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Thousands of Soldiers Unfit for War Duty

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David Wood
Chief Military Correspondent
More than 13,000 active-duty Army soldiers -- the equivalent of four combat brigades -- are sidelined as unfit for war because of injury, illness or mental stress.

In an unmistakable sign that the Army is struggling with exhaustion after nine years of fighting, combat commanders whose units are headed to Afghanistan increasingly choose to leave behind soldiers who can no longer perform, putting additional strain on those who still can.

The growing pool of "non-deployable'' soldiers make up roughly 10 percent of the 116,423 active-duty soldiers currently in Iraq and Afghanistan. Thousands more Army reservists and National Guard soldiers are also considered unfit to deploy, a growing burden on an Army that has sworn to care for them as long as needed.

"These 13,000 soldiers, that number's not going to go away," said Brig. Gen. Gary Cheek, who heads the Army's Warrior Transition Command, which oversees the treatment and disposition of unfit soldiers. "If anything, it's going to get larger as the Army continues the tempo it's on.

"This is an Army at war.''

Among these "non-deployable'' soldiers are those recuperating from combat wounds, some severe, and various forms of brain injury. Far more numerous are soldiers with non-battle conditions, including cases of coronary disease, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, acute anxiety, kidney disease, leukemia, chronic back pain and dozens of other maladies. Sometimes, these cases are complicated by drug or alcohol abuse, according to senior Army officers and internal Pentagon documents.

The Army is struggling to diagnose and treat this huge pool of unfit soldiers, helping to enable those with the desire and ability to return to their units, and assisting others to transition into civilian life. But more soldiers are pouring into the pool than are going out, leaving the Army scrambling to house, supervise and treat them.

"We are seeing the cumulative effects of years of war -- and they are cumulative, the physical and the mental,'' said Gen. George Casey, Army chief of staff. With the growing number of unfit soldiers, the Army has been forced to send into combat units manned "at less than 90 percent,'' Casey told reporters in May.

"That is not a good place to be,'' he said.

Even with the manpower shortage, combat commanders increasingly are casting off soldiers who have physical or mental health issues, drug or alcohol problems or a history of bad behavior, Army officials said.

The number of soldiers left home by combat units has doubled since 2007, to an average of 135 for each deploying brigade combat team of about 3,500 soldiers, the Army acknowledged. Three years ago an average of 67 soldiers per brigade were being left behind. Deploying combat units are also leaving behind soldiers who are disciplinary problems at a rate 43 percent higher than in 2007, according to Army data.

About 5,000 of the 13,000 troops have serious medical and mental problems. They have been detached from their combat brigades and housed in the Army's Warrior Transition Units. Established in 2007 to care for battle wounded, these units are instead filled mostly with non-battle wounded troops. The other 8,000 non-deployable soldiers are simply left behind under the nominal care of their combat brigade's rear detachment, which has neither the time nor the expertise to supervise soldiers struggling with behavioral or health problems or other issues, Army officers said.

Within this population of 13,000 unfit troops are genuine combat wounded soldiers -- about 10 percent -- as well as those who have fallen ill on deployment, or succumbed to chronic knee or back problems exacerbated over three- or four-year-long combat tours.

But non-deployables also include some who are faking combat stress to win lucrative compensation and a fast ticket out of the Army, according to senior Army officers and senior NCOs who work in Wounded Warrior units.

Other soldiers, senior officers acknowledge, should never have been allowed into the Army in the first place because they have chronic physical or mental problems not discovered when they were recruited, or because they are ill-suited to military life.

"In all honesty, a lot of our unit commanders have found a lot of guys that they perhaps didn't want to take with them'' to combat, said Cheek, an artillery officer educated at West Point and who won a Bronze Star during a combat tour in Afghanistan.

"There are probably some commanders who ... probably transferred some guys that maybe should have had disciplinary actions taken'' against them.

