War transition units aim to help wounded soldiers

Wounded soldier Dakota Leavitt, right, February 27 at Blanchfield Army Community Hospital, Fort Campbell, Ky. Christopher Berkey, The Associated Press


Wounded soldier Dakota Leavitt, right, February 27 at Blanchfield Army Community Hospital, Fort Campbell, Ky. Christopher Berkey, The Associated Press

By Kristin M. Hall

FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. – Command Sgt. Maj. David Allard used to break down Army troops to prepare them for the rigors of the infantry. But after suffering a brain injury in Iraq, he got a new assignment: helping rebuild wounded soldiers so they could return to duty.

Allard launched one of the Army’s new “warrior transition units,” which bring military-style structure to the recovery process and gather wounded soldiers into groups where their main mission is to heal.

“This is the first and perhaps the only time in their military career where their job is to focus on getting better,” said Col. Tom Thomas, commander of the hospital at Fort Campbell that cares for wounded soldiers.

While in the program, soldiers’ day-to-day responsibilities are a mix of medical and military: daily therapy sessions and meetings with case managers, plus a few hours of classroom training or light work assignments on the base.

The transition units were created in response to deplorable conditions at Walter Reed military hospital in Washington. In the past, soldiers were placed on “medical hold” status, in which even the name implied a kind of limbo, and they received little supervision during recovery. The new units acknowledge that wounded troops who are used to carrying out orders still need the Army to define a goal and create a structure to help them achieve it.

“Being a warrior in transition means I’m still a soldier,” Sgt. 1st Class Ronald Gullion said.

Nearly 8,000 soldiers have been assigned to the 32 new units across the country. Participants give the Army credit for improving medical treatment, but the program’s progress is diminished by lingering problems with staffing shortages, long waits for medical evaluations and questionable deaths.

Allard’s diagnosis of mild traumatic brain injury gave him a better understanding of the needs of the nearly 750 recovering soldiers assigned to Fort Campbell’s unit.

For example, he knows what it feels like to lose a job because of an injury. After he was hurt, the Army said he could no longer be an infantry sergeant major.

Many soldiers “feel initially that they are going to be labeled as ‘that’s that injured guy. He’s broken.’ But when they actually get in here, they find out that their job is to heal, bottom line,” Allard said.

The units place soldiers into companies and squads, creating a special camaraderie.

“I enjoy being with other guys who were hurt. We have a common bond,” says Staff Sgt. Todd Shaw, who broke his back in 2006 in Iraq and reinjured it after returning.

The warrior-transition program assigns three people to each soldier: a primary care manager who oversees the treatment plan, a nurse case manager to coordinate appointments and a squad leader to ensure the soldier is following doctors’ orders.

Shaw, whose spine is supported with multiple screws and rods, ticks off the ways his transition unit supported him in his recovery.

When he couldn’t drive, his squad leader took him to appointments. Fort Campbell got an orthopedic spine surgeon on base so he didn’t have to commute hours to a hospital with specialists. Every week his primary care manager, his nurse case manager and his squad leader meet to discuss his progress.

Fort Campbell has committed $44 million over the next two years to its injured soldiers, including building new barracks designed for soldiers in wheelchairs and a family center where counselors can help with financial or legal issues.

But staffing shortages, especially for health care specialists familiar with the Veterans Affairs disability system, continue to plague the transition units. A Government Accountability Office report from February noted improvement but found almost a third of the units were understaffed in key positions.

The Army also has come under scrutiny for some deaths in these units, including an Indiana National Guard soldier whose autopsy found he may have been unconscious for days before he was discovered dead at Fort Knox, Ky.

The Army reports 11 deaths in the transition units that were not due to natural causes: four suicides, three accidental overdoses of prescribed medications, one vehicle accident and three deaths still under investigation.

Thomas said the transition units show the Army is serious about helping soldiers recover. “But the system itself still needs to be retooled – it’s not there yet,” he said.

The Army wants most of the soldiers to return to the fighting force, serving on active duty even if they are not well enough to deploy to a combat zone.

Thomas, commander at the Fort Campbell hospital, said the Army has learned from past mistakes and can’t afford another generation of homeless veterans.

“I definitely think the warrior transition unit is helping us establish a culture – a culture of healing within this organization, which has not been here for a while,” he said.