West Point wounded warriors give advice to cadets
First Lt. Robert Burke, left; Staff Sgt. Peter Villa; and Spc. Ian Gillis; all of whom were wounded in combat and are assigned to West Point's Warrior Transition Unit, participate in a panel about leading in times of trauma for cadets studying military leadership.

Editor's note: This story is presented in honor of Warrior Care Month. The Department of Defense named November Warrior Care Month to raise awareness about the programs available to help wounded warriors and their families through recovery.

The best thing Spc. Ian Gillis' commander ever did for him was tell him he was proud of him and make time for the other Soldiers in his unit to call him at Walter Reed Army Medical Center from Afghanistan.

Staff Sgt. Peter Villa doesn't think he'd be alive - or at least in good health - if a sergeant major hadn't told him to get on a medical evacuation helicopter in Iraq when he didn't think he was wounded that badly.

First Lt. Robert Burke was thankful he got to know his Soldiers well enough to prevent one from hurting himself after his girlfriend called off their engagement via text message shortly before boarding a flight back to Iraq after midtour leave.

All three Soldiers were wounded in combat and on Nov. 7 told U.S. Military Academy cadets studying military leadership how to be an effective leader during times of crisis. The Soldiers are assigned to West Point's Warrior Transition Unit.

It all comes down to setting a good example, being humble, not micromanaging, listening to noncommissioned officers with experience and getting to know Soldiers in a leader's care, Burke, Villa and Gillis said.

"Your job as a leader is to set an example and inspire courage," Villa said. "You have to be the first person to put (body armor and equipment) on and the last person to go to sleep. You have to make sure all of your Soldiers know the mission so if you go away like (Burke did after he was wounded in Iraq), your Soldiers can carry on and complete the mission."

Burke was an infantry platoon leader when he was shot five times during a deployment to Iraq. The most important thing he learned as a leader and from people who led him was getting to know Soldiers. Family issues affect Soldiers' performance and making sure everything is taken care of at home is important.

"If a Soldier's wife is leaving him back home, that is a crisis," Burke told the cadets. "You deal with that with the same (diligence and care) as you would if your (weapon) jammed."

Villa received a severe concussion and shrapnel wounds from roadside bomb explosions. As doctors examined Villa, they discovered he had a swollen lymph node. He had cancer. As a squad leader with three Iraq deployments under his belt, he knows how hard deployments are on a Soldier. But he knew he had to set an example.

"It's not easy after casualties to tell Soldiers, 'Let's go again,'" Villa said. "I would always put my (body armor and equipment) on first so they would know I was ready, and I (told them) with sunglasses on. I couldn't look my guys in the eyes and after we just medevaced six dudes and say, 'Let's go on another patrol.'"

He wore the sunglasses so his Soldiers wouldn't know how hard it was.

Gillis survived an antitank mine blast. His wounds from the explosion included broken bones in the lower portion of his left leg and ankle. His left knee was destroyed, and his right knee was shattered. He also had seven fractures in his spine. The concussion from the explosion lacerated his liver and spleen.

He felt like he had the easy way out of a deployment because he got to recover in a safe hospital room while his buddies continued patrols. While managing his guilt, he had to deal with the fact he'll never be the same. And what made all the difference was the fact his commander made time for other Soldiers to call him.

"It helped me feel like I was still in the unit," he said.

Some cadets who listened to the panel were happy to hear real-life examples of good leadership.

"We are given a lot of opportunity to learn about honor, respect and positive aspects of leadership in the academic setting," Cow Jack Wittkamper said. "We don't always hear about it in real life. It was humbling to hear that but also encouraging because we'll have a huge challenge to overcome (as junior leaders). It helps to see it in the flesh instead of just reading about it in a book."

Cow Jim Flanagan said he enjoyed that the Soldiers told them about their experiences and how they also helped others. He said he looked up to the Soldiers on the panel.

"The stuff they're talking about is the highs and lows of being a Soldier," Flanagan said. "Those are things we don't deal with here. We learn what to do in a situation but not how to deal with the emotions. (The wounded warriors) are role models for us, and I'm glad they are building that role model link for us."

Cable 6 News, the local Time Warner Cable channel also did a story featuring Gillis, which can be viewed at http://www.cable6tv.com/video.shtml.

Page last updated Thu November 13th, 2008 at 11:19