Retired Soldier recalls his family’s assistance
It’s been nearly 40 years, but Butch Wootten still remembers how it felt to be an Army specialist worried about the deteriorating health condition of his infant son.
But mixed in with the memories of worry, concern and sadness from those days are also the feelings of support that came with the aid provided to him by Army Emergency Relief.
“What AER did for us was like a breath of fresh air,” Wootten said. “We were a very young couple just trying to make ends meet. AER pretty much bailed me out.”
It was one thing for Wootten to support himself and his young family on a specialist’s salary. But it was a totally different challenge to support his family while also facing the incidental costs associated with caring for a baby being hospitalized far from home.
The aid AER provided during that difficult time still resonates with Wootten. When Team Redstone kicks off the annual AER campaign Thursday, Wootten will be sure to be at the event. Now a longtime AER supporter, Wootten is serving this year as an AER key representative for the Army Materiel Command, where he works. He is sharing the responsibility with his co-key representative Col. Tim Schley.
Born in January 1974, Wootten’s son, Christopher, failed to make developmental progress and was diagnosed as “failure to thrive.” Extremely thin, Wootten’s “beautiful little boy” soon resembled a “poster child of some Third World country in the midst of a famine.”
“It was a very emotional time because we thought we were going to lose him. We tried everything the doctors told us to do. He just wouldn’t thrive,” Wootten recalled.
At the time, Wootten was stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C., with the 6th Psychological Operations Battalion, 1st Psychological Operations Group. The medical team at Fort Bragg’s Womack Army Hospital was unable to help the baby. The only thing they could do was transfer him to Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
Wootten and his son traveled to Walter Reed on an Air Force C9 Nightingale. Intense testing and analysis followed, and soon the baby began to gain weight and thrive.
“The doctors at Walter Reed discovered that he was lacking an enzyme and it had to be jump started so he could process protein,” Wootten said. “He started gaining weight, but it required a lot of intense care to get him there.
“The doctors said they needed me at the hospital as much as I could be there. They said I needed to stay with my son. So, I spent my days feeding him, changing his diapers, playing with him and holding him.”
Although Wootten was happy that his son was getting the medical treatment he needed, the young Soldier faced another problem – how to support himself in D.C. and maintain a family home near Fort Bragg. The salary of a specialist couldn’t cover the costs of maintaining two households.
“At night, I stayed at the Walter Reed guest house. But I had to pay for lodging, meals and laundry, and my discretionary funds were very limited. As a specialist 4, it was tough,” Wootten recalled.
“I started thinking that maybe I could get a part-time job at night within walking distance of the hospital. I began to lose hope until a fellow Soldier whose child shared the ward with my son told me about Army Emergency Relief.”
Wootten met with an AER counselor at Army Community Service at Walter Reed. The counselor assessed his required living expenses and provided the young Soldier with AER funds to cover those expenses during his son’s three-month stay at Walter Reed.
“They were very friendly and receptive to my situation. They were able to help me determine my financial needs for the remainder of time we estimated my son would be there for medical treatment,” he said. “I could now do my part as a parent and continue to follow doctor’s orders. This also meant I did not have to go out and find part-time evening work in the D.C. metro area to prevent an inevitable financial crisis.
“Without AER, I don’t know what I would have done to get through all of that back then. It takes resources when a loved one is in the hospital, even when the Army covers the medical expenses. My son is 39 now and doing very well.”
Wootten went on to serve 28 years with the Army, retiring in 2001 as a chief warrant officer 5. He worked as a civilian with the Army Aviation Technical Test Center at Fort Rucker and then came to Redstone Arsenal, where he has worked since 2009 as the aviation safety manager for the Army Materiel Command. He is responsible for safety oversight of the Commander’s Aviation Safety Program.
Wootten’s son is now married with three children of his own, living in Columbus, Ga., and working in the medical services field.
“It was a team effort that saved Chris. The doctors were great and we brought a chubby little baby home,” Wootten said.
“I owe his survival to God, the Army pediatric medical team at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the Army Emergency Relief. AER was my life boat. It’s about Soldiers taking care of Soldiers through the rough spots. Thank you for all you do every day and thank you for your selfless contributions to AER.”