Secretary Geren makes ground-level assessment at Fort Drum
July 1, 2009
FORT DRUM, N.Y. (June 30, 2009) -- When Army Secretary Pete Geren took the job two years ago, his major mission was to take care of the force.
It was in that vein that the secretary visited this fort in upstate New York to see what Soldiers and their families need and how to make their lives better.
"We know there are stresses -- from repeated deployments, from combat, from separations," the secretary said during an interview. The Army has put programs in place to respond to Soldiers' and families' concerns, and now must make them more responsive, he said.
Fort Drum is the home of the 10th Mountain Division. The division headquarters returned in May from a deployment to Iraq. Three of the division's brigade-sized units are currently deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan and another is preparing for deployment to Iraq.
Geren spoke to Soldiers rail-loading vehicles for the move. "Some of our Soldiers have deployed three or four times," Maj. Gen. Michael Oates, the division commander, told him.
Wanting to assess the reintegration process and families' needs, the secretary toured the post and took a look at new single Soldier quarters. He toured the Soldier Family Assistance Center and met with Gold Star families -- those who have lost loved ones in combat. He moved on to the 3rd Battalion, 85th Mountain Infantry, where he met with Soldiers recovering from wounds. Finally, he visited an innovative program providing mental-health care to Soldiers in downtown Watertown.
"You need to get on the ground and speak to Soldiers and their families," Geren said. "You cannot stay in Washington and hope to get the information you need."
The meetings with Gold Star families and with wounded warriors were behind closed doors. He said the meetings were constructive and pointed to some areas the service can explore.
At the 3rd Battalion, 85th Mountain Infantry, Lt. Col. Patrick Harvey spoke about the growth of the program at Fort Drum. The unit is the only one of the 36 Warrior Transition Units that has a unit designation. "The unit is important in the division's history," Harvey said. "It was the unit of John Magrath -- the only 10th Mountain Soldier to receive the Medal of Honor in World War II."
Being in a unit means something to the Soldiers, Harvey said. "They know they still belong to the Army. They are still Soldiers and we have not forgotten them," he said. The unit is a place for Soldiers to heal and get back to their units or begin the transition to civilian life.
The unit has 92 military positions and 45 civilian positions. It includes 17 case managers and, on average, 360 to 380 Soldiers with complex medical conditions.
"You do not get assigned here if you have a broken leg," Harvey said. Soldiers have two or three overlying issues in addition to their injuries -- post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries are among the complicating factors.
The unit works well and that comes down to leadership. "All of the squad leaders here are hand-picked by the division command sergeant major," he said. "They are where the rubber meets the road. They are the people who ensure the Soldiers in their squads receive the care they need."
In the middle of town is another program aimed at helping Soldiers. A road sign at the entrance of the Coleman Avenue clinic says "Dead End," but the Fort Drum/Samaritan Health Clinic at the end of the road can mean a new beginning for Soldiers.
The off-post clinic began seeing patients in June 2008. It has a full staff of psychiatrists, psychologists and therapists, plus the administrative help they need. Almost 1,000 Soldiers have attended more than 10,000 appointments at the clinic.
The clinic provides individual and group therapy, medication management, alcohol and drug abuse treatment and psychological assessments. All of this is integrated with other treatment options so there is a continuity of care.
"The off-base location helps NCOs and officers in particular seek the care they need," said Dr. Spencer Falcon, the clinic's vice president for medical affairs.
Somehow there is less stigma associated with going to the civilian clinic, officials said, and they hope the partnership can be tried at other posts. Such partnerships also bridge gaps between the civilian and military worlds.
"The American people appreciate their Soldiers, but they don't really understand the sacrifices Soldiers and their families make every day," Geren said.