May 5, 2009 – Top U.S. Army officials say the Department of Defense took a revolutionary approach to helping wounded soldiers when the first 35 Warrior Transition Units opened nearly two years ago.
Today, the Army boasts of 36 such units for wounded warriors, where soldiers in need of more than six months of medical treatment can go to mend.
Army officials say they have learned to adapt quickly as they continue to provide medical assistance to 9,400 wounded warriors assigned to Warrior Transition Units Army-wide. There are 301 soldiers in Fort Stewart’s WTU.
One veterans’ advocacy group says good intentions sometimes just aren’t good enough.
Paul Sullivan, executive director of Veterans for Common Sense, argues the Defense Department needs to consider policies that protect warriors carrying invisible scars of war long after they return stateside.
That would be in addition to making pre- and post-deployment medical examinations mandatory and uniform, Sullivan said.
An evolving process
“I believe we have a program that is really tailored toward individual soldiers that have, in some cases, medical issues that require intensive care,” said Brig. Gen. Thomas Vandal, the 3rd Infantry Division’s deputy commanding general-support. “I believe we got it about right. There are still some modifications that will occur as this evolves.”
To prove his point, Vandal touts Fort Stewart’s 80 percent approval rating among wounded soldiers who transition out of the WTU.
“That’s an approval rating higher than any other WTU Army-wide,” he said.
Watch video of two soldiers in the Warrior Transition Unit at Fort Stewart talk about their experiences in, Warriors Transition into New Lives.
Even Sgt. John Jones, a 3rd ID soldier who has faced two Article 15 hearings for behavioral problems since being assigned to Fort Stewart’s transition unit, agrees the amenities get high marks.
“They have Internet and cable and flat-screen TVs,” Jones said. “It’s great.”
But he contends the fancy gadgets don’t make up for how soldiers, especially those with diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorders such as himself, are treated by non-commissioned officers and commanders in the unit.
View more images of Sgt. John Jones.
“The amenity side is good, but as far as leadership goes, I’d say it’s the total opposite,” Jones said. “They don’t take into consideration what is really going on with us.”
Sullivan contends something as simple as a policy that would require commanders to consider combat-related mental health issues before taking punitive actions could go a long way.
“Americans believe in due process,” he said. “There’s this assumption that people are innocent.”
A higher standard
Sullivan argues that members of the military are expected to be better civic citizens – as well as healthier and physically stronger – than the general U.S. population.
“And it’s important that, if a service member performed honorably in a war zone and then exhibits behavior problems afterward, the military give him or her additional steps of due process,” Sullivan said.
“We need to make sure we don’t excuse criminal behavior. If they do the crime, they need to do the time. However, there may be mitigating circumstances.”
He cites as an example: service members busted for taking prescription drugs that are not their own or for using illegal drugs after a deployment.
“In a war zone, if they are hurt, they are given copious amounts of painkillers,” said Sullivan, who is a Gulf War veteran. “Their medication is terminated when the pills run out or when they go home.”
As a result, he said, a soldier might get a 30-day supply just 15 days before returning stateside.
“But they have nowhere to go to get another prescription because they can’t get in to see a doc,” Sullivan said. “So these soldiers are running to someone else or using illegal drugs or over-medicating with alcohol.
“And when you do that, your propensity for getting involved in illegal behavior goes up.”
Veterans for Common Sense argues that any soldier, Marine, sailor or airman facing Uniform Code of Military Justice action after combat duty should have an extra layer of due process. They say that’s especially the case when ramifications can range from cut in pay and lost rank to jail time.
“We need to examine service members … to make sure war is not a contributing factor,” Sullivan said. “Then, if so, the military has a responsibility to make sure that a service member has prompt and high-quality medical care.”
Only then, he argues, can the military re-evaluate what punitive damages are necessary.
Army officials say such policies aren’t needed.
“For the purposes of good order and discipline, WTU soldiers are soldiers just like anybody else,” Vandal said. “The same regulations of (the uniform code) applies to them.”
In the example of a wounded warrior busted for drug use, Vandal said commanders take the soldier’s medical history into consideration.
