By Joe Tash
Rancho Santa Fe resident Russ Penniman took the oath to serve in the U.S. Navy in the 1970s, against the backdrop of the end of the Vietnam War. A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, Penniman said he watched with “great disappointment” as the nation neglected its returning service members.
Now a rear admiral serving on active duty as deputy commander and chief of staff for the U.S. Pacific Fleet, Penniman said he is determined not to let veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer the same fate.
Penniman is speaking out in support of the Integra Center, which is envisioned as a facility where wounded warriors can receive all of the care they need, from medical services to education to job training to counseling, under one roof.
Penniman’s wife, Carol, whose background is in the financial industry, serves on the Integra Center’s five-member board of directors, and the couple recently hosted a concert during the San Diego County Fair to promote the project.
The new center, once it is operational, will serve wounded combat veterans who have suffered amputations and traumatic brain injuries.
“These are the folks we need to take care of for the rest of their lives. As a society, we owe them that,” Penniman said in a telephone interview from his Naval office in Hawaii.
“There’s a small group of Americans out on the line all the time, manning a post, standing a watch, on patrol, to secure the freedoms that we enjoy every day,” said Penniman, who is also a member of the board for the 22nd District Agricultural Association, which oversees the state-owned Del Mar Fairgrounds.
Anthony McDaniel Jr., a Marine sergeant who lost both legs and one hand when he stepped on an “improvised explosive device” while on patrol in Afghanistan in 2010, said he received a lot of support during his recovery and rehabilitation at medical centers in Washington, D.C., and San Diego. The Integra Center will be a great addition to the range of services available to wounded warriors, he said.
The Integra Center “is a place that people are trying to get together for everyone to get what they need. Nobody is left out. We want people to feel like there’s somewhere they can to get the things they need,” he said.
McDaniel, 24, plays in a wheelchair basketball league and is planning to move to Florida where he will finish a degree in accounting before starting his own small business such as a car wash.
The idea for a “one-stop shop” to provide comprehensive services for wounded warriors was first proposed by Rear Adm. C. Forrest Faison III, commander of the Naval Medical Center San Diego and Navy Medicine West.
In an article published last December by the U.S. Naval Institute, Faison said wounded warriors need four things to help them transition successfully back to civilian life and avoid the pitfalls of substance abuse and homelessness: seamless medical care for life, education, job and career assistance, and family support services such as childcare and counseling.
While such services are available for wounded warriors in San Diego, they are spread out in many different locations, said Carol Penniman. Because many injured service members can’t drive, they have to rely on their spouses for transportation, causing family stress and putting the spouses’ own jobs at risk.
“Forrest said it would be so great to put all of this under one roof,” said Carol Penniman.
“We want it to be warm, welcoming, light, accommodating,” she said. “A community place where they can just go and be with each other, a place where they feel very welcome and comfortable.”
Along with the Martina McBride concert, the Integra Center also staffed a booth with volunteers during the run of the fair, providing information, collecting small donations and allowing fair visitors to sign a commemorative wall.
Supporters are beginning their outreach efforts with the goal of raising $20 million to lease space for the center, customize the building, and run the center for its first five years, said MaryAnn F. Stewart, Integra Center president.
“Right now we’re just at the threshold of seeing this happen,” said Carol Penniman.
Stewart said the group seeks to lease part of an existing building, with 40,000 to 50,000 square feet of space. About half of the center would be devoted to medical care, which would be provided by the U.S. Department of Defense and the Veterans Administration. Currently, such care is provided at Balboa Naval Medical Center.
Ideally, the facility would be located along the I-15 corridor in North San Diego County, Stewart said. The center would be designed to serve some 125 wounded warriors per year, and may also have capacity to serve the civilian population, she said.
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