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TRICARE Helps Wounded Warrior Roll Out Strong

Robert Fox, TRICARE Management Activity

October 31, 2008

Army Staff Sgt. Matthew Keil cares about his soldiers. Most of them were teenagers when he led them into Iraq. Before they deployed, he spoke with their parents and told them that their sons would come home safe.

“Don’t worry, I’m bringing your boys home,” he told them. “Don’t worry. I’ll bring them home.”

Matt also promised his wife Tracy that he would make it home, but his deployment to Iraq ended more abruptly than expected.

On Feb. 24, 2007, while on a routine patrol in Iraq, a bullet entered through the right side of Matt’s neck and exited from his left shoulder blade. He was shot by a sniper.

After the injury, “I could hear what was going on around me,” Matt recalled. “My vision was blurry. And then, it slowly got better minutes later. I could hear being carried down the stairs, being put on the transport vehicle to go back to the aid station and all that until the first helicopter arrived. That’s when I passed out, or they sedated me, and I woke up at Walter Reed [Army Medical Center]. Three days had passed.”

Combat feelings were still with Matt when he woke up in the hospital. “I went into a fight or flight mode, and I started trying to fight because I had no idea where I was,” he said. “I woke up in a hospital surrounded by my family. I went a little crazy. And, they slowly brought me off of sedation to where I was familiar with my surroundings.”

As Matt’s combat stress waned, other concerns set in.

“Immediately, I woke up and asked my wife if we were going to have enough money. I wanted to make sure the bills were going to be paid. I didn’t know if we were paying for the hospital at the time. I had no idea what had happened to me. I knew I was shot.”

Matt and Tracy were both quite new to TRICARE. Being a young couple, they knew they had benefits but did not know much about them. After staying at Walter Reed and transitioning to the veteran’s hospital in Tampa, Florida, they knew they wanted to find care closer to their home in Colorado. Ideally, they hoped to find a specialty center where Matt could work on improving his condition and have family close by.

Understanding the importance of being home, Tracy’s sister researched hospitals that specialized in spinal cord injuries. She found Craig Hospital in Denver, close to the Keils’ home.

Craig Hospital is a world renowned center for research and the rehabilitation of patients with spinal cord injuries like Matt’s. The hospital has a comprehensive system of care that begins from the time of injury and goes through rehabilitation. Follow-up care exists as long as needed. TRICARE will help Matt for the rest of his life.

While Tracy visited Craig Hospital, “They let me know that care would be covered under our TRICARE benefits, that they were a TRICARE provider and we could come here just based on him being a TRICARE member.”

Care received at Craig was instrumental to Matt’s recovery. Doctors at Craig were able to wean Keil off his ventilator, which can increase life expectancy. Tracy and Matt were also grateful for the level of independence doctor’s and nurses were able to teach Matt to have. This is due in large part to two tools. First, Craig Hospital engages patients in extensive educational programs as part of rehabilitation plans. Tracy was involved in Matt’s physical therapy sessions at Craig and was able to learn various techniques to help Matt feel better and potentially improve mobility. Second, Matt’s mobility was also improved because TRICARE paid for a robotic wheelchair.

The costs of Matt’s care did not burden the Keils’ once they learned the value of having TRICARE.

“We still get maybe five explanations of benefits a week, and we’ve never gotten a bill for anything,” Tracy said. “Every single thing was covered by TRICARE, everything.”

“If you include all of his medical equipment that we need at home now plus the stay at Craig, you’re looking at well over half a million dollars, maybe more than three-quarters of a million dollars,” said Tracy.

The current explanations of benefits for the Keils have reached over one-million dollars, and bills will continue to mount as Matt’s care will last a lifetime. TRICARE will help him keep rolling.

Because his disability is so recent, Matt is not yet enrolled in Medicare. In early 2009 he will receive information concerning Medicare enrollment. At that time, Matt will have to enroll in Medicare Part B in order to keep his TRICARE benefits. A local TRICARE benefits counselor is working with Matt and Tracy to help answer all their questions.

“It’s a burden lifted off, knowing that we are going to be taken care of,” Matt said. “You don’t have to worry about it. You know you are going to receive the best health care possible with TRICARE.” Today, with their benefits in place, Tracy and Matt relax, joke with each other, and enjoy being newlyweds.

Recently, Matt’s brother came to town to help out while Tracy went on a retreat with several wives of other wounded warriors.

“I figured, while she’s gone, I’d try and clean up some of the mess around the house,” Matt said smiling, looking at as wife as if he knew what was about to come. “You know how women are. You can never do anything right … So, I ended up shrinking one of her favorite shirts.”

Tracy and Matt laughed.

Today the Keils both have jobs with the Wounded Warrior Project, a non-profit organization for veterans. They spend their days in the fast lane. Matt races in his chair seeking the next veteran to help. Tracy stays by his side, helps the spouses of wounded warriors. They are a team that tries to teach others about TRICARE benefits, because TRICARE gave them the tools they needed when they needed them most.

“We have so many people supporting us on this journey, and we feel very fortunate to live this life and touch the lives of others,” said Tracy.

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