Retiring Marine Pushed Establishing Support for Recuperating Troops

By Steve Vogel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 29, 2009

Back from Iraq, recuperating from a severe head wound, Lt. Col. Tim Maxwell visited other recovering Marines and began asking himself a question: Why were they alone?

The Marines were living in empty barracks at Camp Lejeune, N.C., while the rest of their units were still deployed in Iraq. Though they had been released from the hospital, they had suffered serious injuries and were on medications with little supervision.

The Marines were lonely, depressed and isolated. "I was just thinking about their being alone," recalled Maxwell, 42. "Why can't wounded guys live in the same barracks?"

The simple question Maxwell asked is credited with changing how the Marine Corps supports its wounded. His advocacy for central billeting for Marines recovering from injuries led two years ago to the creation of the Marine Corps Wounded Warrior Regiment, headquartered at Marine Corps Base Quantico.

On Friday, at his retirement ceremony at the National Museum of the Marine Corps at Quantico, Maxwell was saluted for his achievements by a crowd of 200 people, among them Gen. James F. Amos, assistant commandant of the Marine Corps.

On Oct. 7, 2004, Maxwell was serving as the operations officer for the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit at a forward operating base near the town of Iskandariyah, 25 miles south of Baghdad. Maxwell had gone to his tent for a nap when a barrage of 15 mortars hit.

"The first one hit me," Maxwell said. "I know that because I would have heard them otherwise."

When he came to, Maxwell tried to make his way outside. "I couldn't see anything," he said. "I had a hell of a time finding the door."

Outside the tent, Maxwell collapsed. Shrapnel from the mortar had penetrated his skull, inflicting severe brain damage. At Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, some doctors doubted he would survive.

Sent to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maxwell slowly began to recover, but his concern soon turned to other wounded Marines.

"As soon as he was cognizant, he got in his wheelchair and began visiting wounded Marines," recalled his wife, Shannon Maxwell.

Continuing his recovery at Camp Lejeune in 2005, Maxwell voiced concerns to superiors about the isolation of wounded Marines. "When they leave the hospitals, they got sent to empty barracks," he said. That year, Camp Lejeune established a wounded warrior barracks and named it Maxwell Hall in his honor.

"We learned as time went by of more problems, guys were getting addicted to painkillers," Maxwell said. "It grew and grew, and that's when the regiment got formed."

In April 2007, the Wounded Warrior Regiment was activated at Quantico with the mission to help wounded Marines and their families throughout their recovery. The regiment includes wounded warrior battalions at Camp Lejeune and Camp Pendleton.

All the while, Maxwell has visited military hospitals and tried to give hope to family members of troops suffering from traumatic brain injuries.

"He'd look into their eyes, and he would say, 'He's still there. He's coming back,' " Shannon Maxwell said. "He's a living example that you can live through the worst."

After years of steady improvement, Maxwell's condition deteriorated last year, and he began losing movement on his right side. "Last July, I went back to the hospital, and it's never been the same," he said.

Retirement made sense, he decided. "It's about time," Maxwell said.

While Maxwell is uncertain about the details of what he will do next, he said his general path is clear.

"I'm not done getting better," he said. "Whatever I do is going to be involved in helping wounded guys."