In August, 2006, I had the honor of spending a week with 40 of our wounded Marines and sailors at the Wounded Warrior Barracks, Camp Lejeune, NC. All returned from Iraq sooner than expected, the result of a well-aimed sniper's bullet or the peppering blast of an IED. Despite their wounds, the Marines continue to march, all of them looking forward to the day they can join their comrades back in their old unit. Some, unfortunately, will never realize that dream, while others will return to duty for yet another tour in Iraq.
The photo shows Lieutenant General Amos (right), former Commanding General, II MEF, at the ribbon cutting ceremony of Maxwell Hall, the official designation for the wounded warrior barracks. LtCol Tim Maxwell, himself recovering from wounds in Iraq, stands atop the stairs with his wife and child. Tim is the mastermind behind the barracks concept and is owed credit for giving our wounded Marines a place they can call home during their recovery process. Here is my version of this success story:
“My hands were in flames, and my whole face was in flames”, said Sgt. Jason Simms, recalling the fateful day in July, 2004 when his light armored vehicle was struck by the blast of an IED, or improvised explosive device. He was nearing the end of an 8 hour patrol with Delta Company, 2nd LAR Battalion, when his life changed forever.
“My hands suffered third degree burns…and my face took second degree burns. I took three bullets in the right leg, with shrapnel through my tendons and arteries” says Simms, sitting comfortably inside the II MEF wounded warrior barracks at Camp Lejeune, NC. Still recovering from his wounds, the Sergeant motions toward the passageway where Marines begin to congregate prior to their afternoon formation. “Everyone here has been wounded. I think the most important thing here is we were all wounded and we can all understand each other.”
The wounded warrior barracks is home to over 40 Marines and sailors of the II Marine Expeditionary Force, or II MEF. Located at Hospital Point aboard Camp Lejeune, the barracks formerly served as a bachelor officers quarters. In September, 2005, however, the BOQ was transformed into a home away from home for Marines and FMF corpsmen returning early from Iraq, their trip the courtesy of an Iraqi sniper or the blast of an IED. The newly renovated barracks provides the sailors and Marines a place to rehabilitate, allowing them to and focus on their medical needs rather than their next field evolution or unit training class.
The injured Marines and sailors are officially assigned to the Wounded Warrior Support Section, one of two sections comprised within the II MEF Injured Support Unit, or ISU. Established with the goal of tracking all injured II MEF service members and providing support to them and their immediate families, the ISU was developed in 2005, subsequent to a realization that some injured Marines and sailors were convalescing at home or within a variety of military and civilian medical centers, effectively cutting them off from their Marine Corps family.
Lieutenant General James F. Amos, former Commanding General of II MEF, recognized the need for a program that would track each and every wounded Marine and sailor coming home from the Middle East. Scribbling notes on personalized stationary, MajGen. Amos penned the following end state: "We will stay plugged in to every single wounded Marine who has been evacuated to CONUS for rehabilitation...until such time (sic) he no longer needs our assistance." According to the General's hand written memorandum, tracking and communication were the key elements that would lead to the successful formulation of the ISU. Later refining his end state by issuing a formal CG's intent, he wrote "I intend to develop an all encompassing program that provides continual support to all injured II MEF service members until such time as the service member no longer desires the support. This continual support will also extend to his or her immediate family. The program is directed to be a "one stop" shop for all injured II MEF service members, staffed with resident experts capable of finding solutions to all inquiries. It will provide continual command care and concern to the injured service member and their families throughout their transition to either continued military service or to the civilian community."
And so began the Injured Support Unit. Initially staffed with both recalled reservists and active duty personnel, its dedicated members made numerous liaison visits to wounded Marines in Military hospitals and VA centers across the country. Whether tracking the flight status of an injured service member from the time of injury until his return to CONUS, or assisting him in separating from active service, the ISU involves themselves in every facet of the Marines rehabilitative process to include the complicated logistics of family travel, convalescent leave, and follow-on medical treatment and rehabilitation, as well as VA transition and the medical evaluation process.
Since its inception, the ISU has tracked and assisted more than 2,000 wounded Marines and sailors. Unfortunately, not all of the injured Marines or sailors return to Camp Lejeune to rehabilitate among their fellow Marines and sailors. Many remain bed-ridden or continue to receive therapy at other locations, such as the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland or the military burn center at the Trauma Institute of San Antonio, Texas. Regardless of their location, the men and women of the ISU spend countless hours making telephone calls and personal visits to each and every Marine, ensuring no one falls through the cracks.
According to Major Daniel Hooker, Assistant OIC of the ISU, the unit quickly established a routine and developed primary points of contact at every hospital and trauma center known to treat wounded sailors and Marines. Referring to the ISU as the II MEF Chief of Staff's "hip pocket artillery" when it comes to injured support issues, Major Hooker emphasizes his primary goal: "Whenever we thought about the Commanders intent, it was simply, do we have an accurate list of the present physical location and contact information of all our wounded and are we actively helping them?"
