A unit at Fort Drum charged with helping wounded soldiers transition to civilian life was given a scathing review in a report by the Department of Defense Inspector General's Office. According to the report, the Warrior Transition Battalion was seen as a “dumping ground” rather than a place to help soldiers heal. Medical recommendations were ignored, and morale was low, with some soldiers saying they'd rather be in jail or being “shot at in Iraq” than in the battalion.
The report paints a picture of a unit in disarray, with soldiers being overmedicated, enduring long waits for health care appointments, and having few meaningful ways to spend their time. Medical recommendations often went unheeded and there was little sense of direction for either those in the unit or their leadership – it was unclear what the goals of the program were, let alone what measures should be taken to help soldiers get there.
The report was issued in September, but came to light recently when a North Carolina newspaper cited it during an investigation of a Warrior Transition Battalion at Fort Bragg.
Lieutenant Colonel Webster Wright, a spokesman for Fort Drum, says the report was done when the unit was still suffering “growing pains.”
“There are some very, very ugly growing pains going on,” said Wright. “We looked at the leadership, and I think the study identified that, you know, some of these folks may have been great infantry squad leaders, but they didn't have the skills necessary to lead in this very particular, unique environment.”
Unlike most military posts, Fort Drum doesn't have its own hospital. It was designed to rely on civilian community health care. Wright says that caused some problems initially, but by now most of the problems have been worked out. Most of them.
“That particular issue is sort of outside of our means to really fix. It has to do with having some of those specialized medical, health care providers available in the area for soldiers to see,” he said.
The back-and-forth between Fort Drum and the DoD Inspector General's Office that produced the report began in 2010, Wright says. Since then, the post has been working to make changes to improve the atmosphere and health care provided to soldiers in the Warrior Transition Battalion.
“But since the beginning of this report until now, the entire chain of command has changed over. We have realized that there is a need for a more compassionate view, a little bit more specialized training to deal with what the soldiers are dealing with, and we really believe we're on the right track with coming to grips with the recommendations of the IG report,” he said.
Wright says the post is still working to improve conditions in the Warrior Transition Battalion. Wait times for some medical appointments have been reduced from 45 days to an average of 14 days, he says, with a goal of reducing that further to seven days. Some medical facilities are being relocated to a central facility to improve soldiers' physical access to care. And a study is in process on whether Fort Drum might partner with the Watertown Veterans Affairs Outpatient Clinic to bring needed medical specialties to the area.