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Wounded warriors find help close to home in Warrior Transition Unit

by Melissa Bower, Staff Writer
Published: Friday, January 11, 2008 1:10 PM CST
Spc. Joseph Pittala talks with Warrior Transition Unit Commander Capt. Tammy Glascoe and Cindy Baker, of Munson Army Health Center military human resources, as he completes his personal asset inventory Jan. 8 at MAHC. Lamp photo by Prudence Siebert.

Iraq is no place for a Soldier to have a heart attack.

That's what Spc. Ernie Kendall, 39-year-old Leavenworth native with six children, discovered while serving with the 24th Transportation, 1st Sustainment Brigade, in Iraq eight months ago.

Although his injuries were non-combat related, Kendall qualifies for help from the Warrior Transition Unit, or WTU. Each Army installation has a WTU that provides medical care, job placement, educational placement, physical and psychological therapy and allows Soldiers to heal near their hometowns. Soldiers in the WTU at Munson Army Health Center have 24-hour, 7-days a week access to an eight-member staff including a nurse and a doctor, a computer lab with Internet access, and care at several area hospitals.

Kendall is grateful for the Warrior Transition Unit - so much that he plans one day to serve on staff for the organization that helped him heal. He was a certified nursing assistant before going to Iraq, but his unit needed a truck driver instead of a medic. Kendall plans to enter a two-year nursing program through Kansas City Kansas Community College this month and return to the medical field, hoping to help Soldiers like himself.

Kendall was originally in medical holdover - the Army's old system of admitting Soldiers in the healing process. He was in the new Warrior Transition Brigade when it began at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Kendall eventually transferred to Fort Riley, Kan., then to Fort Leavenworth so he could stay at home with his family.

"I was in between the med-hold program transition," he said. "I feel like the cadre are looking after the Soldier better. In med-hold, we were kind of lost in the system."

Sgt. Daniel Craig, assigned to the Warrior Transition Unit, receives applause from Training and Doctrine Command Commander Gen. William S. Wallace and Munson Army Health Center personnel at his promotion ceremony Jan. 8 at MAHC. After Craig's promotion, Wallace received a briefing from MAHC Commander Col. Carmen Rinehart about the WTU program at Fort Leavenworth. Lamp photo by Prudence Siebert.

Capt. Tammy Glascoe, commander of the Warrior Transition Unit at MAHC, said the program began with four patients in June 2007. Two have moved out of the program - one returned to active duty and one transitioned into civilian life. There are 11 Soldiers in the WTU, all living off-post with their families in Kansas City, Leavenworth or Atchison. Not all were hurt overseas in combat. Glascoe said patients are assigned to WTU the same way they are assigned to a conventional Army platoon, which helps with organization and self-esteem. Soldiers are referred to WTU, Glascoe said, "whenever they are not able to (medically) function in their unit," which includes psychological health.

Rhonda Taylor, nursing care manager, said she was happy to be on call for the Soldiers recovering from injury or illness.

"It makes me really proud to be here," she said. "When I started this job, for six weeks I couldn't sleep. You care about them so much."

Col. Carmen Rinehart, commander of MAHC, said timeframes for medical care are expedited for Soldiers in the WTU. Healing warriors report to a triad care system of a primary care manager - usually a doctor - a nurse case manager and a squad leader. The squad leader is the main point of contact who makes sure the Soldier is able to keep medical appointments or anything they might need.

Taylor said local doctors and hospitals are especially receptive to helping Soldiers. When one patient was referred to the Burnett Burn Center at the University of Kansas Hospital, a doctor even called her on nights and weekends to make sure the Soldier was OK.

One common injury, Taylor said, are mild brain injuries sustained from improvised explosive devices.

"They get back and they just want to go home and forget about it," Taylor said. "They don't even know they're injured. Their backs are hurting or they can't sleep, they can't remember things."

Marvin Ringgold, of the Physical Evaluation Board Liaison Office, helps Soldiers with their medical boards - an evaluation tool used to determine if the Soldier is ready to return to active duty. He said WTU is an improvement so far over medical hold because Soldiers can be treated in their hometowns and nonmilitary hospitals.

"This is so much better. We have reserve and active-duty components altogether in one spot; they get care coordinated by one agency versus two different programs," Ringgold said.

National Guard Spc. Joseph Pittala, 40, of Gladstone, Mo., was a gunner in a field artillery in Afghanistan for about one year in 2006-2007. He thought he tore a muscle and visited on-site medical care facilities. A doctor noticed "something sticking out," Pittala said, and told him to take it easy.

"But I went and jumped back into the turret," he said. "I went back to work and got beat up a little. My inner intestinal wall had ruptured."

Pittala's doctor told him he had nine tears across his abdomen. He came to Fort Leavenworth in October. Pittala recently got off convalescent leave and is considering re-entering civilian life.

Spc. Sean Acree, also of Leavenworth, discovered an old injury from his first tour of duty in Iraq when he was about to leave for his second. He first deployed in 2003. The 30-year-old father of three found out he had nerve damage in his neck, back and shoulders. He is currently working with the 705th Military Police Internment and Resettlement Battalion in administrative capacities. After healing with the WTU, he plans to get a job as a civilian police officer.

Sgt. Daniel Craig, 20, was injured by an IED while serving with the 4th Brigade, 25th Infantry Division, in Iraq. In March 2007, shrapnel from an IED hit his legs, lower back and face. Craig spent two months at a hospital in Texas on medical hold before being transferred to Fort Leavenworth's WTU. Craig can be near his family in St. Joseph, Mo., and commute from his apartment in North Kansas City. He was promoted from a specialist to a sergeant Jan. 8.

"The medical system always has a lot of kinks to work out, but WTU is a great opportunity for guys who are wounded to transition to civilian or back to work," he said.

Craig hopes to heal so he can re-enter his position with the military in the infantry - even if that means going back to Iraq or Afghanistan.

"I just want to go back to doing my job," he said.

Warrior Transition Unit plans

Munson Army Health Center hasn't been an inpatient facility for more than a decade so Fort Leavenworth as an installation has to make new accommodations for the WTU. This includes:

  • Remodeling Blockberger Terrace into eight new handicapped-accessible rooms by December 2008. Until then, Soldiers in the WTU can use accessible rooms in Hoge Barracks.

  • Obtaining a handicapped-accessible vehicle by March.




    An Operators Manual for Combat PTSD: Essays for Coping
    by Ashley B., II Hart

    Down Range - To Iraq and Back
    by Bridget Cantrell, Ph.D. and Chuck Dean

    Courage After Fire:
    Coping Strategies for Returning Soldiers and Their Families (Paperback)
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