Complaints about Warrior Transition Battalion also found at Fort Drum

February 26, 2012 (Fayetteville Observer) – A recent federal review of a program for wounded soldiers at Fort Drum, N.Y., uncovered serious shortcomings that echo allegations made by soldiers in Fort Bragg’s Warrior Transition Battalion.

Among the many deficiencies cited in the Sept. 30 report, the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Defense found that soldiers and staff in Fort Drum’s Warrior Transition Battalion perceived the unit as a “dumping ground” for problem soldiers.

According to the report, the battalion’s staff indicated that less than 20 percent of Fort Drum units ever contacted wounded soldiers, and usually only when they tried to retrieve or account for equipment. That reinforced a “fire and forget” mentality among wounded soldiers that eroded morale and stunted desire to return to active service, the report said.

The report also uncovered concerns that the battalion’s physically wounded and mentally impaired soldiers were being overmedicated, partly because of a lack of communication and controls. The report quotes one command team member as saying, “half of the warriors are ‘stoned’ on psychotropic drugs.”

The Inspector General’s Office also found that:

  • Fort Drum’s Warrior Transition Battalion did not foster positive leadership to help wounded soldiers return to active duty or civilian life.
  • The possibility of inappropriately medicating soldiers “could lead to potentially harmful medication-related incidents or enduring health problems.”
  • The battalion’s staff was inadequately trained to prepare soldiers to move back to active duty or civilian life.
  • Soldiers lacked meaningful programs to assist them in the transition process. Soldiers were routinely denied the opportunity to take college courses during daytime duty hours.

‘No use to the military’

Many of the findings mirror complaints made by about a dozen soldiers or their family members at a meeting Feb. 15 in Fayetteville to discuss Fort Bragg’s Warrior Transition Battalion. About two dozen other soldiers or their family members have called The Fayetteville Observer since that meeting to voice similar complaints. Two people made positive comments about the battalion.

The complaints related to Fort Bragg include:

  • Harassment and other forms of mistreatment by Fort Bragg’s Warrior Transition Battalion staff.
  • Overmedication of wounded soldiers.
  • Forcing soldiers out of the Army – often with general or other-than-honorable discharges – by accusing them of faking illness or injury in an attempt to receive increased benefits.

During the meeting in Fayetteville, Marlena Pennington said her husband, Dale James Pennington, was separated from the Army under a less-than-honorable discharge after officials with the Warrior Transition Battalion accused him of faking seizures.

Dale Pennington died in August after collapsing on his living room floor. A heart problem killed him, his wife said. Dale Pennington had spent three years in the Warrior Transition Battalion.

“It seems like Dale became no use to the military,” Marlena Pennington said. “He was treated no better than a dog on the street.”

Shortly before the meeting, which was organized by a loose-knit group of soldier advocates from around the country, Fort Bragg Gen. Frank Helmick ordered a “thorough inspection” of the battalion for physically and mentally wounded soldiers.

A day later, Helmick, commander of 18th Airborne Corps and Fort Bragg, signed an order for his inspector general to conduct the inspection.

In a statement last week, Fort Bragg Brig. Gen. Michael X. Garrett defended the installation’s wounded warrior program.

“We take great pride in how we have cared for our wounded warriors here in the Warrior Transition Battalion at Fort Bragg. As one of the most inspected units on Fort Bragg, I can assure you we continue to look inward all the time to see how we can improve our processes and procedures to better serve our wounded soldiers and their families.

“It is unfortunate when anyone perceives they are not receiving the best possible care or treatment.”

The Department of Defense inspector general is not scheduled to conduct an inspection of Fort Bragg’s Warrior Transition Battalion. But a spokeswoman said: “We will want to review the results of these efforts and discuss with the command prior to deciding on whether a (Department of Defense inspector general) assessment is called for.”

Col. Kevin Arata, a spokesman for the 18th Ariborne Corps at Fort Bragg, said the corps inspector general’s report is expected to be complete by April 1. Meanwhile, preliminary results of a separate inspection of the handling of medications “has found no red flags,” he said.

‘Dumping ground’

Fort Drum, in rural northwestern New York state, is home to the Army’s 10th Mountain Division. The inspection of its Warrior Transition battalion was one of a few conducted at least in part because of congressional questions about the units.

The Fort Drum report cited instances in which the division’s acting commander, as well as commanders of Medical Department Activity and the Warrior Transition Battalion, failed to adequately address specific recommendations from the Inspector General’s Office. Those recommendations were sent to the commanding general of Northern Regional Medical Command and the commander of the Warrior Transition Command for further consideration.