Fallout From Walter Reed

The U.S. military, perhaps more than any other force in history, has gone to extreme lengths to take care of its troops. Or at least it has since February 2007, when The Washington Post broke a series of stories about severely wounded combat soldiers who were neglected and ill-treated at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the Army' premier medical facility.

The Army was stung to the core by the Walter Reed scandal, because its neglect of soldiers had violated one of its most sacred ethics: in the words of the Soldiers Creed, "I will never leave a fallen comrade.''

Pressed by angry outcries from Congress and the public, the Army has scrambled to take care of its battle-wounded soldiers and every other soldier with a physical or mental problem, as well as others with undiagnosed complaints.

"We have all kinds, and the policy is we really don't care where you got your injury, we're more concerned with the nature and seriousness of it and where's the best place for this soldier to recover,'' Cheek said.

Four months after the Walter Reed scandal broke, the Army had set up its Warrior Transition Units (WTUs), where ill soldiers are assigned to platoons, companies and battalions so sergeants can help them plan and track their treatment. There are 29 such units at military bases across the country and in Germany.

They aim to treat the "whole'' soldier. The staff of the WTUs and related facilities, including nurses, physical and occupational therapists, medical coordinators, surgeons, chaplains and social workers, work with the soldier-patients to devise detailed treatment plans. Patients also sets goals for financial and family stability, housing, education and future employment for those leaving the service. Progress toward those goals is monitored weekly.

This kind of attention is demanding, even for the Warrior Transition Unit at Fort Drum, N.Y., the home of the continually deploying 10th Mountain Division. The Fort Drum Warrior Transition Unit, housed in a sparkling new, state-of-the-art barracks, has a staff of 155 for its 302 patients. But WTU officials and staff say that the battle wounded -- only about 1 in 10 WTU patients -- take up the least amount of time.

Soldiers with combat wounds tend to be better behaved, more intent on healing, more self-reliant, and more likely to take charge of their own recuperation. "They're more grateful to still be here,'' said Staff Sgt. Tiffany Compton of Houston, a squad leader at the WTU at Fort Drum.

Another squad leader at Fort Drum recalled the soldier with a traumatic brain injury (TBI) from repeated exposure to concussive blasts. "He was desperate to get back to duty,'' said Staff Sgt. Charles Anderson, who was asked to work at the WTU after being wounded in Iraq. "He really learned how to help himself, took charge. He worked with the TBI clinic here, he used all the tools we have, and he got better. He went back to Fort Hood and rejoined his unit.

"Ten years ago he would have gotten lost in the system somewhere. Seeing him go back, that's a success story we like to see.''

Soldiers with mental health problems can require more complex and longer treatment and need more attention. Pfc. Daniel Hudman, 19, deployed to Afghanistan with the 10th Mountain Division's 1st Brigade this spring and was sent home almost immediately with what he said was post-traumatic stress disorder and major depression. Hudman is currently a patient at the WTU.

"I couldn't handle it,'' Hudman told me about his deployment to Afghanistan. "I wasn't ready.'' He said that his father had recently died and that he was in a custody battle with his wife. His treatment has given him new ways of "dealing with my stress and my anger and hatred,'' he said.

On several occasions, he has been allowed to travel from Fort Drum in northern New York to see his 6-month-old son, in Long Island, N.Y. He said the WTU always sends staff members with him -- a seven-hour drive, one-way.

Among the other non-battle injured patients in the WTUs are soldiers like Spec. Roland Peacock, 38, who ran truck convoys in Iraq and Kuwait and was medevacked with medical problems he declined to identify. "I didn't want to come, I didn't want to be here,'' he said. "I didn't want to put a burden on my other soldiers.''

"Hopefully, I'll get my medical problem solved and get back to duty,'' he said. Meanwhile, he added, "They're taking real good care of me here.''

Soldiers like Peacock are easier to handle, the staff says, because they are intent on healing.

A 'Dumping Ground' for Some

But squad leaders and others who work inside the WTUs say they are filling up with the undeserving -- discipline problems and malingerers. Rather than being processed out of the Army, many of them are sent to the WTU, and they are in no hurry to leave.

