New Director: WTU Population Doubles in First Year
June 18, 2008
WASHINGTON (Army News Service, June 18, 2008) - In an interview with Soldiers Radio and Television Tuesday, the new assistant surgeon general for warrior care and transition said that the number of Soldiers in the 35 Warrior Transition Units around the Army has doubled in the past year.
Brig. Gen. Gary H. Cheek, who is also the director of the Warrior Care and Transition Office, said that the number of warriors in transition rose from around 6,000 this time last year to the current population of more than 12,000, and that the population continues to rise at a rate of about 900 a month.
"That does present some pretty big challenges across the Army, which our installation commanders and the commanders of our Warrior Transition Units are really doing a terrific job managing," Cheek said. "But it is difficult and it is one that we tend to be catching up...and we're trying to change that, to be more proactive and get ahead of some of the growth that we anticipate."
He took over leadership of the WTUs in May from Brig. Gen. Michael S. Tucker.
Cheek pointed out that only about one third of Soldiers in WTUs have been medically evacuated from theater. The others are from Stateside units who may have nursed an injury through a deployment and now need care, or who may have been injured in car accidents or have serious illnesses.
The Army, he continued, is looking at the best way to handle that growth, whether that means more WTUs, a way for Soldiers who may need less care to remain affiliated with a WTU without being in the unit, or working with community-based health care organizations to manage wounded warriors at small installations without large WTU populations. Currently, nine CBHCO units around the country allow recuperating reserve-component Soldiers to obtain services from medical facilities near home.
"We're not making any decisions today. What we really want to do in the near-term is understand that and once we understand that is review our policies that allow our Soldiers to both come in and exit the Warrior Transition Units...We're not looking to downsize that population because...those 12,000 Soldiers are wounded, ill or injured. If we don't let them in the WTU, they're going to be somewhere else...We want to understand this population growth so we can understand where it's taking us in the Army...There are a lot of ideas we've got to consider when doing that," he said.
"We have several things that we're trying to look at and probably the most important thing that we have been asked to do...is to make sure that we can develop an enduring program for warriors in transition," Cheek continued. "An enduring program is one that is expandable when we need it to be, but it's also collapsible. When the numbers of warriors in transition drop, we should be able to adjust for that. It's got to be affordable. It's got to be feasible for the Army to execute. But in the end, it also has to be something that is going to take good care of Soldiers and give them the care that they deserve."
As part of that initiative, the Army is continuing to recruit WTU cadre - part of the triad of care of squad leader, nurse-case manager and primary-care physician - to help watch over the Soldiers and ensure their administrative and personal needs are met.
In fact, the cadre have just been approved for special duty pay of $375 a month in recognition of working long hours, missing career development in occupational specialties, and especially the unique challenges of leading Soldiers who are at least physically injured or ill, but may also have emotional, family and financial issues.
<b>Meeting with Soldiers</b>
To make sure wounded warriors receive the care they need, Cheek plans to visit as many of the 35 WTUs as possible and meet with Soldiers. He has already started with units at Walter Reed and Brooke Army Medical Centers.
"Obviously, one of the first things I want to look at is I want to make sure the facilities and so on that they live in are adequate...And then I'll also meet with those warriors in transition...'How are you being treated' How are your facilities' How is your medical care' How is your comprehensive care plan' Is it on track' What do you want to do with your future'' Those kind of questions. And just get kind of a feel for where they are in the process, their satisfaction with it and whether they feel they're moving forward at the pace they need to go. A lot of times we'll find out issues where things are going too slow or where things are going too quickly," said Cheek, who said he can also find out things that are working at different WTUs, and adopt the practices Army-wide.
<b>Issues with Barracks</b>
One thing that hasn't always worked well is the interim barracks housing WTU Soldiers. The Army, Cheek said, is waiting for money from the Office of the Secretary of Defense and Congress to build facilities for wounded warriors and in the meantime is housing them in the nicest, newest barracks at each installation.
But because they are temporary, the barracks can't always encourage optimum healing. They may be far from the medical-treatment facility or Soldier Family Assistance Center or, as a recent "Washington Post" article pointed out in the case of Fort Benning, Ga., near a rifle range, which disturbed a few Soldiers suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Cheek said the WTU leadership immediately met with those Soldiers and offered to move them to comparable barracks at another location on post. One was transitioning out, one moved and the majority of the Soldiers not involved in the article decided to stay put, he said.
"For any Soldier who wants to move, it's as easy as approaching his chain of command and requesting to move," he said. "And the other part is, with this triad of care...he can request from any of them that he feels that he needs to move...But I think that the real story here, is that we can always do a better job. If we are not accommodating a Soldier with a specific need, we've got to step in and do that and we will."
<b>Transitioning to VA</b>
Cheek is also working with the Department of Veterans Affairs to ensure a smooth transition for the Soldiers who leave the Army. There are VA representatives at each WTU and he recently met with Secretary James Peake and other VA officials. They agreed to work together to identify the top four or five issues that exist between the two organizations and create milestones for success.
"(If) we know that the medical issue with that Soldier is one that's going to preclude him from remaining in the Army, then we need to start his in-processing and learning about Veterans Affairs systems and benefits very early in his transition process...We want to get him to where as he completes his service and receives optimal medical benefit from the Army, and steps from our system to the VA system, it is so that he goes from one day to the next in a seamless transition. There's some work to do to get that better, but it's improving all the time and it's one that we want to work hand-in-hand with the VA."