When Army veteran Frank Sonntag first experienced an explosion while serving in Iraq, he did not know the extent of his injuries. He was serving in his second stint in the Army. This deployment, he was responsible for supplying much-needed water to troops in the desert – a very important job in a dry, scorching climate. One morning, a mortar exploded not far from Frank.
“It was a small blast, a lot of smoke.”
Frank didn’t think much of the incident because of the distance, but he realized he ignored warning signs.
“It made me sick to my stomach – a shockwave had hit the side of my face.”
Frank resumed working, despite requests from fellow soldiers to visit the medic.
“I had a 16-hour shift that I needed to cover.”
He started dealing with headaches. When he returned home, those headaches became debilitating.
“I was having headaches sporadically that turned into ones of 57 to 65 days at a time. I had to change my sleep patterns because of my head injury and PTSD. I had to make a lot of adjustments in my life.
“I started to forget people’s names. I started to not be able to write emails as I was trying to still do my Army job. I got lost driving home. I lost my speech pattern that I would normally have – I would try to talk and I couldn’t get the words out; instead of a sentence I would get out one or two words. My brain had deteriorated to the point I was almost nonfunctional.”
The memory loss and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) hurt not only Frank, but his family.
“My daughter called me because going through the days I had at that time – PTSD, nightmares at night, headaches all day. She called me to say ‘hey dad, how are you doing?’ I was trying to remember my daughter’s name; I raised my daughter, but I could not remember her name."
“Even though she knew I had a problem, I did not know how serious.”
Frank eventually reached out for help since he was having nightmares and headaches continuously. He learned about his head injury and internal injuries. He received concentrated treatment for two years.
“I was undergoing the PTSD therapy; I was undergoing speech therapy. I was undergoing neurological therapy, and also surgeries that I had. This was ongoing all at the same time, so it was pretty intense for me.”
Near the end of that care, Frank learned about an organization dedicated to honoring and empowering Wounded Warriors.
“As I was being medically retired from the military, a representative from Wounded Warrior Project came to my unit and asked if I wanted to be involved in one of their events. I had no idea what it was. I only knew that it sounded good and it would be a place to get together with other people that were injured as I was. It basically changed my life.”
The event brought veterans together to regain some of the camaraderie lost after military service. Events like this help warriors rebuild their confidence, find people they can trust, and let their guard down.
“We went to a San Diego Padres game, we got to go golfing, we had cookouts, special guests that came to talk to us about their military careers.”
By watching other warriors with more serious injuries thrive, Frank learned his challenges were not the end of his life.
“The way to go is forward. You can’t look back, you can deal with serious injuries. You could get beyond those, move forward, still have a productive life, still have a very good life.”
Through that gathering, Frank also learned about WWP programs that could impact his life – Soldier Ride®, Peer Support Groups – he also connected with the Benefits Service team.
“They came to me; the benefits team told me to contact them at any time and they would walk me through the steps to process my paperwork for my VA benefits to get my disability rating. They did this at no cost to me whatsoever.”
Although Frank got a medical discharge from the military, he still had to apply for benefits he earned in service.
Part of that process is navigating government systems to establish a VA disability rating.
“I still wasn’t in the best shape at the time – I was still having serious headaches and other PTSD issues, and they helped me every step of the way.”
The process initially seemed daunting for Frank.
“The benefits team came into my life at the exact moment I needed them to help me the most. Yes, I am going to be medically retired. Yes, I am going to be a civilian.
“I can’t think properly, and I have no idea how I would have gone through the paperwork at the VA to get the disability rating that I should have expected for the injuries I had. A Wounded Warrior Project benefits team member found me, talked to me, helped me with the process, of a year-long with the VA to get me the disability rating I felt and the Veterans Administration felt I deserved.”
WWP Benefits Service teammates work closely with warriors to document their injuries and ensure all necessary paperwork is prepared before filing a claim. That has led to a 95 percent success rate for WWP benefits claims – proof those efforts not only make the most of each warrior’s time, but also the most of the VA staff member’s time.
The Benefits Service team also hosts events known as VA claims days. These events bring warriors face-to-face with VA staff so both sides can talk about the medical needs and provide a timely VA response. In some instances, a warrior is denied a claims request, but can better understand why their request was not approved.
Frank did not need a claims day. His injuries keep him from working.
“I’m not considered by the Veterans Administration or Social Security as employable. They understand the seriousness of my injuries even when I did not.”
His VA rating provides payments that allow him to help his family since he cannot earn a living.
“That impacts me to this day and will impact me until the end of my life.”
Not only did Frank get the answer he needed, he got it in a timely manner.
“Wounded Warrior Project helped me get my VA rating at a much quicker speed than I would have had otherwise.”
But Frank’s challenges are not over.
“Right now, it’s just something you live with in this post-concussive state. I take medicine every day to curtail a lot of the migraines.”
He estimates he loses at least two to three days a month to migraine headaches. He never dealt with this issue before that explosion in Iraq.
“When I get a bad migraine from my injury I basically, I can’t do anything. I have to shut the windows, I turn off the lights, I turn off the music, and basically I lay there in almost a subconscious state, take my medicine, and basically lay there for five to six hours.
“It’s gotten better through the years through the treatment and the medicine they gave me.”
Through talking with other veterans he met at WWP events, Frank learned how to adjust.
“As far as PTSD, I’m still dealing with anxiety attacks which I get, and panic attacks.”
Despite these challenges, Frank is dedicated to living his fullest life and giving back to other veterans.
“I found out through Wounded Warrior Project that my life could be whole again and I could have a new life after the military.”
Learn about how WWP helps veterans complete claims for the benefits they earned in service at https://www.woundedwarriorproject.org/programs/benefits-service.
Contact: Rob Louis – Public Relations, firstname.lastname@example.org, 904.627.0432
About Wounded Warrior Project
Since 2003, Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) has been meeting the growing needs of warriors, their families, and caregivers – helping them achieve their highest ambition. Learn more: https://newsroom.woundedwarriorproject.org.