"You can chapter out a soldier who doesn't adapt'' to Army life, said Fort Drum squad leader Compton. "More often now guys'll send that soldier over here and say he's got post-traumatic stress. They tend to overlook a lot of soldier misbehavior here and chalk it up to PTSD or multiple deployments.''

WTU squad leaders, who are hand-picked and extensively trained to work with difficult patients, work long and punishing days and are often called out for emergencies after hours. "You do get to go home at night, but that doesn't mean you get to stay there all night,'' said Lt. Col. Patrick Harvey, who commands the Fort Drum WTU.

Almost every weekend, squad leaders get called out because one of their patients has been involved in a drug or alcohol-related incident on base.

"Many of them never should have come to the WTU -- they should have been separated'' from the Army, Compton said. "These soldiers don't want to be rehabbed, they're just going through the motions. Should never have been in the Army in the first place.''

Squad leader Anderson said, "A lot of money is spent on soldiers who just don't want to go back to their units.''

The WTUs have become "a dumping ground for people commanders don't want to deploy with,'' said Noel Koch, who until this spring was deputy under secretary of defense for wounded warrior care and transition policy for Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

An internal Pentagon report observed that WTUs are "burdened with soldiers placed in them by commanders as an expedient means by which to rid their units of their 'undesirables.' This is counter to the fundamental objective of providing the best possible care for Wounded Warriors.''

Mixing combat-wounded soldiers with these others has created some tensions, Pentagon officials said. Another internal Pentagon report said that combat-wounded patients "express concern that they may be associated with those [patients] who stay for long periods of time and 'milk the system,''' for benefits.

To alleviate such concerns, the Warrior Transition Unit at Fort Hood, Texas, has built separate facilities for combat-wounded soldiers.

"I'm kind of in favor of that,'' Cheek told me, keeping a clear distinction between combat-wounded and the others. "Because what I don't want to have, and what I have had, is a guy with acid reflux disease going to ring the bell at the opening of the New York Stock Exchange and portraying himself to America as a wounded warrior.''

Less is known about the 8,000 soldiers who left to their rear detachments. Lt. Col. Harvey, who once served as a rear detachment commander, said it was almost impossible to keep track of his medically non-deployable soldiers and their treatment plans.

"All your medical people go with the unit when it deploys,'' he said. "I'm an infantry officer. I knew where my non-deployables all were, but I didn't know what came next in their treatment.''

The Army is tightening up its supervision of the 8,000 non-deployable soldiers not assigned to WTUs. But it's a work in progress, officials said.

"It's not a perfect program, and with some of the complex conditions [of soldiers] we're not always going to get it right. But we're going to keep trying,'' Cheek said. "Overall, we've got a fantastic program that supports the Army at war very well. We have a lot more to be proud of than to be ashamed of, and we're going to do even better.''

Cheek said the Army recognized the importance not only of taking care of all its sick, wounded and ill soldiers, but also of being seen as taking good care of all its soldiers. Even if, as Cheek allowed, the Army is harboring a few malingerers who are just milking the system for what they can get.

Why don't you just throw out the fakes and misfits? I asked Cheek.

"We have medical professionals whose job is to figure them out,'' Cheek told me. "If a guy slips through a crack or gets one over on us, he'll have to live with himself. We might believe he is a malingerer, and we might be completely wrong.''

But the Army is a volunteer organization, he reminded me, dependent on the willingness of young Americans to commit themselves to the military.

"And if we are seen as casting away or discarding the young Americans who volunteer to serve,'' he said, "it won't be long before we don't have enough volunteers.''
Filed Under: Afghanistan, Military

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129 Comments

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roncaling

What I heard from many americans is that:
- wars are good
- wars are necessary
- wars are usefull
A people that think like that deserves the results of that insanity.
What do you waite for when you have more then 700 military bases all over the world some with more than 50,000 soldiers, plus families and mercenaries?
What do you would expect on a country that has in active, 980 Generals and Admirals. What for?
Why does the US, that produces 70% of all guns and explosives of the entire world, forcing the US kind of democracy down everyone throat, if they wanted or not?
What to expect from a country that wants to rule the entire world for theis own benefit?
Shame on you America!

