Wounded Warriors Find Safe Harbor A Marines barrack at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina serves wounded veterans, helping people like Lieutenant Colonel Tim Maxwell deal with life after a major brain injury.
NPR logo

Wounded Warriors Find Safe Harbor

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/16611586/16611532" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Wounded Warriors Find Safe Harbor

Wounded Warriors Find Safe Harbor

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/16611586/16611532" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Lieutenant Colonel Tim Maxwell is a 42-year-old Marine who has completed six combat tours in his life, but cannot start a seventh. Maxwell sustained a traumatic brain injury, a TBI, in Iraq in 2004. The recovery was painful and tough. Based on his experience and his observations about some of the unique needs of injured soldiers, Maxwell successfully lobbied the Marine Corps to start the first Wounded Warriors Barracks - group housing where like wounded servicemen can recuperate together. It's called Maxwell Hall, and it's at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. When we spoke to the lieutenant colonel, it was hard to imagine that part of this man's brain was destroyed by a mortar, but you will hear during the interview how his injury created permanent verbal roadblocks along the way.

Lieutenant Colonel TIM MAXWELL (Marine Corps): About a quarter size of a 10 inch - not 10 inches - 10 cent dime. Do you call it a dime?

STEWART: From time to time, he will ask for some assistance.

Lt. Col. MAXWELL: I'm sorry. I have trouble with words, and my partner's helping me.

STEWART: The lieutenant colonel spoke with us at length about his program, his own struggle, and his goal of making sure no soldier feels alone.

How did the idea of the Wounded Warriors Barracks come about?

Lt. Col. MAXWELL: It just kind of was a real simple idea that just sort of grew. And it was because when I - first thing I was able to do when I was able to walk and, you know, I'm not very good at sitting around and doing nothing, I just wanted to go see some of the other wounded guys. In Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, they got a Navy hospital there, and that's where I started. I couldn't even drive yet. My wife would take me, drop me off and then pick me up like two hours later. And I did know a couple of wounded guys there, but I talked to the nurses and doctors, and that's kind of how it started. And then over time, I started finding more wounded guys who were still living by themselves on base at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina in sort of BEQ, bachelor enlisted quarters, and that's where the guys are kind of living by themselves because their unit would usually still be in Iraq or Afghanistan. So I thought, golly, we should put these guys all living in the same place. And that's just kind of how it started, just by talking to guys who were kind of sitting around doing nothing all day every day. Boredom.

STEWART: What need does the Wounded Warrior Barracks meet that really wasn't being met before? I hear the loneliness, obviously, because these guys were all living by themselves.

Lt. Col. MAXWELL: Well, that's a hard one - the most important thing for them was just to be together. And it wasn't boredom. There's a lot depression - depression is a tough word to use. Guilt. A lot of guys get wounded and they feel guilty, like they did something stupid when they got hit. And also when their unit is still in Iraq, they're very, very nervous about their friends. It's their best friends in the world. Remember, most of the wounded Marines Corpsmen and Navy guys that attach to us, they're very young.

Most of them just got out of high school, joined the Corps, and within a year or two years, you know, they've gone over and seen combat once, twice, some of them three times. And when their unit's in Iraq or Afghanistan, they're real worried every day, every day. So the - probably the first thing we looked into - I should say we saw the benefit of is was that they could get more information. That was probably the first thing we saw besides just being together. They can - more information was available, because they're a bunch of wounded guys together. So they can tell each other - a kid doesn't like his doctor, or his doctor's too busy or, you know, what - he doesn't know he can get a second opinion, or just basic stuff. There's a lot of things. I could go for an hour telling you all the things we learned, but it would bore you.

STEWART: It wouldn't bore me, but we've got a lot to get to.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: You're 42 years old. A lot of these kids who are ending up in these barracks are 18 and 19 years old. You mentor these kids. You talk to them about their problems. Obviously, the physical difficulties, we can all understand what they need there. But when these guys and gals come to you and they're looking for guidance and mentorship, what do you find yourself giving guidance about?

Lt. Col. MAXWELL: This is going to be a really strange answer to your question, what's our primary - we don't call it mentorship. I like to refer to as leadership. It makes me feel better about myself.

(Soundbite of laughter)


Lt. Col. MAXWELL: Because I tried to still be able to do that. Interestingly, I think, as the American public, is we have to get them to fight for themselves. Now, they're not in a unit that has a mission. They are the unit that has a mission, and their mission is to take care of themselves. So if they need help with this or that, or they need to do their physical training every day or they've got to take their medication but don't overtake medication, I tell them they go to think of themselves as a unit, and you're in command, I tell the young 19-year-old kid who's used to taking orders and doing what he's told to do.

Now, suddenly, you're in charge of yourself. You have to make yourself follow the rules. You have to make yourself do the training. You have to make yourself come up with a mission. What are you going to do with your life? What's your plan? It's a very complicated shift in life from doing what you're told - remember, from high school to boot camp, which is where you learn to keep your mouth shut and do what you're told.

