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Ines Montalvo has a gift for noticing what’s wrong with wounded soldiers beyond what the eye can see. She asks them an important question they’ve never been asked: “What do you want?”
There is a place on Fort Drum where wounded soldiers stay before they leave the Army. It’s called the Warrior Transition Unit. They actually live together for a while in barracks. This is where soldiers prepare to enter the world as civilians. They get counseling, take classes, meditate. There are a range of programs designed to ease the transition to civilian life.
It is a high stress time. Twenty-two veterans commit suicide every day, and preparing soldiers for transition is a critical time.
Our Homefront producer, Meredith Turk, met one woman, Ines Montalvo, a soldier herself who found a calling by taking care of the sick and injured soldiers.
Ines Montalvo: These are soldiers that need caring. That’s what I like to do. I want to take care of people. I’m a Mom, I’m a grandma. They need someone to take of them. They need soldiers managing stuff for them and whatnot. And I’m like, “I would love doing that. I would love doing that.”
Meredith Turk: Can you describe what a typical day is like for you?
IM: As cadre, my day started at five o’clock in the morning. I had to get up, get ready, come in early, get everyone’s appointments printed out. The formation’s at seven o’clock. Make sure everyone’s there and everyone’s where they’re supposed to be. Who needs to get driven to an appointment. Who didn’t know they had an appointment.
MT: What did you look forward to? Were there specific characters or people?
IM: Some of them, yes. Some of the stood out.
MT: Can you tell me about one?
IM: The ones that seem like they’re angry. I call them the angry ones. They have that mean look on them, and those are the ones I would always gravitate to because I’m like “No, nobody can be that mean.” And I would walk up to them and I’m like “you’re trying to be tough, but I got you.”
MT: What would they say?
IM: They would “Grrrrr.” Yea, they broke down after a while. A lot of them had a hard time actually believing that I was genuine. They thought, “Nah, she can’t be for real. She can’t be that bubbly and that happy. She can’t really love us that much.” Yea I did. And they finally got it—yea, she does.
MT: It’s amazing that you haven’t lost a soldier because I’m just speculating that that’s a population that would be susceptible to suicidal thoughts.
IM: Yes, there are a lot that are there for such things. But I think that as a cadre member, making sure that you watch out for the signs.
MT: What are you looking for?
IM: A change. I can sometimes tell. I can tell. I’m not going to use the word “sometimes.” I can tell when people are just off. And if I see that somebody’s not right I have no problem walking up to them and just start chatting them up. And it will eventually come out.
MT: It seems like it’s kind of a gift to be able to do that.
IM: Yea, well, it is a gift. It sounds like bragging, because I’m not really bragging. I’ve got the story to back it up. So, I’m standing outside my office one day and there’s an argument going on outside my office. Not a bad argument, just a couple of people a couple of soldiers bantering back and forth and there was a third solider off to the side just listening to the other two’s conversation. When the other two had finished their back and forth, the other soldier outside of my office—who I didn’t know him very well; I just knew him in passing—but he’s just standing there very serious. When they’re done he says something to the effect of “Well, you don’t know what people go through.” And then he walked away. He just said it. So I hear him and I watched him walk away. The female that was outside, I called her over and I said, “Isn’t he one of your soldiers?” And she said, “Yea.” I said, “You may want to talk to him.” And she said, “Why?” And I said, “I didn’t like the way he said what he said. And I didn’t like the way he was standing there, I think there was something going on.” And she’s like, “OK, I’ll go talk to him.” After the weekend was over he was contemplating suicide because his wife was leaving him. So they got him the help he needed. So I’m like “I’m good.”
MT: What has surprised you about your work as a cadre?
IM: The actual impact I can have on somebody. Some soldiers have come through there and they have no clue about what they were going to do. Nobody actually asked them, “What do you want?” That’s one of the questions I always ask, “What do you want to do?” “Well, I was told…” I’m like, “That’s not what I asked you. What do you want? What do you want?”
MT: That’s a tough question.
IM: Yea, but nobody ever asked them. I’m surprised, I’m like, “nobody ever asked you?” And they’re like, “No,” “Well, what do you want to do?” And they’re like, “Well, I don’t know.” And I’m like, “Well, think about it what do you like? What do you like doing?”
MT: What changes when you ask that? How does it change that person?
IM: They get a funny look on their face? Makes them sit there and think, “Well, nobody ever asked me that before.” Makes them sit there and think, “I don’t know. I never thought about it.” And I’m like, “Well, you’re getting to the end of your career; I think you need to start looking at that, preparing. You’re not going to be wearing the uniform forever. What are you going to do? I don’t want to read about you living underneath a bridge.” I think that’s what happens with a lot of folks. They never really think about it and they just float along and when the end comes they’re not prepared for it. And that’s what they’re here for, to get them prepared for it. But even though they’re preparing for it, I don’t think they give it enough thought.