December 30 2010 at 6:32 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
vbub101

I want to agree with the women that said criminals should be given a choice of serving in the military or being locked up.I can remember my 18th birthdate like it was yesturday.6 months before that I was talking to a Navy recruiter and ready to join the military. Which I still love the thought of still today at the age of 42.Two weeks before my 18th birhdate and the military, I done something stupid and gotten myself in droble with the law and went to prison for three years.And instead of going to the military I went to prison which did not teach me anything infact it made me a bad person for a while.It is very easy to mess up in life.It takes only a split second and then your dreams and your life is worth not much of anything to you and to every body else.I wish I was given a second chance to serve my country.I think it would of help me alot more than prison and it would of gave me the chance to serve my country like I wanted to any ways.

July 31 2010 at 3:53 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
netty1218

I am saddened to hear that thousands of our soldiers are unfit for duty. I am wondering if these men were asked if they come from abusive households. (verbally, emotionally, sexually or financially).

July 20 2010 at 8:27 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Shawn

Sounds like what happened to Alexander the Great's army after nearly a decade of world conquest (at least the world they knew about, that is).... Eventually he was forced to turn back to Babylon, where he soon died in 322 BC, soon after the pullout from modern day India /Afghanistan/ Pakistan, etc. was completed-- for he drove himself to the same state of exhaustion as his troops (among other things)....

July 12 2010 at 9:19 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
dc walker

I think our soldiers today have had a burdon on them placed like no other. Some have served more than two or three deployments. I applaud them and wish them well and know that I think you are the best of the best.

July 12 2010 at 8:14 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
jbowenfamily

Boy, so much to say. I just retired after 32 years in uniform as an active duty Soldier and reservist. I have seen good and bad WTUs in operation over the past 7 years and I can answer some of these questions. First, the article is correct in that the combat wounded in general want to get back to their units. Second, it is also correct that the WTU has become an easy place to dump a Soldier who a commander doesn't want to take to combat, rather than going through chapter proceedings to remove that Soldier from the Army. Between those two extremes, there are Traumatic Brain Injury and/or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder cases, who do not have a visible manifestation of their wounds, but suffer nonetheless. They are the cases that it takes the most care and skill to identify the truly injured from the malingerers. The Army tends to err on the side of assuming that they are injured and need treatment, which allows some malingerers to get away with it. On the whole, that's an inefficiency that we have to live with, because I would rather let some slackers get away with milking the system than I would turn down genuine TBI or PTSD cases.

As for the 8,000 stay-behinds in units, in my experience most of them on active duty are pregnant or have child care issues. Again, this is an inefficiency we probably have to live with. In the Reserve Components, you have those issues, but you also have some Soldiers who mean well, but they're just not able to handle combat deployments due to personal issues, legal problems, physical fitness, etc. They probably should not be in the Reserve or Guard in the first place, but it is what it is, and the issues often don't surface until a deployment is pending, because Reserve and Guard commanders don't have the degree of control of their people's lives that active duty commanders have.

God bless all our volunteers.

July 11 2010 at 6:04 PM Report abuse +7 rate up rate down Reply
ugacrew

the army wife wants to respectfully address comments by AFBNITZ. When I speak of the "nation's poor," I am speaking in a broader sense, more related to individual privilege and power. You are correct to reference military pay, but review your analysis and focus more on the notable income difference before the military pay. You mentioned seeing a broader cross section of our society during the Vietnam war. I believe there was a draft in place during the Vietnam War, and despite this, there were many who had the "means" to circumvent that draft. Family wealth and money has enabled others to avoid drafts in previous wars, thus my comment about the nations poor fighting its wars. It is important to note that a "soldier" is a cut above the average man, despite any imperfections. You will find many who have riches and come from wealthy families, but still choose to leave the comforts of home. Let us be careful not to condemn our wealthy soldiers! Like every "soldier" they posess courage and convictions and they have a love of country and believe in honor and duty to their country. They know that freedom is only free for those who choose to do nothing while their brothers and sisters suffer and die, and pay the costs for it. They want to be bigger than that. They are in every sense, real "men!"