"We have two main sections of the ISU" says Hooker. "The Injured Support Section...they handle the separate subsets of our wounded, which includes the medically discharged; the very seriously injured; the seriously injured; and the not seriously injured. The other main section is the wounded warrior barracks, also called the Wounded Warrior Support Section. In the barracks side, everyone has been wounded except the Lieutenant, while on the (ISS) side, no one has. Part of that was by design, in terms of the staff of the barracks. There could be very effective leadership and mentorship of wounded (Marines and sailors) by Officers and SNCO's that had also been wounded, in that they could serve as role models and could provide living proof that you can overcome your challenges, even severe wounds such as those LtCol. Maxwell sustained. He has served as an inspiration to the men, who in most cases, and as far as the residents of the barracks go, were less severely wounded than he was."
Major Hooker was referring to LtCol. Tim Maxwell, the Officer in Charge of the Wounded Warrior Support Section. As the chief advocate for the development of a medical rehabilitation platoon, a place where Marines and sailors could live in an environment shaped by their experiences in battle and their struggle to recuperate, LtCol. Maxwell was himself seriously wounded by an IED while serving as the Operations Officer for the 24th MEU. Shrapnel from the blast tore into his skull, leaving him with traumatic head and brain injuries. Unwilling to give up his struggle to stay Marine, he learned to walk, then talk, besieged by therapy and rehabilitation. Despite permanent damage he suffered, his injuries are relatively unnoticeable to the average person. He has since regained his speech and his health continues to improve with each passing day.
It was LtCol. Maxwell who first suggested the central billeting concept, a place of cohabitation for injured service members. In addition to enhancing the II MEF tracking capability, the central billeting concept would reduce the Marine's feeling of isolation and provide an environment for shared experiences, as well as creating an opportunity for smoother transition back to their unit or when separating from the Corps. Most importantly, the barracks would provide a consolidated location where specialized services, medical oversight, and morale enhancements could be offered under one roof for the collective benefit of all wounded service members. Maxwell summarized his idea - "The concept was simple...let's just keep the guys together, so they don't have to spend time alone."
LtCol. Maxwell's cadre wear many hats while working in the barracks. They serve as ad hoc parents, mentors and role models, all but one having been wounded in the war on terrorism. "The units are not set up to help some of these Marines who need long term care, but (who) are not going to stay in a hospital...it's a full time job doing that," mentions Gunnery Sgt. Barnes, Staff NCOIC of the Wounded Warrior Support Section. Pondering the benefits of the wounded warrior barracks, Gunnery Sgt. Barnes finds merit in the collective healing concept. "It's something I know because of all the doctors appointments (I required) and the amount of drugs I took for awhile," Barnes explains. "It's not a unit's lack of compassion or understanding, it's a lack of time to focus on those issues. Units don't have anything dedicated or set up to take the young Marines to their hospital appointments. Their hearts are in the right place...they want to be able to do that, but they have one focus when they get back, and it's not to heal...it's to rebuild and to get the unit ready to fight again."
Gunnery Sgt. Barnes stresses the wounded Marines aren't babied at the barracks. "I only give them compassion when they need compassion. I don't feel sorry for them because they got hurt...I got hurt. I don't expect anyone to feel sorry for me, either. If you need help getting your pant leg on, well...that's not something you need to feel sorry for anybody for. It's just something you need help with...it shouldn't be embarrassing. You're still going to have to look good in your Alphas. They are required to be at work. We have a ton of jobs we get them involved in. The sergeants I've got here are squad leaders; they work around their doctors appointments. It shows them they can still do it."
Resembling little like the billeting at their parent unit, the wounded warrior barracks provides its inhabitants with private rooms, complete with individual bathrooms and separate living space. The barracks itself is modified with handicapped ramps and wheelchair accessible entry points. The barracks personnel were recently provided a beautiful stainless steel propane grill from the 2nd Marine Division Association, now permanently installed outside the barracks entrance. More important than its physical features, however, the barracks offers the wounded a place to share their experiences with others who’ve endured the same hardships and who share the same need for additional surgery and treatment.
"It's almost like being in Iraq" says LCpl. Brandon Love, a SAW gunner for 2nd BN, 2nd Marine Regiment who suffered severe shrapnel wounds in Al Karma, Iraq in September, 2005. "You find out about these guys...everybody has seen combat. Most everybody has seen their buddies get injured if not killed, and everybody here was injured. Those three things make us more alike than most people realize, regardless of where we are from, what our MOS is...the brotherhood and the camaraderie is the most beneficial thing." LCpl. Love's comments were quickly echoed by LCpl. Bruce Schweitzer, injured in March, 2006 while serving with 3/8 in Ramadi, Iraq, "They focus completely on your injury. It's all about your injury. They want to get you healed up and get you back with your unit."
General Michael Hagee, Commandant of the Marine Corps, had this to say to the staff of MARINES, the Corps Official Magazine in September, 2005. "Our Marines are just that; Marines to the core. Some have lost limbs or sustained other types of serious injuries, but amazingly they're trying to recover as quickly as possible so they can get back to their units. They don't slow down when thrown a curve ball and their resiliency and determination are breathtaking. When I talk to one of these Marines and they explain how they want to continue with their service, I want to make sure the Marine Corps takes the right steps to make that happen." Apparently, II MEF has taken the first steps and is continuing to march.