Marines Refit Barracks to House the Wounded

As more wounded Marines return from Iraq, North Carolina's Camp Lejeune sets up a barracks fitted with ramps and grab bars... giving the injured a chance to stay in the flow of military life as they recuperate. Rusty Jacobs of North Carolina Public Radio reports.

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Of the thousands of Marines wounded in Iraq, some return to battle while others have to end their military careers. In between are men and women who face months of rehab and uncertainty. The Marines have set up a special barracks for them at Camp Lejeune. Rusty Jacobs reports from North Carolina Public Radio.

RUSTY JACOBS reporting:

Lance Corporal Michael McGraw makes his way down a barracks hallway on crutches. The young Marine's left leg was shattered by a gunshot wound during an attack on his base in Iraq two months ago. Sergeant John Brown shows McGraw to his new room.

Sergeant JOHN BROWN: All right. Basically all this here, it's all yours. This is actually one of the nice rooms. It's been refurnished. So TV, DVD player, microwave, fridge, full-size bed.

JACOBS: McGraw's a new arrival at the Wounded Warriors support section barracks, 16 rooms equipped to accommodate Marines recovering from combat injuries. Instead of two or three guys to a room, each wounded Marine gets his own suite. In addition to the full-size bed, TV and DVD player, there are grab bars in the bathroom, but according to Gunnery Sergeant Ken Barnes, the benefits of this place go far beyond the amenities.

Gunnery Sergeant KEN BARNES: The vision was to have a place, a common area, where the wounded Marines could be together rather than be out on convalescent leave or sitting in the barracks while the rest of their unit's over there and they don't really have anybody to talk to or that may understand what they're going through. It's all about the team here.

JACOBS: Barnes is 36 and battle hardened. During his second tour in Iraq, shrapnel from a roadside bomb tore through his left wrist, sending him home and probably ending his career as an infantryman. But Barnes is still two years shy of 20 in the corps, and he has found an important role to fill as senior non-commissioned office of Camp Lejeune's new Wounded Warriors barracks.

Gunnery Sgt. BARNES: You know, we can still do things and still train them in their mind. You know, we still go over tactics. We still talk about things.

JACOBS: In the barracks lounge, two wounded Marines play darts.

Lance Corporal JOHNNY BURROUGH(ph): I told you, man, I can't hit the 16's.

Lance Corporal BRANDON LOVE(ph): I can't throw with these soft tips.

JACOBS: One Marine, Lance Corporal Johnny Burrough, leans on crutches. Shrapnel from a roadside bomb ripped through both his legs in late September. The other, Lance Corporal Brandon Love, is recovering from a car bomb attack that sent 70 pieces of metal flying into his arm and hand. It's Love's first day in the Wounded Warriors barracks.

Lance Cpl. LOVE: The guys over here, they've been through the things that I've been through and some of them more. And they understand. You know, like, the guys that didn't go this time, you can't really talk to them about your experiences because they don't really understand. Over here, you've got a lot of friends that you can just talk to. Like, I've only been here a day, but I know some of the guys that are over here, and I can talk to them about anything and it's a lot more comfortable like that.

JACOBS: It's precisely for these reasons that the commanding officers who set up this barracks say it's the best place for wounded Marines to stay while recuperating, better even than home, where a Marine suddenly cut off from his unit and facing an uncertain future is liable to feel extremely isolated. Mental health experts agree.

Mr. HAROLD KUDLER (Psychiatrist): If you were just left hanging around in the barracks or at home, you'd have no mission, no structure. You'd be in an environment that you're no longer adapted to.

JACOBS: Harold Kudler is a psychiatrist and mental health services coordinator with the Veterans Administration in Durham.

Mr. KUDLER: If you were at home with all that time on your hands and family wrestling around, making noises, bringing people up and down the stairs, very soon there'd be conflict there and now you'd have no safe place at all.

JACOBS: The Wounded Warriors Barracks provides a sort of safe harbor for its residents, but it can't keep Marines like Lance Corporal Nathanial Herbert(ph) from wishing he were back in Iraq. The left side of Herbert's face is swollen and scarred from a roadside bomb attack in October. The attack wounded three Marines and killed four, including Herbert's best friend.

Lance Corporal NATHANIAL HERBERT: They don't got to pay me to send me back. I'll go back. I'll pay the government. That's the honest to God's true. As long as they're there, that's where I want to be.

JACOBS: How soon Herbert gets to go back or whether he goes at all remains to be seen. He's had three surgeries and has two more to go. Then, like all wounded Marines, Herbert must go before a medical review board to determine whether he'll return to duty or be medically discharged.

For NPR News, I'm Rusty Jacobs.

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