By Fred W. Baker IIIApril 25, 2007
WASHINGTON (Army News Service, April 25, 2007) - Command Sgt. Maj. Jeffery Hartless, an airborne ranger and master parachutist, served nearly his entire 24-year career jumping out of planes. He earned parachute badges from Italy, Jordan, Norway, Korea, Germany and Honduras.
His airborne career ended, though, when he was crushed under a 10-ton front loader in Afghanistan in 2005. Once stable, Hartless was taken to Walter Reed Army Medical Center here.
He has since recovered, but in an ironic and unlikely career twist for an infantryman, Command Sgt. Maj. Hartless' injuries have brought him back again to Walter Reed - this time to apply his combat leadership skills to taking care of wounded warriors as the top noncommissioned officer in the Warrior Transition Brigade. The brigade stood up its headquarters and first company in a ceremony at the center today.
When Command Sgt. Maj. Hartless was injured in Afghanistan, his femur was smashed in six places; a titanium rod now holds it in place. His pelvis was broken at the socket. All of his ribs were broken, and he suffered lung and liver damage. His left foot had literally exploded under the pressure, and his left arm was nearly pulled off.
Miraculously, the doctors were able to put Command Sgt. Maj. Hartless back together, with all body parts still intact and functioning. He later called the care he received here "fantastic" and "unbelievable."
The two-time combat veteran now will lead a new group of NCOs, many hand-picked by the sergeant major of the army, tasked with improving Soldier care at Walter Reed. In his leadership "rucksack," Command Sgt. Maj. Hartless brings a hands-on approach that starts at the squad-leader level.
"They will have a squad leader again," Command Sgt. Maj. Hartless said of wounded warriors recovering here. "Each squad leader is going to know them. He's going to know their Family. He's going to know what unit they are in. He's going to know the appointments they have. He's going to know whether his Soldier needs help getting to his appointments."
A few months ago, at the time the center came under fire for poor outpatient Soldier care, there were no squad leaders assigned to help lead the wounded Soldiers, and the staff of platoon sergeants had as many as 50 patient Soldiers each to care for.
"Fifty-to-one is horrible. The platoon sergeant is just trying to account for his people. What problems can he solve'" Command Sgt. Maj. Hartless said.
When the staff of the new brigade is manned at its intended 166 Soldiers in June, squad leaders will have only nine to 12 Soldiers in their care.
Command Sgt. Maj. Hartless said leadership at the squad level is critical because it allows for the face-to-face and hands-on communication needed to ensure proper Soldier care. As an example, Command Sgt. Maj. Hartless cited the practice of an infantry squad leader just after a combat encounter:
"An infantry squad leader - once they've consolidated, they've pushed through the objective, ... that squad leader goes to every Solder and puts his hands on him and feels him," Command Sgt. Maj. Hartless said. "Why is he doing that' He's talking to him. How much ammo do you have left' How much water do you have left' He's getting a status report.
"But he's feeling him to see if he's bleeding. Because (the Soldier's) adrenalin is running so high sometimes you have a wounded Soldier and you don't know until you put your hands on him," he said.
Because squad leaders have that hands-on relationship, "that young private ... knows his squad leader cares for him personally," Command Sgt. Maj. Hartless said.
Command Sgt. Maj. Hartless, who hails from the one-stoplight town of Amherst, Va., just a little more than three hours south of the sprawling Walter Reed campus, said healing will be wounded Soldiers' mission while at the center.
"To me a Soldier's mission is healing while they are here. That's their mission. Just like they get a task or a mission in a regular unit - we want them to heal,"" he said.
Command Sgt. Maj. Hartless was serving as the garrison command sergeant major at Fort Polk, La., when the sergeant major of the army tapped him for this post. The infantryman said he had no angst about putting on the medical patch to take this assignment. But, it has been an adjustment, he conceded.
"It's a different feeling. Acronyms are different here. 'CLS' is not combat lifesaver, its common levels of support. I have to learn a different language as I go. I learn something every day, so it's good," Command Sgt. Maj. Hartless said.
"(I have) no angst about the patch. The patch is just the history. It's the people who make the units," he said.
Command Sgt. Maj. Hartless said his injuries, his familiarity with the care at the center, and his ability to empathize with Soldiers looking at the end of their careers make him a good fit for the job. But, for the soft-spoken sergeant major who has spent his career down in the dirt with his troops, the "honor" is all his.
"It's quite an honor ... to be selected for this, to help take care of our injured Soldiers. It's just an honor," Hartless said.
Command Sgt. Maj. Hartless was injured when he was run over by an Afghan driving a 10-ton front-end loader. As the command sergeant major of the 2nd Battalion (Airborne), 503rd Infantry Regiment, he had just finished checking guard posts on his forward operation base and was rounding the corner of a row of metal storage units when hit. Officials never determined if the incident was intentional. The Afghan ran and left him for dead, he said.
"I am lucky to be alive. The hand of God reached to me and said it's not time to come home yet. He's let me go on another day here for a purpose," Command Sgt. Maj. Hartless said.
His surgeon and physical therapist still work at the hospital.
"They put me back together. I feel it every day. I have no complaints because I have everything. Everything works," he said. "I won't say I can run anymore. I jog. I'm really not supposed to run that much, but I do it anyway, I guess because I'm hard-headed - an infantry guy. I can go back to an infantry brigade or battalion and function."
Command Sgt. Maj. Hartless said it was a "hard thing to accept" when officials first suggested that he may have to medically retire due to his injuries.
"I didn't believe it. I knew I could heal. I knew I could carry a rucksack again. I knew I could go with the boys out on patrol," he said. "In my heart I knew I could do it. In my mind I knew I could do it, too. I pushed myself because I wanted to get back. I wanted to be with those troops again.
"Today I can go. I can deploy and fight and win," he said.
(Fred W. Baker III writes for the American Forces Press Service.)