By Joe Gould – Staff writer Posted : Sunday Mar 4, 2012 9:27:37 EST
In the wake of six suicides and 25 domestic disputes reported among soldiers at Fort Bragg, N.C., over a five-week span, 18th Airborne Corps commander Lt. Gen. Frank Helmick has called for a “thorough investigation” of the post’s Warrior Transition Battalion.
Helmick’s announcement followed an emotional meeting between a dozen wounded soldiers, spouses and other advocates Feb. 15. The group voiced complaints about the alleged overmedication of soldiers in the warrior transition battalion and their inability to get the care they need.
Toni Woodman-Mc-Neill told officials at the meeting that her soldier husband was denied needed surgeries while his condition deteriorated and his dependence on pain medication increased. Her husband, Sgt. Lee McNeill, 43, suffers from cognitive problems, post-traumatic stress disorder and spinal injuries from an explosion while he deployed to Iraq, she said.
“The problem is when [injured soldiers are] going to be med-boarded out, they stop medical treatment and just give them pain medication,” Woodman-McNeill told Army Times. “I had to give up my career to take care of him because they weren’t taking care of him.”
In another case, a former paratrooper assigned to the Warrior Transition Battalion fired at police and firefighters outside his home last month, local police said. The soldier, Staff Sgt. Joshua Eisenhauer, was shot by police and has been in custody since the Jan. 24 incident. He faces 15 counts of attempted first-degree murder and other charges.
The investigation of the Warrior Transition Battalion — which Army officials are terming an inspection — is being conducted by the 18th Airborne Corps’ inspector general, Col. Maggie Dunn.
The probe will delve into the policies and procedures at the 477-soldier battalion, according to Michael X. Garrett, the 18th Airborne Corps chief of staff.
Helmick has also called for a separate outside inspection of the post’s hospital, Womack Army Medical Center, Garrett said.
Garrett called the suicides “of great concern,” and said the Army focuses programs on the contributors to suicides: work and relationship failures, and alcohol and drug abuse.
“Wounded warriors and their care and families are of vital concern to this command,” Garrett told reporters. “We care deeply and are committed to doing absolutely right by all of our soldiers and our family members. This is something I, and this command, take very seriously: the care of wounded soldiers as they go through the medical process.”
Garrett defended Fort Bragg’s warrior transition battalion, telling reporters several outside reviews had been conducted at the post in the past 20 months, including staff assistance visits, inspections and investigations.
“We can always find ways to be better, but a number of our policies and procedures identified during these past inspections were noted as best practices during these inspections and were shared throughout the Army,” Garrett said.
Garrett acknowledged the concerns of soldiers and spouses raised at the meeting, as “opportunities to review our policies and procedures and to make them better.”
Brig. Gen. Darryl Williams, the chief of Warrior Transition Command, told Army Times he had sent several officials to Fort Bragg to conduct the command’s own inspection. The command retains policy and oversight over warrior transition units but does not supervise them directly.
Williams said it was too soon to say whether the reported issues at Fort Bragg were isolated or indicative of broader problems with the care for wounded troops.
The review comes as the Army investigates behavioral health facilities in Europe, including those at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, to determine whether some soldiers receive preferential treatment after being diagnosed with PTSD.
The Army is also probing Madigan Army Medical Center, Wash., to determine whether a team of physicians — known as forensic psychiatrists — improperly overturned PTSD diagnoses after examining case files of least 14 soldiers.
Faith in leaders
At Fort Bragg, Woodman-McNeill said she had to fight with her husband’s superiors to get him spinal surgery, and he is awaiting surgery for one of his shoulders. Meanwhile, she said, he has been on a cocktail of medications that alter his moods and sleeping patterns.
“Instead of giving him medications and fixing the problem, they keep feeding him pain medications,” she said. “At one point a doctor told me, ‘There’s nothing wrong with your husband.’ So I told him, ‘If there’s nothing wrong, why are you making him a drug addict?’ ”
Since then, Woodman-McNeill said she met with Dunn, the inspector general, at the Feb. 15 meeting and she believes Dunn will do her best to investigate the complaints about the warrior transition battalion.
“There’s no way that if you showed up to that meeting you could not listen,” Woodman-McNeill said. “All the stories were the same scenarios, not getting treatment and getting thrown on medications.”
Advocate and former Army spouse Patti Katter said her husband Ken encountered similar problems at the Fort Bragg warrior transition battalion in 2010 before he retired as a sergeant. A Purple Heart recipient, Ken Katter was battered by three roadside bomb explosions in a single week in Iraq in 2007.
Patti Katter said she faults the training and leadership among the cadre running his unit. She said the cadre members’ PTSD training was insufficient and left them poorly qualified to manage PTSD-stricken troops.
“We had a horrific time with the cadre members, who were all [noncommissioned officers], and a lot of them were National Guardsmen who had never deployed before and did not understand post-traumatic stress disorder or brain injuries,” she said.
A spokesperson for the unit declined to comment in response to these complaints in view of the ongoing inspection.
Katter, who founded the PTSD education organization Voice of Warriors, said a previous inspector general’s 2010 investigation of the Fort Bragg unit was ineffectual. However, she has cautiously placed her faith in Helmick.
“There are family members who are fed up with what’s going on, and you lose six guys in five weeks, that’s going to hit the media,” Katter said. “My hope is that this [inspector general’s] investigation is not just to make them look good, like they’re trying to help.”
Not everyone is complaining about the care received at the warrior transition battalion. Trudy Freeman, the mother of Pvt. 1st Class Jesse Del Ruiter, who suffered a brain injury, said she is grateful to the many personnel who contributed to his care, particularly Capt. Angelika Chiri.
“I have witnessed her compassion and her respect for my son and me,” Freeman said in an email provided by a Fort Bragg spokesman. “For that I humbly thank the Lord for putting her in our path, this has been a difficult journey for my son.”