By Sandra Basu
WASHINGTON – While military wounded warrior programs are caring for fewer combat-wounded troops than at the height of conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, DoD leaders assured lawmakers that their mission to support troops remains a top priority.
“We are resolute in ensuring all of the needs of our wounded warriors are met and they have the best available care and administrative management while being treated with dignity and respect,” said James Rodriguez, deputy assistant Secretary of Defense for Warrior Care Policy.
Rodriguez, as well as leaders from the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps, testified about their programs before the House Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee. The programs are geared to provide resources and support to seriously wounded, injured and ill troops as they recover, as well as any help they might need to transition to VA care or to their communities.
Commander of the Warrior Transition Command, Army Col. Chris Toner, told lawmakers that, when it comes to the Army, the total population in Warrior Transition Units (WTU) has fallen from a high of 12,451 in June 2008 to 4,139.
Of the 4,139 soldiers, 81% have previously deployed, but Toner pointed out that their conditions are not necessarily related to deployment. Nearly half the soldiers currently in the program have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or another behavioral health diagnosis, Toner said.
“Though the warrior care and transition program is seeing fewer wounded and more ill and injured soldiers, the WTU population remains complex, and the need for the Army to continue to resource and provide centralized oversight, guidance and advocacy for this population will remain an enduring requirement,” he said.
Meanwhile, lawmakers expressed concern about the oversight of these programs. Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Joe Heck, DO, (R-NV) and other lawmakers asked how the Army is responding to news reports in Texas about the mistreatment of troops in WTUs there. The news reports were based on Army documents detailing the complaints of troops.
“The concerns were largely associated with disrespect, harassment, belittlement of soldiers within the three WTUs in Texas,” Toner acknowledged.
Toner said, “those conditions existed” from 2009-2013 but now have been addressed, adding he is now confident that “the program, policies and procedures in place now have the program going in the right direction.”
Rodriguez also told lawmakers that, to ensure the quality of the WTU programs, DoD has implemented site-assistance visits. In 2014, 27 visits were conducted to assess compliance with DoD policy, including the uniformity and effectiveness of care coordination for recovering troops and their families and caregivers provided by recovery care coordinators, Army wounded warrior advocates and Navy nonmedical case managers.
“During these site-assist visits, we reviewed the service’s policies on care, transition programs as well as care management. We wanted to ensure that they have a process in place that meets all the standards set forth in the policy,” he said.
Care and Transition
Rep. Paul Cook, (R-CA), suggested that DoD appears to do a better job than VA of meeting the needs of recovering troops.
“Why is it working for you, and not the VA?” he asked.
None of the DoD leaders testifying directly answered the question, instead telling lawmakers what has worked for their programs. Navy Capt. Brent Breining pointed out that the Navy’s Wounded Warrior-Safe Harbor program, which he directs, has an on-staff VA federal recovery coordinator available when troops in the DoD program transition to VA and need help.
“We are an extra line of defense for that servicemember if there are any issues,” Breining said.
On another matter, Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC) said lawmakers would like to see troops have the option to be treated by hyperbaric oxygen treatment (HBOT), which involves breathing oxygen in a pressurized chamber. DoD has been conducting studies regarding the treatment’s effectiveness in relieving chronic symptoms of mild traumatic brain injury, though results so far generally have been inconclusive.
“It has been a frustration for many of us in the Congress, in both the House and Senate, that we continue to get roadblocks … for getting this treatment approved,” he said.
Jones said he hopes the committee will hold a hearing on treatment programs in the future, including HBOT.