We got to kind of teach them to - you're not being a sissy. You're not crying. You're not being a baby when you ask for additional help, and that's a hard transition for them. They're used to not complaining about anything, and we got to kind of teach them to complain a bit. I know that sounds weird, but that's, they got to tell us when there's a problem. They will tell you nothing.

If I know a Marine anywhere in the country, anybody of any rank, a civilian, it doesn't matter, you ask them, does he need anything, and they'll tell you, nope. I'm fine. That's what they tell you. I'm talking about I need a pair of pants that will fit over this, you know, this, my leg. I can't put my jeans on. I need to get some pants, but I can't drive because I'm not allowed to drive, so I need somebody to take me to the store to get me some pants, things like that. They've got to ask somebody. That, again, is when they live together, it's much, much easier, because they're hanging out with new friends. And so they will ask a buddy.

That's why brining them to barracks was so good, because they could talk to a friend and ask them for help here. And there's all kinds of little problems, like food and what they can eat, when can they eat it. You know, I couldn't sleep last night, very common. I imagine you can't sleep very well when they're - (unintelligible), but I'm sure all service wounded guys are the same.

STEWART: Maxwell is a man who speaks with authority on this topic. He was wounded so badly in '04, at one point, the doctors told his family he'd have the capacity of a second grader. Maxwell told us he never saw the mortar coming.

Lt. Col. MAXWELL: I went to my room, left my boots on, my camouflage uniform on, lay down on the ground and woke up the next day in a hospital. That's how I got hit. The mortar round hit me - shrapnel come up the left side of my body, up from my - basically, from left knee up into my left jaw. And I think about eight little pieces of shrapnel just punched in right at my jaw, and two of them about a quarter size of a 10 inch - not 10 inches, 10 cent dime - do you call it a dime - punched through - two of them, and went into my brain, and chopped up parts of - a piece of my brain. So that's how I got my TBI. It's very unusual. I got a specific portion of my brain that is dead, but the rest of it is okay.

STEWART: What did you have to relearn once you got back and got into the hospital and went into rehab?

Lt. Col. MAXWELL: Everything you did this morning when you woke up: eat, stand and walk, shave, brush my teeth, talk - everything. I couldn't do anything initially.

STEWART: When you see a young soldier in the same position that you were in, what do you do? What do you say to that family of that soldier?

Lt. Col. MAXWELL: Yeah. That's a good one, too. That's - shockingly, it keeps coming across that I'm right when I see these guys. You look in their eyes. What I do is I look in their eyes. And if their eyes are open, their eyes are awake, they don't even have to be knowledgeable. They don't have to know what they're seeing. But if they look and see, they come out of it. It happens every time. You just see it, you know? You can just see it. Only when you've seen 40, 50, 60 guys do you start to know what you see.

STEWART: I can - I was going to say I can imagine, but I really can't.

Lt. Col. MAXWELL: It's really not hard, if I - if someone like yourself went in - or goes with me, and I show you the eyes. I had you focus on the eyes, you do see it.

STEWART: The things I find so - and I've read a lot about this, and I've talked to soldiers over the course of the past years, which is hard to say. But when soldiers get back and when you talk to them and they've gone through this physical recovery, there are still a lot of emotional recovery that they have to go through.

Lt. Col. MAXWELL: Yeah.

STEWART: And I know the word hero is one of those difficult words for soldiers who come back.

Lt. Col. MAXWELL: Yeah.

STEWART: Do these young men - are they comfortable with the term hero, the men who have been wounded?

Lt. Col. MAXWELL: No. They're not. And what I try to get people when I meet those that want to speak highly of the wounded, or particularly one of the guys - both with Army and primarily for me the Marines, I try to tell them to divert the statement of you are hero to this unit. People don't understand - unless you've been in a combat with a unit, you just can't understand what that unit is like. You're closer to them than anything you would ever will be again in your life. And we've seen it in the old movies and stories about World War II guys. Now, Vietnam Vets are finally - less than - well, about 10 years now, they've been able to get together and be with their old platoon. And they're still as close as can be. For these youngsters to get complimented as a hero when he was in a platoon or a squad, he's just - it's embarrassing.


Lt. Col. MAXWELL: What I tell the youngsters and the - well, oldsters, too, but the youngsters have more trouble with it. I say, when they tell you that you're a hero, I tell the Marine, they're talking about your platoon. They ain't talking about you. They're talking about the - your entire unit. So when they tell you that, you thank them. And you tell them about your unit. You tell them about your platoon. I let them share that. But, yeah, I try to put the training - both - or, no. Training's the wrong word. Teach them both. It's very tough to take the concept.

You remember, when many - probably 25 percent. Maybe less, but a lot of the guys that get wounded, when they got wounded, their best friend next to them got killed. So it's a little tough to be called a hero when your friend got killed sitting next to you when you just got wounded. And every one of them had somebody else next to them that didn't get wounded when they get wounded. And they feel like they screwed up.

