By Chuck Cannon, Fort Polk Guardian staff writerFebruary 13, 2009
When Spc. Joseph Elliott headed out from his forward operating base five months into his deployment to Iraq with the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, he figured it would be a "normal" mission. "I was part of Command Sergeant Major (Christopher) Greca's security detail," Elliott said. "We were sent out to pick up a combat photographer. It seemed pretty easy." Elliott and his team picked up the photographer and began their return trip when the day took a turn the Soldiers would not soon forget. "The vehicle I was riding in hit an IED (improvised explosive device)," Elliott said.
Elliott was hit in the left side with a large piece of shrapnel. His driver took several shrapnel hits and had a toe blown off. Fortunately for the two, their "cargo," the combat photographer, had once been a medic. "He pulled us out of the vehicle and immediately went to work to stop the bleeding," Elliott said. "And he filmed the whole thing. It was pretty amazing. I don't know what we would have done if he hadn't been there." Medics soon arrived, patched up the Soldiers' wounds and evacuated them to Baghdad's Green Zone. Elliott was operated on to remove the shrapnel and transferred to Landstuhl Army Medical Center in Germany.
Following a brief stay at LAMC, he returned to Fort Polk and was assigned to Warrior Transition Battalion. "They put me in a rehab hospital for a while, then sent me home for convalescent leave for a month," Elliott said. "After that, I came back here."
Lt. Col. Timothy Albers, commander of Fort Polk's Warrior Transition Battalion, said the mission of the WTB is to heal and transfer the wounded Soldier either back into service or the civilian world. "We try to focus our staff and commanders to facilitate that," he said. Albers said there are four priorities: mission, Soldiers, Families and team. "Our mission, to heal and transition, has to be our No. 1 priority," he said. "Our motto is 'Mission first.'" Next come the Soldiers. "We treat our Soldiers with dignity and respect," Albers said. "It's a new world for these Soldiers, very stressful. We try to educate and support them throughout the process."
Albers said Families are an important part of the team. "We strive to keep Families informed and aware of the opportunities available, keep them involved and give them some control over the situation." As for the team, Albers said teamwork is vital to successfully complete the mission. "Individuals are not typically successful, but teams are," he said. Albers said a lot has changed in the way the Army treats those who have been injured. "It's a different mindset from the old Army," he said. "These are our Soldiers who were defending our nation, and it's our duty to do our best to get them back to their unit or transition them to civilian life. "It's different than a combat mission, but just as important to those Soldiers who find themselves in a Warrior Transition Battalion."
An important player in the process of healing and transitioning is the Soldier's case manager. Capt. Brad O'Brien is one of 13 case managers assigned to Fort Polk's WTB at Bayne-Jones Army Community Hospital. They are augmented by four medical support assistants who handle much of the paperwork and appointment scheduling. "I guide the Soldiers," he said. "I find out what they want or need, then help them get there." O'Brien said all case managers are registered nurses and that no more than 25 Soldiers are assigned to each case managers. "That means we understand medical requirements," he said. "Sometimes we have to refer our Soldiers to local doctors or Fort Sam Houston. We are their advocate or guide." The main goal is to retain the Soldier, O'Brien said. "If we can't help keep the Soldier in, we allow the Veterans Administration to handle it," he said.
One area that is stressed by the WTB staff is education, Albers said. "This is a transitional time in the life of these Soldiers," he said. "I want them to be successful when they leave - education gives them that advantage." To that end, Albers said time is made for Soldiers to attend on-line college or participate in certificate and work-release programs. He also pointed out it's not just combat-related injuries that can bring a Soldier to the WTB. "If there is a requirement for comprehensive care, the WTB is probably where they'll be," he said.
Elliott has nothing but praise for the WTB, from the care he has received to his living conditions. "I think the program is really good," he said. "It has helped me a lot. They make sure you get all of the appointments you need; that's their No. 1 priority, getting the medical care you need to be rehabilitated."
As for his barracks room, Elliott said it beats anything he's ever had in the military. "Our one-man rooms are bigger than most two-man rooms," Elliott said. "They are like an apartment and each room also has a wall-mounted flat screen television. What more could you ask for'" Elliott said the WTB also helps in another way: It keeps Soldiers busy. "We have a work-release program," Elliott said. "I do desk duty at the hospital and some Soldiers go to school. They don't let you just sit around; if you're able, they get you back on your feet." Elliott said he's recovering from his wounds, but it looks to be a long process. "I had a lot of nerve damage to my left side," he said. "I'm gradually getting better, but I've kind of reached a plateau right now. They're determining whether I will be sent before a medical board, returned to a unit or reclassified." Whatever the decision, Elliott said the WTB has been an encouragement. "It's good to know that should the worst happen, the Army will be there for you," he said.