By SCOTT FONTAINE; The News TribuneJune 19, 2009
Lt. Col. Danny Dudek paced the dew-covered grass of Fort Lewis' Watkins Field, inspecting his troops during a ceremony marking a change of command for his unit.
The sight of an officer marching past with the aid of hand crutches was not lost on the hundreds of wounded and injured soldiers of the Warrior Transition Battalion whom Dudek now commands.
"The Army has to make a deliberate decision to let a paralyzed lieutenant colonel command a battalion," the 40-year-old said. "That doesn't happen often."
Dudek, previously the battalion's executive officer, took command from Lt. Col. K.C. Bolton on Wednesday morning. Dudek now is responsible for about 600 soldiers with long-term or complex medical issues, one of 39 such units across the military.
Dudek, whose feet are paralyzed, has been with the unit almost two years. He was serving in Iraq with Fort Lewis' 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division when an explosively formed penetrator, a particularly lethal form of a roadside bomb, detonated under his Stryker vehicle near Husseiniyah on July 19, 2007.
Cpl. Brandon M. Craig, a 25-year-old Maryland resident, was killed almost instantly.
"Danny was hurt very badly from that attack, but nothing was going to keep him down," said Lt. Col. John Steele, the former 4th Brigade deputy commander who's now in the same position for the 191st Infantry Brigade. "He kept asking, 'How are the soldiers' Are they OK'' I never once heard him say anything about himself."
His subsequent journey through the Army medical system gives him a clear insight into what can be improved, said Maj. Gen. Patricia D. Horoho, the commander of Madigan Army Medical Center.
"Danny brings to his position a special uniqueness of first-hand experience of what it's like to walk in the boots of the very soldiers he is now charged with caring for," Horoho said.
Sgt. Pedro Lara, a combat engineer assigned to the battalion after suffering a stress-induced heart attack, said the sight of a fellow wounded soldier taking command was rousing.
"He's inspired me a lot with overcoming his injury and his dedication," Lara said. "He can be an inspiration to everybody."
Dudek, however, said this kind of praise makes him uncomfortable.
"I keep hearing that I inspire people," said Dudek, who is married to wife Megan. "But I'm just trying to get through the day."
The Army-wide Warrior Transition initiative was born from the poor medical conditions revealed at Walter Reed Medical Center in early 2007. As the scandal rippled across the country, soldiers at the old "medical hold" companies at Madigan Army Medical Center complained of mistreatment, confusion and delays.
In the newly created battalions, soldiers moved into refurbished barracks and were assigned a primary care specialist, a nurse case-manager and a squad leader to make sure they get proper treatment.
Bolton was the first commander at the Fort Lewis battalion. He leaves to become the operations officer at U.S. Army Medical Department Center and School at Fort Sam Houston, Texas.
Horoho credited the 43-year-old California native with increasing family programs, outreach programs, introducing an adaptive sports and fitness program that was adopted elsewhere, and creating a comprehensive plan program for each soldier that has become the Army standard.
The unit reached a peak of about 900 soldiers under Bolton's command before dropping to about 400. It added about 150 soldiers in April when it took responsibility for a warrior transition unit based in Sacramento.
The Pentagon has projected a gradual decline in the number of soldiers assigned to warrior transition units, but Dudek said the upcoming deployment of three Stryker brigades from Fort Lewis and the return of the Washington National Guard's 81st Brigade Combat Team likely means the numbers of injured and wounded at Fort Lewis will rise again.
"Taking an artillery battalion into Iraq would be easier than doing what I'm going to have to do with the Warrior Transition Battalion," he said. "That's how complex, how important it is. But that's where my passion lies."
Scott Fontaine: 253-320-4758