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Leaders weigh medical conditions when disciplining Soldiers12

Gary Sheftick
Army News Service

WASHINGTON Army leaders say they are committed to balancing the medical needs of recovering Soldiers with maintaining good order and discipline in Warrior Transition Units.

"The issue of misconduct and non-judicial punishment in WTUs is one of the issues we're looking at," said Col. Jimmie Keenan, chief of staff of the Army's Warrior Care and Transition Office during a Web log roundtable Tuesday. She explained that WTU leaders who consider disciplinary action take into account the special circumstances of Soldiers who are wounded, ill or injured.

Four Soldiers in the Warrior Transition Battalion at Fort Bragg, N.C., reportedly complained last week to the Associated Press that they had received Article 15s or other disciplinary action unfairly.

The Army is looking into the complaints at Fort Bragg, Keenan said, explaining specifically that the XVIII Airborne Corps staff judge advocate is investigating the cases.

Secretary of the Army Pete Geren visited with WTU Soldiers Monday at Fort Bragg. He was at the installation to participate in the 50th anniversary of the Army's Golden Knights parachute team, but also met separately with wounded warriors.

"I'm here to listen," Geren said in a videotaped interview before talking with the WTU Soldiers. "I'm here to learn first-hand what their experiences have been."

"These are men and women who carried the burden of battle for our country," he said, "and we're doing everything we can to make the Warrior Transition Units work for them.

"Across our Army, these Warrior Transition Units have helped get Soldiers back on their feet," Geren said.

"It's really focused on rehabilitation," said Col. Patrick Sargent about cases in which WTU commanders are forced to issue non-judicial punishment. He said it's a way of helping Soldiers straighten out without ruining their careers.

"It makes sure that good order and discipline is maintained which is critical for a military unit," Sargent said, "and it gives the military a way to rehabilitate a Soldier without using formal charges with permanent marks on his or her record."

Sargent returned in October from Baghdad, where he commanded a brigade task force responsible for medical care in Iraq. He is preparing to take over Keenan's job when she moves to an assignment at the WTU and hospital at Fort Carson, Colo.

More than 24,000 Soldiers have transitioned through WTUs since the units were created less than two years ago, Keenan said, adding that more than half of them returned to military duty.

"So the system is doing what it was designed to do," Keenan said. "At this point, we are focused on making the policies and procedures work more efficiently, effectively and more responsively for Soldiers and families. "

Currently, 36 Warrior Transition Units are located across the Army, along with nine community-based WTUs that provide care to troops near their hometowns. The units collectively now have about 10,000 Soldiers assigned.

Only about 11 percent of those WTU Soldiers actually have a combat injury "where metal entered their body," according to Keenan. About one-third of the WTU Soldiers were evacuated from the theater of operations, Keenan said, but explained some of these Soldiers had accidents and others developed illnesses.

Another one-third of the WTU Soldiers were injured during training before deploying, developed an illness during mobilization or had ailments related to their service in the Global War on Terrorism, Keenan said. Others were involved in traffic accidents after returning from Iraq or Afghanistan.

WTU Soldiers have injuries ranging from severe traumatic brain injury to amputations to illnesses that require more than six months of rehabilitative care and case management, Keenan said.

"We continue to develop these WTUs," Geren said. "They're works in progress."

The first Warrior Transition Unit was established less than two years ago following complaints from Soldiers being treated at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. The WTUs put into place a "triad" of care with a cadre of squad leaders, nurse care managers and medical treatment professionals.

Special training was set up for WTU staff members. Mobile training teams taught about the special needs of recovering Soldiers and how to deal with their families. Training was given on traumatic brain injuries and about suicide prevention.

In October, the first resident class for WTU staff members began at the Army Medical Center and School on Fort Sam Houston, Texas.

"We'll never say mission complete," Keenan said. "We have to listen to our Soldiers and families and continue to improve."

A number of new initiatives are being developed for WTU Soldiers, Keenan said. One of them is an internship program for Soldiers transitioning out of the Army. The Army is partnering with other agencies, such as the Internal Revenue Service and Department of Labor, to train Soldiers in different job skills.

The program provides hope to transitioning Soldiers and their families and new skills that boost their confidence as they go out into the job market, Keenan said.

"It can be very frightening, especially when you look at the economic situation right now," Keenan said.

Another new initiative is the Entrepreneurial Boot Camp Program, which helps transitioning Soldiers start a new business. The program started with the University of Syracuse Business School and spread to Florida State University, Texas A&M and other schools, Keenan said. Service members attend 10-day workshops at the schools that help them set up business plans.

"It's really an exciting program," Keenan said, adding that 65 percent of the graduates have started their own businesses.

"This is key, especially when you look at where our Guard and Reserve Soldiers come from from small towns and rural places," Keenan said.

She said if these Soldiers want to live close to their support groups, they can use the program to start a small business in their hometown.