Wounded warrior unit helps Iraq vets recover
By Robert Weller - The Associated Press
Posted : Wednesday Aug 15, 2007 6:25:31 EDT

FORT CARSON, Colo. — Spc. Crystal Witte feels guilt, can barely hear and has minor brain damage. All qualify the medic to be a member of one of the Army’s newly created wounded warrior units.

Witte, 22, says the treatment she has received since joining the unit of about 100 soldiers at Fort Carson has helped her.

“The medical care here has been excellent,” said Witte, wounded last year in a rocket explosion in Ramadi, Iraq.

Col. Kelly Wolgast, commander of Fort Carson’s Evans Community Hospital, says the unit’s primary mission is to heal, so soldiers can return to service or function in civilian society as quickly as possible.

It will have a high ratio of caregivers to soldiers, among them people with “an acute awareness” of psychiatric injuries, including civilian doctors. There is no time limit on how long soldiers are in the unit.

“This is for soldiers who need a little extra time in their recovery,” Wolgast said.

After criticism that it was ignoring post-traumatic stress disorder and mild traumatic brain injuries, the Army has vowed to make sure no veteran is labeled a malingerer or suffering from a personality disorder who actually is the victim of a wound suffered in Iraq or Afghanistan.

All potential cases are now reviewed by medical boards, while officers and soldiers are being taught how to spot symptoms of psychiatric injury — and to reduce the stigma attached to it. By January, the wounded warrior units, formally called Warrior Transition Units, will be in place throughout the system.

“I do think the country is just now beginning to learn again about post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury,” said Wolgast.

Lt. Col. Gaylene Weber, a former military police commander who heads the Fort Carson unit, said good military order will be maintained. Leaders will look at soldiers’ records to try to assign them to something they have some history with. Some will stay in a special barracks, while others will live with their families.

Weber said she thinks the unit will be able to send more soldiers back to duty than was the case with previously existing medical holds and other outfits.

Wolgast said each soldier will have an individual care program. Case managers and commanders will make sure soldiers show up for appointments and get the physical exercise they need.

“They are not painting rocks, they are not mowing grass,” Wolgast said.

Witt, a Florence, Colo., native, is being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder. She feels guilt because she wasn’t able to help those wounded near her.

“The worst thing about it was knowing that other people got injured with me and I wasn’t able to do my job,” she said, adding, “If it had just been me being wounded I would have been all right with it.”

The rocket that exploded near Witte on March 2, 2006, perforated both of her eardrums and inflicted some shrapnel wounds. She was evacuated and returned to Colorado for ear surgery.

Witte said the wounded warrior unit has helped her deal with her PTSD. She said she hasn’t talked a lot with other soldiers in the unit about what happened to her or her treatments.

“I just want to be a normal soldier and I try not to think about it too much,” she said.

She said she wants to stay in the Army, but if she can’t, she will go back to college in the medical field. And, Witte said, while she wouldn’t volunteer to deploy again, if she were sent, “I would go in a heartbeat.”