Photo: RJones0856 via Flickr
The Warrior Transition Battalion: I don’t care where it is, I don’t care how good the officers and cadre are — it is a hellish place to be. What is a Warrior Transition Battalion you ask? Well, it’s where they stick all the guys too crippled, sick, crazy or just plain broke to go to combat.
It used to be called Med Hold, where they would hold all the guys that were awaiting the Med Board process. Iraq, though, changed that.
Suddenly, small Army Community Hospitals that were only meant to deal with small scale issues were flooded with amputees, or guys who needed so much care that it was unreal.
Even the medical centres (Med Cen) were filling up too fast for the doctors to keep up. Walter Reed, Brook, Tripler — they were full. Brook’s burn ward, which had once taken civilians, would fill on a regular basis. And Walter Reed’s amputee ward was overflowing. Even Landshtul Regional Medical centre in Germany couldn’t handle what they got, and it was just a stop over from Afghanistan on the way to the U.S.
There was no way places like Irwin Army Community Hospital or Darnall (which served Forts Riley and Hood respectively) could keep up. Suddenly small hospitals that were meant to support the small towns that are military posts were flooded with people who needed constant care, not just physical, but mental as well.
Even if all the NCOs (non-commissioned officers) were pulled from the hospital, they couldn’t possibly meet the needs of the sudden influx of Soldiers and Marines. The Marines, ironically, the only service without medical support of their own, actually came up with a solution: the Warrior Transition Battalion. It would be a unit that fell under the hospital, or nearest medical command, but would be staffed by nonmedical officers and NCOs.
Every Soldier or Marine from rank E-1 all the way on up to O-6 (I have not yet heard of a general officer hurt in this conflict) would have a place to go. A place that could actually track their case, and would make sure that they were not left to languish.
It was a good idea, and for a time it seemed to work.
But some of these soldiers were so heavily medicated that they started to see other issues that no one was prepared to deal with. For instance, if you were diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or Acute Stress Reaction (ASR) you would be almost automatically given antidepressants, antipsychotics, sleep meds, and probably one or two more drugs. This is to say nothing of the troops that have amputations, burns, shrapnel damage, etc. who would have pain meds thrown on top.
The general effect of all of this is not to make one feel better, or not feel pain, but to be in a daze that seems to lack any semblance of reality. In this daze the only thing that can seem real at times is the very trauma that caused them to be there, and the very real physical and emotional pain associated with this trauma. It’s like an old LP record that gets warped and keeps playing the same few seconds of music. You relive it over and over again.
How can any amount of involvement by cadre prevent that? Early on, when it was still just a company and not a battalion, a bunch of cadre tried to take some of us out to a pool hall, and get us out of the barracks. It didn’t end well. Some of us just wanted to fight.
I myself went up to someone that was talking tough, saying he was going to kick my arse, and tried to goad him into doing just that. I wanted to have my arse kicked, and for the rest of the night I did everything I could to goad anybody and everybody I came across to beat me up. Of course, I wasn’t the only one trying to do that.
While the program was well-meaning, what ended up happening in actuality was that soldiers were stuck in a room and allowed to stew in their own juices for days, weeks, months between appointments. Simply seeing one’s primary care provider could take months, and add in the fact that some were so bad off that the cadre literally had to take them to every appointment, it spelled a recipe for disaster for a lot of troops.
Medications were mixed, sometimes dangerously. If you weren’t a medic and didn’t know how dangerous it could be, you’d have barracks pharmacists who would tell you blank does this, and not know of possible side effects or drug interactions. And keep in mind that most were already self-medicating with alcohol.
Once, I was drinking—even though I was on a medication that I shouldn’t have—and one of the guys that I was with came to hang out and have a few beers. I didn’t have any beers because I was only drinking the hard stuff at that point, and he shrugged and said, “Well, my girlfriend left me. I’m off to kill myself,” matter-of-factly, as if he had just told me he was going to go bowling instead.
I knew he had a gun at home, and would do it, so I stopped him. He didn’t want to be stopped and actually tried to draw a knife on me. It took myself and a guy who had had rather serious knee surgery to pin him to a wall, while another guy who had a traumatic brain injury and had severe short term memory loss ran to the staff duty desk. When the Staff Duty Noncommissioned Officer (SDNCO) finally got there, my buddy was on the floor screaming that he was going to kill us if we didn’t let him go, and the guy with a bad knee was turning red because he had banged his knee several times in the struggle. That wasn’t even an uncommon occurrence.
Some were drinking and driving, some were just plain losing it. Despite the level best efforts of a system that really did care, I saw more than one soldier slip through the cracks and get any number of additional issues.
How many of them got med boarded, chaptered or their enlistments simply ran out waiting for definitive treatment? One Kansas National Guard soldier I knew came in for stage II rectal cancer. It was still very treatable when he showed up. When I left he had just told me that the doctors during his check up told him it had proceeded to Stage IV and was terminal—he had about three months to live. All because he was waiting for treatment.
It is a depressing place that really saps your will to continue. I know that for myself, I was highly motivated when I got there to get back to my unit in Iraq. When I left I was just going through the motions. I didn’t really care, was demotivated and, quite frankly, my morale was so low, I don’t think I’d have been much use to anybody.
Iraq was hard. The Warrior Transititon Battalion was harder. If you asked me to go there again, I think I would rather eat a bullet, and sadly far too many veterans are.
What’s more troubling is that I cannot really offer any solutions for you. Our armour and medical technology is saving people that by all rights should have died. We are facing a flood of injuries that are really unprecedented. There is no medical system in the world that is really up to coping with that.
It is a sad fact of life, but one we cannot avoid any longer. How we medically treat and support our wounded warriors is not working. I do not honestly have a solution — only want to shine a light on it.
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