Troops in Contact: a guest post by SGM

The satellite radio crackles to life; “Iron Gray TOC, this is Butcher 6 receiving indirect fire at this time”.  The radio operator answers the call; “This is Iron Gray TOC.  Roger, requesting air support at this time.”

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.  I am sure many of you have seen that letter. 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 move autism benefits out of ECHO and make them 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.

[Ed note: Please support our military families with autism by contacting your legislators --> HERE <-- and telling them we need HR2288 The Caring for Military Kids with Autism Act (CMKAA) to pass. You can learn more about the Congressional Briefing on autism in the military, scheduled for January 31, 2012 --> HERE<--.  CMKAA would essentially mirror the insurance reform we have seen pass in 29 states mandating autism therapies as a part of standard medical care. Currently, the military family must pass through EFMP to access ECHO to gain therapies such as ABA - and then it only covers approximately 10-12 hours per week. The recommended amount of ABA is between 25-40. Also, access to EFMP and ECHO varies greatly from one area to the next. Keep in mind, we now have hundreds of thousands of National Guard troops answering the call to duty who do not live near a Military Treatment Facility. Also, dependents of retirees (even those forced to medically retire) lose all access to all autism therapies via ECHO. We are asking Congress to make autism therapies a part of TRICARE standard, to remove the dollar cap on care, and therefore be available to both active duty and retirees. Thank you.]

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About Rachel Kenyon

Rachel Kenyon is an Almost-Former Army Wife, Aspie, Advocate and mom of two beautiful babes - The Boy (10) and RM (8). The Boy is a Legomaniac and RM is a kick-ass diva with Autism and 4q Deletion Syndrome. View all posts by Rachel Kenyon

8 responses to “Troops in Contact: a guest post by SGM

  • Troops in Contact « Autism Speaks Official Blog

    [...] 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. [...]

  • akbutler

    You are a hero. For your country and for your whole family. Our part of the village is grateful for everything you do every day. You have quite the amazing partner at home. It’s an honor to know your family. Thank you.

  • Jennie K. Diller-Daniels

    i just read this at autism speaks, i started tearing up. SGM should blog more =)

  • A Ventography!

    A powerful post. Very well written.

  • Dawn Ford

    If ABA is covered under Tricare Standard instead of ECHO, would those of us paying for Tricare Reserve Select be covered for ABA? My son was diagnosed with ASD while my husband was deployed for 12 months with his National Guard unit. He started ABA during that time, but when my husband returned and we began paying for TRS, his ABA claims were denied, despite the fact that we still had an authorized referral from Tricare. We were left with no ABA coverage and a $3,800.00 bill as a result. Not exactly good conditions for a welcome home after being gone for a year! Initially we thought he would be covered because a Tricare rep. told us he would be, but it was only transitional coverage, it was just devastating for our family….

    • Mrs. Sergeant Major

      It depends… my understanding of Reserve Select is that the coverage is comparable to TRICARE Standard (active duty & retiree benefits) but ‘on a space-available basis’. Since ABA is a unique and would-be-new to TRICARE Standard if this bill were to pass, I have to assume that to some degree it would be covered. But then, access and availability would become our next area of attack so that MORE providers are added to meet the needs of all members of service.

  • Nana

    I have a son that served 7 years in the military. During that time, he and his wife had 2 boys. They both have been diagnosed with autisism. I think it is time to look at the connection between military and all the autistic children. What is causing it?

    • Mrs. Sergeant Major

      Hi, Nana

      Thanks for stopping by here. First, thank you for your son’s service.

      The current mainstream thinking on this issue (why does the rate of autism appear higher in the military?) is not that the rate is necessarily higher, but that the numbers are more accurate than the US population at large. The military is the perfect cross-section of all racial, ethnic, economic & geographical backgrounds – and since all members and dependents are tracked using one service (TRICARE), it just makes sense that we would see higher numbers. If you look at the South Korean study from last summer that took into account both medical and educational data throughout the population, the numbers were close to 1 in 38 (http://www.autismspeaks.org/about-us/press-releases/new-study-reveals-autism-prevalence-south-korea-estimated-be-26-or-1-38-chil). I know many civilian families also finding that more than one of their children are on the spectrum. It truly is an epidemic and we need more answers. NOW.

      Thank you, Nana.

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