“If it is a result of injuries or based on injuries or medications they have received, we will consider that and make a determination of what is appropriate,” Vandal said. “If you say (you get a) blank check because you are assigned to a WTU and the normal standards of discipline and regulations don’t apply to you, you can quickly see that you would have some significant issues in the WTU.
“And you simply can’t afford that.”
Lt. Col. James Kanicki, the WTU’s battalion commander, said leaders up and down the chain of command are expected to consider whether a once-model soldier before them received an injury that has changed his or her behavior before taking punitive action.
“I believe we do – and will – take their medical conditions into consideration,” Kanicki said. “The goal is to take a holistic assessment of each individual.”
Because the expectation is there, both officers said, a specific policy isn’t needed.
Georgia’s delegation on Capitol Hill shares that sentiment.
In a phone interview last month, U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said Maj. Gen. Tony Cucolo, commanding general of the 3rd ID, has assured him that the individual needs of soldiers are being met, especially in the case of punitive military actions.
“His response to me was there is an expectation that the physical or emotional or mental conditions of a soldier would be considered in as far as he was concerned,” said Isakson, who serves on the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. “I trust what he’s told me.”
Isakson said contact he’s had with patients in Georgia’s various veterans hospitals confirms that the best interests of the injured remain a top priority.
“We owe an obligation to all our soldiers, if they are having a difficult time transitioning, whether physically or emotionally, from injuries where they were deployed … it is only appropriate to transition them all the same way if they need help,” Isakson said.
U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., took the idea of a policy a step further.
“I think trying to have a written policy is difficult,” he said.
The senator, who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, fears a policy would make Uniform Code of Military Justice proceedings inconsistent Army-wide.
“This information does come out. It is available to the triers of fact and they can take it into consideration,” Chambliss said. “It’s not any different than what happens on the civilian side.”
Both senators pointed to the options soldiers have to make appeals to ombudsmen.
Sgt. Jones, the soldier who has faced two Article 15 hearings, said he has called on ombudsmen services twice.
“I feel like the ombudsmen are another way for company commanders and battalion commanders to get intel from soldiers about what’s really going on,” he said. “They don’t really advocate for us. It’s more like a neutral party.”
U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., who sits on the House Subcommittee on Defense, said a strength of the current WTU program remains its adaptability.
“I think one of the things this program does do is give commanders flexibility for individual circumstances,” Kingston said. “It’s not a perfect situation, and I think Congress would respond to whatever the Army would recommend.”
Kingston has sent an inquiry to Army Staff asking them to investigate allegations of extended delays in returning Reservists or National Guardsmen to their home units after a recovery stint in a WTU.
In a prepared statement, U.S. Rep. John Barrow, D-Ga., did not specify whether he supported a specific policy.
Barrow was specific about his expectations, however.
“I expect our military commanders to do right by all of our soldiers who are injured in the line of duty, and that includes all the injuries arising out of their service, whether or not they are combat-related,” Barrow said via e-mail. “Whenever there is evidence that they aren’t getting the treatment they need or deserve, as in the situation we saw at Walter Reed … I think we need to step in and hold our commanders accountable.”
Sullivan contends this approach to setting Defense Department policy based on waiting for one of the armed forces branches to say it has a problem is a problem in and of itself.
“There is a very serious problem when a member of the legislative branch has to contact someone in the executive branch prior to answering a reporter’s questions,” he said. “It should be transparent.
“There is a disconnect, and it’s shameful and embarrassing the senators of Georgia are this disconnected,” he said. “I would encourage them to sit down with veterans, unscripted, with no commanders present, and ask them some questions.”
Sullivan said the first two queries are simple: How long did it take you to see a doctor? Did the doctor listen to your concerns or just try to put you on medication?
“Our soldiers are our most important asset, and we must give them medical exams before and after deployment,” he said. “And if they are accused of a crime, especially if loss of pay or rank or a discharge is involved, we need to make sure the due process rights of these soldiers are protected. It is the least we can do after sending them to a war zone.”