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Officials: Wounded warrior units still needed

Patricia Kime | Military Times

The military may be winding down from more than 13 years of war, but military wounded warrior programs remain a top priority within the Pentagon, officials told Congress Tuesday.

Providing an update on their evolving initiatives to the House Armed Services Committee's personnel panel, defense and service officials said that since the non-medical services programs were launched in the mid-2000s, they have managed more than 70,000 cases involving combat wounds, debilitating illnesses and injury.

These units and programs remain vital despite the dwindling number of troops entering them, said James Rodriguez, deputy assistant secretary of defense for warrior care policy.

"Even as our nation reduces combat operations, our wounded, ill and injured service members will continue to exist and we must ensure our commitment to these individuals is not compromised," Rodriguez said.

About 14,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines are involved or enrolled in warrior care programs, including reserve and Guard members, according to DoD.

Since the introduction of these programs — and their overhaul in response to the scandal that erupted in 2007 over maltreatment of wounded personnel at the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center — they have played an important role in helping troops transition to civilian life or return to duty, officials said.

But, as panel chairman Rep Joe Heck, R-Nev., pointed out, they have not always run "without fits and starts ... or without problems."

"I am interested to know [if] the programs still serve the needs of wounded ill and injured service members ... [and] are they viewed by DoD and the services as enduring programs?" said Heck, chairing his first personnel panel hearing.

Problems surrounding these programs for wounded personnel seem largely centered on the Army, which has processed the most people.

In 2012, the Army investigated problems at the Warrior Transition Unit at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, amid allegations of a suicide, over-medication and inadequate support.

In August 2014, the DoD inspector general found inconsistencies in selecting and training staff for these units — shortcomings that have contributed to disparities in support.

And last November, an investigative report produced by the Dallas Morning News and KXAS-TV found evidence that soldiers in the three Army warrior transition units in Texas had been harassed, belittled or hazed by those running the units.

Army Warrior Transition commander Col. Chris Toner admitted to panel members that problems existed at the Texas units but said most of the information obtained by the news outlets spanned the period from 2009 to 2013.

While similar challenges were seen at other WTUs during the same period, he expressed confidence that current policies and procedures "have the program moving in the right direction."

"We have a robust oversight program that allows us to maintain visibility, and the feedback from the soldiers and family members we receive through the ombudsman program, we get those reports every day and we can rapidly react" to any issues, Toner said.

The Army operates 25 warrior training units in the U.S., Puerto Rico and Germany. Currently, 4,139 are enrolled, down from a peak of 12,451 in June 2008.

Roughly 55 percent of the personnel in the WTUs are reserve members, 81 percent have deployed and 47 percent have a mental health diagnosis, Toner said.

The Navy's Wounded Warrior-Safe Harbor program has 3,283 active-duty and reserve sailors enrolled, with a case load of "1600 on any given day," according to director Capt. Brent Breining.

About a quarter have post-traumatic stress disorder, Breining told panel members.

The Air Force Wounded Warrior program has had 4,165 airmen participating since 2005, with about a quarter suffering PTSD or another mental health condition, Air Force Brig. Gen. Patrick Doherty said.

The Marine Corps' Wounded Warrior Regiment has 501 Marines, and another 374 injured or ill troops are supported under the program in their own units, said Paul Williamson, Wounded Warrior Regiment command adviser.

Nearly 60 percent of those assigned to the Wounded Warrior Regiment are undergoing mental health treatment, Williamson said.

Physical Well-Being