The spokeswoman for the Inspector General’s Office said that all concerns raised have or are now being addressed.

Among other findings, the Fort Drum report said the battalion’s staff sometimes made soldiers participate in physical activities, such as PT, that risked new or further injury. One soldier with cancer was told to stay away from crowds because of his weakened immune system, yet the staff required him to be in formation and stand in ranks.

The report also said staff expressed concerns about overmedicating soldiers in the battalion. “One primary-care manager commented that the numbers and types of medications that some of the warriors were taking was a ‘scary situation,’ ” according to the report.

On the other hand, some soldiers who were interviewed said they had trouble getting necessary medications without being labeled a “junkie.”

And the report was critical of the battalion’s leadership and staff.

“There were multiple factors that contributed to the overall negative command climate within the Fort Drum WTB,” the report said. “Those factors included inadequate communication within the unit; poor treatment of soldiers by WTB staff; the stigma of the WTB being a ‘dumping ground’; and warrior attitudes toward the WTB.”

While the battalion’s leadership said it had conducted a deliberate and thorough process of selecting squad leaders, according to the report, “we observed and were told that many of the selected leaders exhibited leadership qualities suited for an infantry unit, and that type of leadership focus did not work effectively with the unique population of warriors.”

The report said the “dumping ground” perception was supported by Fort Drum units and battalion soldiers and staff. One soldier said he felt that his unit dumped him in the battalion because it didn’t want to deal with his medical condition; another said the rest of Fort Drum saw battalion soldiers as “rejects.”

The report said a staff member related a story about a soldier whose leg had been amputated below the knee. The soldier stayed with his unit rather than go to the Warrior Transition Battalion.

“We observed many instances in which lengthy process, vague timelines, and the command environment may have contributed to warrior frustration and desire to leave the WTB as quickly as possible,” the report said. “A WTB staff member stated, ‘Only an estimated one in 75 say that they like the WTB and feel helped and supported by the process. The rest of the majority just complain that they can’t wait to get out.’ ”

Despite that level of frustration, the report noted a perception among command staff that some soldiers wanted to stay in the battalion and were “gaming the system.”

The inspection found that staff training was deficient. The report said some squad leaders indicated they had only two weeks training when they arrived at the battalion, while others took only an online course. Staff members agreed that more training was needed to care for a large number of soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury.

The report said the soldiers were mostly satisfied with their primary-care managers but faced challenges getting timely access to specialty care, such as behavioral health services, neurology and sleep clinic appointments.

The report acknowledged that access to specialty care is challenging because of Fort Drum’s remote location, but said soldiers’ transitions back to active duty or to civilian life could be delayed as a result.

The report cited two areas in which Fort Drum’s Warrior Transition Battalion excelled: Providing personalized digital assistants – handheld computers, basically – to the wounded soldiers so they could keep track of medical appointments and other matters; and requiring soldiers to have a comprehensive orientation with the Family Assistance Center.

At the time of the report, 310 soldiers were in Fort Drum’s Warrior Transition Battalion. By comparison, Fort Bragg was serving 477 wounded soldiers this month.

The report shows that Fort Drum’s battalion served 1,155 wounded soldiers between June 1, 2007, and Aug. 13, 2010. Of those, 346 returned to active duty, 801 returned to civilian life, two died and six were separated from the Army.

More reports coming

Besides Fort Drum, the department’s Inspector General’s Office has concluded an assessment of the program at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, and is expected to release a report on North Carolina’s Camp Lejeune next month. Reports on inspections of three other military installations are expected this year.

The office’s report for the Warrior Transition Battalion at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, uncovered fewer serious deficiencies than the one for Fort Drum. And for every problem cited for Fort Sam Houston, the battalion’s command was found to be responsive to the office’s recommendations.

Fort Sam Houston is focused on health care and, unlike Fort Bragg and Fort Drum, does not have a large proportion of combat troops.

The Inspector General’s Office report said the management and staff of Fort Sam Houston’s wounded warrior battalion and Brooke Army Medical Center appeared to be “fully dedicated to providing the best available care and services for helping warriors heal and transition.”

In 2007, the Army created 35 wounded warrior battalions in response to a scandal involving the treatment of soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.

Today, there are 29 battalions for wounded soldiers in the United States and three in Germany, as well as eight community-based battalions in the United States and one in Puerto Rico.

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