Operation Backbone: Fresh Air in a Cynical World


Politics is cynical and weird. It is often far removed from the finer choices people make every day: to be good parents, do the right thing by their communities, serve their country, sometimes even to disability and death. So when politics intersects with individuals making those choices — as it did with the not-too-distant discussion over the shortcomings of the Veterans Affairs Administration and how well they were, or were not, caring for our veterans — it’s sometimes hard to see the light.

But Mike Sformo, Navy Veteran and founder/CEO of Operation Backbone, may have found some way to heal the misunderstanding and rebuild the public — and veteran — trust in the VA. And, most importantly, help those veterans and their families who are fighting to overcome the physical and emotional tolls of battle, and who make the hard decision to push through the pain every day.

According to the OPBB website, Sformo says he started the organization mostly for the wives:

“I actually created Backbone for wives and spouses of wounded veterans in mind. I became very upset thinking about how I would feel if my wife Maria would have to hold up all that weight on her own—the weight of the family, bills, kids, school, plus the weight of a wounded husband! All that while trying to maintain as normal a life for our children.

Many wives and spouses of wounded veterans do this with little or no help from their families because many live far away due to the orders, bases, and locations of the military. So I initially created Backbone for the wives to have a simple and direct route for helping to take car of their soldiers who have incurred the most severe wounds on and off battle while protecting our great nation.

It’s interesting: while Backbone was created to provide the most advanced brain and spine surgical treatments in the world for our soldiers, the heart and soul of Backbone is for the wives and spouses who work nonstop in silence everyday protecting, healing, and managing as best as they can a healthy and balanced life for their wounded spouse and their entire family. That’s why Operation Backbone was created.”

Speaking to him personally, he’s very direct and sums it up this way:

“It tore me apart what these guys and their families go through. Everything is developed for the soldiers, but my heart and soul has really been with the wives.”

Sformo, a Navy vet who served in Operation Desert Storm — and then later off the coast of South America conducting counter-narcotics operations and off the coast of Somalia as part of Operation Restore Hope — credits his wife with inspiring him to develop an organization like Operation Backbone. And perhaps her influence is also why Sformo began to take seriously the words of physicians he began to consult with.

“I remember one of our brain surgeons said to me, ‘I can fix the wounds, but the mental state, that’s the challenge’,” Sformo says.

It’s becoming a more recognized truth that soldiers returning from war are suffering not just from physical scars and the lingering anxiety resulting from battle, but from what one former Marine, now a writer with the Washington Post, calls the decisions that haunt them.

Ten years ago we would have just called it post-traumatic stress disorder. Sixty years ago, it would have been combat fatigue. And in the shell-raked trenches of the Western Front, it would have been shell shock. But Jeff’s dead kid was none of those things. Jeff’s weight was something else — a moral injury.

Moral injury is a nebulous term that few use seriously because it doesn’t read well on Veterans Affairs claims. It’s a new term but not a new concept. Moral injury is as timeless as war — going back to when Ajax thrust himself upon his sword on the shores of Troy. Unlike post-traumatic stress, which is a result of a fear-conditioned response, moral injury is a feeling of existential disorientation that manifests as intense guilt.

That’s where the Buffalo Sabres hockey franchise comes in. Cliff Benson, Chief Development Officer/Alternate Governor with the Buffalo Sabres, works with Sformo to help these returning vets not only get back to a place of physical fitness, but also a mental one.

“Part of what we do is as simple as getting some of our players to connect with these injured guys,” says Benson, who is clearly a fan of both Operation Backbone and Sformo. “We have a state of the art fitness center, the Harbor Center, where we have the ability to provide post surgical rehab and get them back into a fitness rhythm.”

However, says Benson, some of the most important work happens in the head.

“A large part of it is letting [these Vets] know they’re not alone in this battle — athletes go through a lot of these same injuries and they can sympathize with these guys.”

And, says Benson, it’s helping the VA fill the gaps in areas where they don’t have the resources or expertise needed. Sformo, when asked what about him led him to actually follow through on creating OPBB — rather than just having a great idea and never acting on it — he says, simply, “Leaders lead, and we find a way to win.”

Benson puts it slightly differently: “Everybdy’s starting to get the idea that we can work together. We can all point fingers…but what we said was let’s do it…let’s connect the dots. There are a lot of people who want to help, but there aren’t too many who take the lead. And that’s what Mike has done.”

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