For many soldiers recently returned from deployments, injury has made the simple routine of driving anything but, and for some, the task would now be impossible without special help.
It was for this reason that U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS) Commissioned Corps officers stationed at Fort Bragg worked with staff at the Womack Army Medical Center (WAMC) to create the “Driving Rehab Program,” a driving rehabilitation program that allows returning soldiers whose injuries would normally prevent them from driving to get back on the road safely.
LCDR Joe Otto, a USPHS officer and Staff Occupational Therapist in the Traumatic Brain Injury Clinic at WAMC, heads the initiative. He explained that the Driving Rehab Program has a dual purpose: “We look at it from two different vantage points: we’re here to make sure that the service member has transportation to go back and forth to work, and back and forth to their different leisure activities that they have in the community, but we’re also making sure that the community is safe.”
LCDR Otto, the head of Fort Bragg’s Driving Rehab Program, outfits a service member’s car with new controls that will allow its owner to drive it again in spite of a physical disability he received in combat.
LCDR Otto is assigned to Fort Bragg as part of the ongoing agreement between the Department of Defense (DoD) and the USPHS to increase behavioral health and rehabilitative services available to military service members, their family members and veterans.
“It’s sort of a different role for a therapist or a medical provider,” said LCDR Otto, who admits that acting as both a regulator and a rehab specialist can be tough. “There are times when we are doing things that the service member might not think is in their best interest, but it is in the best interest of the community, and truly it’s in the best interest of the service member, but they might not see it at the time.”
Luckily, because of the services that the program provides, it is rare that driving privileges for service members must be restricted. The exceptions are severe visual deficits and cognitive deficits. But, LCDR Otto said, if a service member has a physical limitation such as decreased strength, decreased range of motion, loss of sensation in any of his or her extremities, or even the loss of a limb, “We can often adapt around it.”
Another popular technology is the turn signal crossover, which allows drivers to switch on their turn signals using their right hand instead of the left.
A service member at Fort Bragg tries out the new controls installed in his car as part of the Driving Rehab Program.
But, it’s not just equipment, it is training too. “We train all of our service members who need equipment before they get it typically, we try them on that equipment, and we always train them afterward,” LCDR Otto said.
The process for figuring out what a patient needs is two-phased. First, there’s an in-clinic, paper and pencil, pre-driving screen. This screen determines whether the patient has the cognitive functional abilities and the range of motion to get behind the wheel. Once complete, the second step is the on-road driving test, measuring gap acceptance, yielding to traffic and different stimuli, regulating speed, and a number of other variables that are all components of safe driving.
“There’s no guaranteed way to predict safety,” said LCDR Otto. “But we’re in a position where we have to do our best job to say, ‘Is this person at any greater risk than the average driver to continue to operate a vehicle?’”
About four-to-six service members a month are enrolled in the Driving Rehab Program, and most are very enthusiastic about the benefits they reap. A Command Sargent Major (CSM), who we cannot identify due to U.S. Army regulations, was diagnosed with cognitive impairment and Nystagmus (a condition of involuntary eye movement). The soldier said that for him, the Driving Rehab Program was critical, “The program was a tremendous assistance in my recovery. It improved my neglect and scanning abilities which were a result of my brain injury.”
A Specialist (SPC) who was diagnosed with Hemianopsia, which is decreased vision or blindness in half the visual field of one or both eyes, simply said that “The program gave me hope and a chance to return to normal.”
WAMC’s commander agrees. “The more rapidly our injured service members can be brought back into daily routines that they’re comfortable with, the sooner they can reengage in normal life,” said COL Brian Canfield
And this means a lot, even if that includes getting stuck in traffic on the way to work.