VFW Magazine (Sept 2006)
 

Wounded Warriors Heal Together

Camp Lejeune in North Carolina opened the first wounded warriors barracks to lift Marines’ morale and help wounded service members return to active duty or transition out of the Marine Corps.

By Kara Petrovic

As more and more Marines—wounded by roadside bombs and in shootings—continue to return from Iraq, they are surrounding themselves with other wounded Marines to share in their final phases of recovery.

In September 2005, North Carolina’s Camp Lejeune welcomed six Marines wounded in Iraq as the first residents of the first-of-its-kind wounded warrior barracks. The barracks, called Maxwell Hall, officially opened in November 2005. Today, 35 Marines live and work together, and call Maxwell Hall home.

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The barracks—named after Lt. Col. Timothy Maxwell, who sustained severe brain damage after mortar shrapnel pierced his brain—brings the hurting together to heal together.

Maxwell, a former operations officer for the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, was on his third tour in Iraq when he almost died Oct. 7, 2004.

He awoke to an empty hospital room longing for his unit. The isolation was enough to drive him mad. At that moment, he started thinking about other wounded Marines who were probably experiencing similar feelings and recovering alone.

“These guys have a hard time talking about the war, especially to people who haven’t been through war,” Maxwell said. “Most are right out of high school, and they needed a sense of togetherness. They didn’t need to go back home or back to empty barracks.”

After returning to the U.S., Maxwell, along with Gunnery Sgt. Ken Barnes—another wounded Marine—approached their superiors in March 2005 about converting a building at Camp Lejeune into living quarters for wounded warriors, so that they could recuperate together.

Some commanders initially objected to the idea, but Maxwell and Barnes pressed on to convince those who weren’t sold on the idea.

“We kept telling them, ‘Who can take care of Marines better than Marines?’” Barnes said. “From the outside looking in, we proved that no one else can take care of them better.”

In August 2005, Maxwell and his supporters were successful as Camp Lejeune’s former officers’ quarters were transformed into six personal living spaces. Since then, the barracks has expanded to include 40 rooms.

But unlike traditional barracks, wheelchair ramps replaced steps and hand-bars were installed to accommodate residents’ needs. A recreation room also includes computers, a big-screen TV and a videogame system to keep up morale.

“It’s all about togetherness here,” Maxwell said. “It’s not fair that some have to spend time alone. Coming here gives these Marines a place to hang out.”

The Path to Recovery
As of August 2006, 65 Marines and sailors have lived, worked and recovered at Maxwell Hall since it opened its doors.

Barnes, the top enlisted man in charge of the barracks, said wounded warriors are treated like Marines. They are up each morning by 5:30 a.m., straightening their living quarters and in formation by 7:30 a.m.

When Marines first arrive at the barracks, they are divided into five different squads, depending on the severity of their wounds and mobility, and assigned a job to perform four days a week. A sergeant leads each squad.

“The sergeants are key,” Maxwell said. “By looking at their sergeants, it gives these wounded Marines a chance to see what they’re going to look like in six months.”

According to the Department of Defense, 6,195 Marines have been wounded in Iraq and 91 Marines were wounded in Afghanistan as of Aug. 5, 2006.

Like Barnes, who lost his arm to a roadside bomb in Iraq on Nov. 2, 2004, the barracks’ 46 staff members, except two, also have been wounded in either Iraq or Afghanistan.

Staff members coordinate doctors’ appointments and help Marines with mounting paperwork and future plans.

“We’re more than a barracks,” Barnes said. “We offer them a chance to be part of a team again. There’s a huge piece of your life missing when you are wounded. I look at life a lot differently now, and that’s partly due to the barracks. I’ve learned to talk better and adjusted myself around people.”

Maxwell’s wife, Shannon, his 12-year-old daughter and nine-year-old son supported Maxwell’s vision from the beginning. Shannon also helped found a support group for spouses of wounded veterans.

“We fully believe that the barracks concept is beneficial to them,” Shannon said. “Family members can empathize with and love them, but since they haven’t walked in their shoes, they can’t understand how that really feels.”

