Army Helps Wounded Soldiers Adjust
LIANE HANSEN, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.
The medical treatment of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan has not always been up to the quality they deserve. Revelations of shoddy conditions and bureaucratic nightmares for wounded men and women at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington spark congressional hearings this year. The secretary of the Army and two generals lost their jobs over the scandal. The military does not want a repeat. So it's launching an overhaul of the system of health care for returning troops.
Eric Whitney of member station KRCC in Colorado Springs visited one of the new so-called warrior transition units at Fort Carson, Colorado.
ERIC WHITNEY: Former Fort Carson soldier Andrew Pogany says, in the past, Army leaders have failed to recognize returning troops combat related mental health problems. He says the brigade's focus on combat readiness haven't put enough resources into helping soldiers struggling to recover from their wounds. Part of the problem has been leaving wounded troops under the command of the same leaders who lead them into battle.
Mr. ANDREW POGANY (Retired, U.S. Army; Member, Veterans for America): When in that setting, first of all, it was not a setting conducive to the healing process and the recovery process. And the second thing was that the leadership was in charge the wounded troops did not necessarily have a full and comprehensive understanding of how to manage soldiers that are injured compared to how to manage troops that are training up to go to war.
WHITNEY: Pogany is now a full-time advocate for wounded soldiers with the group Veterans for America. He's been one of the Fort Carson's most persistent and vocal critics. But now, he says, it seems like the Army is finally starting to listen to some of his group's criticisms and suggestions. Those include getting soldiers help from outside the combat chain of command and under a new kind of leader, like Colonel Kelly Wolgast.
Colonel KELLY WOLGAST (Director, Evans Army Community Hospital; Commander, Warrior Transition Unit): And so they now are not in a go-to-war unit. They're in my unit. And we spend the time with a case manager, a squad leader and a primary care manager, insuring that they're meeting all their medical needs, and so that they can get on the road to healing.
WHITNEY: Wolgast, a nurse, runs Fort Carson's hospital. She's also the commander of a brand new unit at Fort Carson. It's called the Warrior Transition Unit.
Col. WOLGAST: And the intent of this is to have comprehensive medical care for these soldiers, and that their primary mission is to heal.
(Soundbite of soldiers)
WHITNEY: Warrior Transition Units are being set up Army-wide at 35 posts across the U.S. and Europe. Fort Carson's assembled every morning at 7 a.m. on a basketball court behind some barracks.
Col. WOLGAST: Fall in. At ease. Common. (Unintelligible).
SOLDIERS: Ahoy -yah(ph).
Col. WOLGAST: We'll all have a good day, right?
Col. WOLGAST: All right.
WHITNEY: After assembling, they disperse to carry out whatever duties they're physically capable of. Some go to rehab, some do office work, others prepare for life after the Army. Among those is 27-year-old Sergeant Keith Stanbough(ph). Last November, he was on duty outside Tal Afar in Northern Iraq.
Sergeant KEITH STANBOUGH (U.S. Army): We went on a mission and I volunteered for the job to go up front to look IEDs on the side of the road. And then I found it alright.
WHITNEY: Normally a truck driver, Sergeant Stanbough was on foot patrol when the roadside bomb blow up in his face.
Sgt. STANBOUGH: I had a muscle ripped out of my arm by the shrapnel and one finger halfway blown off. Now, I had to a have a bone graft done on this side. And then when I finally got to a hospital, they amputated my middle finger.
WHITNEY: Sergeant Stanbough started his recovery under the old Army system and remained a member of the brigade he went to war with. He says he sees a difference since being placed in the new warrior transition unit this past summer.
Sgt. STANBOUGH: The squad leaders are from the hospital, that worked in a hospital, that knows how to get all these paperwork or knows how to make all the appointments that they need to make and show them around the hospital and just help them navigate their way through the whole process because the squad leaders are the subject matter experts of the whole thing.
WHITNEY: The new units are also supposed to have a higher ratio of support staff per soldier, helping the wounded handle the rehabilitation and medical care. But after years of complaining about Army neglect and mistreatment, critic Andrew Pogany says some combat veterans he works with remain deeply skeptical.
Mr. POGANY: So some of the soldiers had voiced some concerns about that, that nothing has really changed except that they gave it a different name. They're putting a different face on it.
WHITNEY: But Pogany says it's too early to pass judgment. He says his advocacy group is keeping a close eye on how the Army follows through, and is concern about how long it's taking Fort Carson to get its Warrior Transition Unit up and running. It's already missed the Army's goal of being 50 percent staffed by now, and only has about a sixth of the soldiers it expects to eventually serve with that capacity.
For NPR News, I'm Eric Whitney in Colorado Springs.