STEWART: Do they ever want to go back, and go back to fight?

Lt. Col. MAXWELL: Every one of them. Yeah. This is no joke. I'm not - I'm not saying this because I'm wearing the uniform and it's been a shock to me. Again, this is Marines. This is just Marines. These are issues they do not talk with - I'm not - you get to know them later. But I can tell you straight up, when they first get wounded, they all want to go back to the unit right away, every one of them, all of us want to know…

STEWART: Were you the same way?

Lt. Col. MAXWELL: I knew that I couldn't make it back. I knew that my injury was serious. I couldn't even walk yet. What I'd hoped I could do is make my follow on deployment. What I'm - the initial phase I'm talking about is they want to go back to Iraq, Afghanistan. Now, they don't just want to get better and reach a Marine Corps. Initially, they want to go back to Iraq.

Now, I'm not talking about the ones who have lost both legs. They know they ain't making it back. But guys who lost one leg, they want to know if they can reach on the unit after they get their new leg. I mean, it happens all the time. Now later, later, we got to okay them with the concept of going ahead and getting out of the Marine Corps. We literally have - because it comes to them, of course. Later, they realize, golly, maybe I don't want to stay in the Corps. Maybe I want to do something else. And that's what's important, to have a senior Marines talk to them about that. Say, man, that's fine. That's good.

STEWART: While the barracks help those who were currently wounded, the formerly wounded who are now civilians are next on the lieutenant colonel's outreach mission. This week, he begins overseeing a Wounded Warrior Call Center at the Marine base in Quantico, Virginia. Not only can Marines call in for information, the center will be calling out to find the nearly 9,000 Marines and Navy seamen injured since 9/11.

Lt. Col. MAXWELL: So the question is, what are the other 9,000 guys doing today? Not those still in the Marine Corps. We pretty much got those guys. We know how they are and where they are, and we're tracking those guys pretty well. What about the guys that got hit in 9/11 '02, you know? We got to find out what, where they are and what they're doing. So the number one mission, the first status, is to try to call everybody who has never been called and everybody who's not been tracked and find out how they're doing. And that's what we were talking about when you called here. We were looking at the list of questions. We're still asking them questions. Instead of saying call me if you have a problem, which is common, we're going to call them and say, you ever heard - you know what TSGLI is? Have you ever heard of that?

STEWART: No. What is that?

Lt. Col. MAXWELL: What TSGLI stands for?

Unidentified Man: Traumatic…

STEWART: That's Traumatic Servicemen's Group Life Insurance. One of the programs and services Maxwell wants to make sure servicemen know is available.

Lt. Col. MAXWELL: Because I believe that Marines and soldiers out there alone, they're suffer worse than those of us who are with other guys. And so they can't maybe move and be with other one of the guys, but they could see that they're still not alone out there. You know, there's a lot of them. And that's why I talked to you today, and I talked to every magazine article, every newspaper, everybody who will talk to me. I talked to them so - because I know there is somebody out there, some kid sitting by himself in some apartment, you know, playing Xbox or something, miserable. So that's how I'm hoping. I hope that word goes out.

STEWART: Lieutenant Colonel Tim Maxwell, thank you for your time, sir.

Lt. Col. MAXWELL: Hey. Hope it was worth talking to me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of music)

PESCA: Well, Alison. That was quite an affecting interview.

STEWART: I mean, it's interesting to talk to him. I would have to remind myself that this man had had this tremendous injury. I mean, it was amazing what he's accomplished. But there were many times during the interview he had to sort of stop and rethink or kind of lost words.

PESCA: Yeah. Well, that's the - you know, so that means that it was amazing, the content of what he was saying, and also just that he would saying it.


PESCA: Did you see the James Gandolfini special on HBO we were talking to…

STEWART: I saw part of it. Yeah.

PESCA: I mean, that was so good. You did a great job in that interview. It's interesting to see Gandolfini, not a professional interviewer, just kind of bond emotionally. And the kids, I mean, they were mostly younger than me.

STEWART: It was interesting, also, I just - after talking to Lieutenant Colonel Maxwell, after seeing that USA Today article on Friday. I know a lot of people saw it because of the holiday. They surveyed four military installations in Department of Veteran Affairs, where people are screened for brain injuries, and they found that 20,000 people show signs of damage, and they're not counted in the Pentagon's official count.

PESCA: Yeah.

STEWART: A lot of times, the issues come up later.

PESCA: Yeah. And a lot of times, the Pentagon actually disputes if the injury was directly related to the job.

Well, coming up on the BPP, we'll be taking a much lighter tack as we talk sports with your husband, first of all.

STEWART: It's not light to him. The man is serious about his sports. We'll also talk about a fashion phenom, 26 years old, featured designer at Target. We'll hear her story, coming up.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.