The Real Wounded Warriors
The wounded Marines staying at Maxwell Hall are similar to thousands of service members across the country in their passion for their country and their need for camaraderie.

At 15, Brandon Love stood beside his older brother with envy as he watched him enlist with the Marine Corps. “It was always my dream to join,” Love said. “I told the recruiting officer right there that he’d see me in three years.”

Love followed in his brother’s footsteps and joined the Marines, becoming a lance corporal with F Company, 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment. He deployed to Iraq in 2005, but his tour ended Sept. 23, 2005, outside Karmah, after a car explosion sent shrapnel piercing through his right arm and bursting his eardrums.

The following November, the Charlottesville, Va., native joined other wounded warriors, including two from his own unit, at Camp Lejeune.

“For me, the camaraderie is the best part,” he says. “Everyone here has been through similar things. We can joke about our wounds with one another without anyone else getting offended.”

Four days a week, Love works as a photographer in Camp Lejeune’s Public Affairs Office, snapping photos of group functions to display for public viewing. Love says he enjoys covering the barracks’ events, but says he’s ready to move on.

“I’m ready to go back to Iraq,” Love says. “Wherever my boys are going, I want to be there.”
For Sgt. Jason Simms, 28, of Philadelphia, the road to recovery has been a longer process. He was wounded only four months into his deployment.

Simms arrived in Iraq in March 2004 with 3rd Plt., D Co., 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Bn., attached to the 1st Marine Division.

On July 1, 2004, the Humvee he was riding in rolled over a land mine during a routine patrol sweep along a highway in Fallujah. Simms suffered burns to his hands and face, as well as a broken leg.

Simms, who has been with the barracks since it originally opened, works as its 2nd squad leader.

“This is one of the best things the Marine Corps has done,” Simms said. “I think it helps them with the healing process because I’m hurt, too. I wish I could have come straight to a place like this.”

Simms’ unit redeployed to Iraq in September, but with each passing day he continues to improve and looks forward to re-enlisting.

“I’ve got more surgeries ahead of me,” he says. “As soon as I can return to active duty I want to be back in Iraq. Hopefully, I’ll be able to leave a few months from now.”

For some Marines, however, the decision of whether they will return to their units after their wounds heal is uncertain.

“There are times I think about just going back to school to become an auto mechanic,” said Lance Cpl. Collin Wolf, 22, of Boston.

A member of 1st Mobile Assault Plt., Weapons Co., 3rd Bn., 6th Marine Regt., Wolf was only five weeks into his tour when the Humvee he was riding in hit a land mine, embedding shrapnel into his right leg and shattering his femur.

Since mid-April, Wolf’s been recuperating at the barracks.

“After you’ve been sent home, 90% of the guys back in your unit don’t understand the extent of combat injuries,” Wolf said. “They do here. If I wasn’t here, things would be a lot harder.”

Wolf works in the barracks’ inter-support section, making phone calls to wounded Marines across the country. He provides answers to questions about what each Marine can expect during his recovery.

“I wish more people knew about the barracks,” Wolf said. “Not having a place like this would make it harder to recuperate.”

Wounded Marines coming home from Iraq will continue to receive the best care possible, but not only at Camp Lejeune.

Based on Camp Lejeune’s program,California’s Camp Pendleton opened a West Coast Wounded Warrior Center in August. The center, located less than a quarter-mile from Camp Pendleton’s hospital, can house 26 service members. Officials expected to have half of the center’s rooms filled by late August.

“I’m excited for them, but we all knew it was coming,” Maxwell said. “It was only a matter of time. Once Pendleton’s center picks up, it’s going to be better than [Camp Lejeune’s], because they’ve been watching what works and what doesn’t.”

Although Maxwell is close to ending his career with the Corps, he said he will always remember the fulfillment he received by helping Marines like Love, Simms and Wolf.

“I’ve enjoyed working at the barracks, but I don’t like getting credit for the idea,” Maxwell said. “We need to give credit to all the veterans who had to come back wounded and alone.”

E-mail kpetrovic@vfw.org

   
 

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