ‘It is a terrible thing to see and have no vision.’  I didn’t have any vision for my life.  I wanted to die,” Rigsby said.  “At Christmas 2005 I threw a Hail Mary prayer up to God and said, hey, Man, if you open a door for me then I’ll run through it.  Be careful what you pray for.  I’ve been doing a lot of running.”

Today Rigsby spends a lot of time with veterans and their families.  He spoke about meeting the wife of a soldier who was sent to Walter Reed Army Hospital after his leg was blown off by a roadside bomb.  “I looked at his wife; she had tears streaming down her face.  She said to me, ‘Is my husband going to be alright?’  I am proud to say that I could look back at her and say, ‘Am I alright!’  With confidence I could share that feeling that they could still live an active lifestyle (and) that their sacrifice was not in vain.”

General Larry Ellis

General Ellis spent 35 years in the military and he retired as Commander of the U.S. Army Forces Command.  Today he serves on many boards including the University System of Georgia Board of Regents.  Eight months ago Ellis began to feel numbness in his legs.  The diagnosis was spinal injuries perhaps caused by dozens of military career parachute jumps.  Ellis underwent two spinal cord surgeries but shortly thereafter a rare complication paralyzed him from the waist down.

“Following my second surgery, not knowing if I would ever walk again at the tender age of 65, I began to reflect on the negative consequences of being wheelchair-bound for the rest of my life,” Ellis said at the Little White House.  “To say the least, it was one of the most depressing periods of my life.  Given my experience I cannot imagine how devastated and confounded the young FDR was when he learned that he would never walk again.”

Ellis is walking again, sometimes aided by a cane, after care at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Atlanta.  When he spoke at the Little White House the retired four-star general paused to mention five veterans seated upfront in their wheelchairs.  Ellis said a Georgia Warrior Alliance survey of 4,000 Georgia military families concluded their number one need “was for a safe environment to decompress from the stresses of combat and re-engage with their families.”  That, in a nutshell, is what the Warm Springs project is all about.

The Georgia Warrior Alliance goal would keep the civilian component but add a new military aspect.  Callaway Gardens in nearby Pine Mountain has agreed to host families who have wounded warriors in treatment.  The Alliance envisions coordination with the U.S. military burn center in Augusta.  The project could boost state telemedicine initiatives.  Georgia’s extensive university health care research capacity could become part of the Warm Springs initiative.

Ross Mason

Mason has said there is already support for the Georgia Warrior Alliance idea among the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff.  The project could draw down tens of millions of federal dollars to Georgia that are available for treatment of veterans.  Georgia Tech is already working on an internet strategy.  The Alliance wants to network some 360 Georgia agencies that offer support services to veterans and it would like to build a non-profits training hub for them at Warm Springs.

None of this is guaranteed to happen.  What the Georgia Warrior Alliance seeks to achieve will require combining lots of sectors that sometimes have problems figuring out how to work together.  It should help that Mason chairs the Department of Community Health board of directors.

There were a few hundred folks including an Iwo Jima veteran and lots of children sitting outside the Little White House on Thursday morning when Rigsby made his strongest case for the Georgia Warrior Alliance: “Georgia has the best facilities.  We have the best corporations.  We have the best health care.  We have the best research institutions.  We have the best people to set the standard for the nation.  Let us be the generation that cares,” Rigsby said.

“Let us erase the bad memories of the wounded who were left behind in previous wars.  One weekend with our wounded warriors and their families right here at Camp Dream is all you need to get you hooked.  We can change the world right here today in this magical place of Warm Springs.  We can do the unthinkable.”

Monday morning Scott Rigsby will do the “UnThinkable” again.

He will run the Boston Marathon.

Scott Rigsby at the Little White House in Warm Springs, Georgia

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