July 10 2010 at 8:09 AM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply
theherd1969

Sad to say, but many of these young “troubled” service personnel, especially those with a history of serious disciplinary problems, are NOT aware of the very serious effect this will have on them for the rest of their lives. Here are two (2) well established facts: (1). When they’re finally “washed-out,” every branch of the armed-services will indicate their troubled, sub-performance behavior, in code, on their DD-214. That information usually appears in that area of the document entitled “Transfer or Discharge Data - Reason and Authority,” and (2). Many federal, state, and city government jobs - and many private firms with government contracts, require background checks before the hiring potential employee. Case in point, one fella I know, a veteran of the war in Iraq, was released from the army due to “serious disciplinary issues.” After his release, he applied for a job with a city in Florida. On his Application for Employment he stupidly omitted any mention of military service. Unfortunately for him, the position he applied for required a fingerprint check. End result - FBI records indicated he was fingerprinted by the U.S. Army/DoD when his enlisted. What’s he doing today? Well, you may run into him if you take your car to a Sears Auto Center - he’s really great at balancing auto tires.

July 08 2010 at 1:26 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
ugacrew

Army wife forgot one big important thing! The women who serve as well! Women who are most deserving of being pampered and adored because of the fine women they are but are forced to choose to sacrifice whatever it takes because of the need to substitute for those "men" who refuse to take to the battlefronts to protect the homefront. Women who are built with less physical strength and stamina but choose to use what they do have to the best of their abilities to achieve what many say can't be achieved. Yes, instead of the lipstick and the hairspray they take on the grit and the gravel and the sand and the mud and anything else that stands in their way of accomplishing their goals. They demonstrate everyday that it is not always about what you have, rather its about how to use what you've got. These women are role models for both men and women alike. Small and weak in stature? Women are masters at whatever they choose to do. They nature and raise presidents and they take 'em down if they so choose.
They make and sustain both fine homes and families, but they also serve as a force to be reckoned with on the front lines. In their weakest hour, they are better "fit" to serve than those "men" with brute physical strength who choose to do nothing but peer from the edge of the battlefields to just critize!

July 08 2010 at 11:18 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
darkcarrera

I don’t know of anyone who is being held and treated by the army for ailments not linked to deployment. Whatever the problem is, you have to get it on the deployment. There is a distinction between combat wounded and injured. I am injured because my problem was caused by the deployment, but is not linked to a specific incident and had nothing to do with hostile interaction.

Being ill is a totally different scenario. If you become ill while on active duty, your medical coverage is the Army’s responsibility because they act as your primary insurance. It is not always deployment related. It is benefits related. I don’t know of anyone with illnesses that are held under the auspice of “Warriors in Transition”. Maybe they are using the WTUs as a catch all phrase for anyone being held by the Army for medical reasons.

I don’t know who the 8,000 injured and ill people in the rear detachments are. If you are sent back to your unit, you are either cleared medically or have been sent to community based WTUs like me. Those people don’t fall through the cracks. I have to call in every day and all my appointments are monitored by someone at a desk in Virginia. I have to contact them after every appointment and every time I schedule or reschedule anything. They know exactly what we are doing and when and where.

I agree there are people who are clinging to the system to get a pay check (mostly as a form of workman's comp), some might even say I am one of them because I’m not in agonizing pain anymore. But for the most part, people, like me, are not willing to give up the medical care until they feel like they are back to normal, whether out of principle or out of fear that they will return to their MOS before they are physically capable to do their job well.

July 08 2010 at 11:12 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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