The following blog post by an Army Sergeant Major deployed to Afghanistan, who must remain otherwise anonymous, demonstrates vividly the extraordinary challenges faced by our military members raising children with autism. Visit 'Welcome to Stim City' to follow Mrs. Sergeant Major's Blog and to read original post. Military families will finally get a chance to tell their stories to Congress on Tuesday, January 31. Learn more here.
Troops in Contact (yes that means what you think it does) were a daily occurrence as an Infantry Battalion Operations Sergeant Major in Afghanistan. I had dealt with quite a few of these by February 2010 while working the Tactical Operations Center (TOC) in theater.
I had learned to deal with them in a cold, detached manner dispensing assets such as artillery, air support and helicopter support to assist in the fight against the Taliban. So when I heard those words “[RM] has autism” through a poor overseas cellphone connection I was initially unmoved. My training kicked in. Clear the airspace and give me a fire mission of 155mm artillery. It wasn’t until I got back to my bunk after a 17-hour shift did the words sink in. AUTISM!? Artillery isn’t going to help that. Maybe it was the distance from home or the 130-degree Afghanistan heat that removed me from the reality of what I had heard. I just could not believe my little girl had autism.
Yes, she was born with multiple disabilities but autism was never on the radar. Having a nephew on the spectrum, I knew the very broad and somewhat vague meaning of an autism diagnosis, but stumbling through one in a war zone left me asking what is autism? Probably not a good idea to sidetrack my Intelligence Section asking them to research that one for me.
To say I was busy during this deployment would be a gross understatement. The TOC was the heart of the Battalion’s operations and the heart never stopped beating. However, I had managed to find a few spare moments to Google “autism” which confirmed my suspicion that artillery was not the kind of support needed to be called in this time around. Instead, my Googling from Afghanistan proved that the primary assets for this mission would include treatments such as Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), speech, occupational and physical therapies. I assumed RM’s school would be all over that. Evidently, as it turned out the school system in our town was not a “Friendly” element. Never leave a fallen comrade. Failure in my business is not an option and it would appear that my town was accepting defeat and leaving my little girl behind.
I was appalled. Months went by with frequent calls from Mrs. SGM sharing the emotional and often fruitless results of meetings with the town, special education lawyers and one very rude town special education administrator. It began to affect my performance. I struggled to focus on my daily responsibilities and at times had to force the issue of autism out of my mind. Staying focused meant ignoring my family so that I didn’t get a soldier killed in theater.
I decided to weigh in on the issue with the town.
Lucky were the town personnel who were failing my child that were out of range of my artillery support. I think one of the frustrating things for me was the inability to affect how the fight with the town was going from Afghanistan. Mrs. SGM gave updates almost daily. I cannot take credit for the battle that was fought and won in regards to getting RM her required therapies at an outplacement school.
Mrs. SGM led that assault and is now deep in the trenches to change TRICARE military insurance to make autism benefits accessible to all dependents as standard care. Doing so will not take the shock, fear and disbelief out of receiving an autism diagnosis, but it will help diminish the confusion, frustration and roadblocks to success in getting our kids what they need.
TRICARE should be like Combat Support. It should be there when you need it with no questions asked or forms to fill out and should be ready to provide cover for all Troops in Contact including our precious military children with autism.