Staying Power: Marines Call Wounded Care Highest Priority After War
By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Nov. 20, 2008 Marine Lt. Gen. Ronald S. Coleman, deputy commandant for manpower and reserve affairs, spoke with American Forces Press Service about the Marine Corps’ wounded warrior care program and the Corps’ policy of allowing seriously injured Marines to return to active duty. The following questions and answers were taken from that interview.
Q. The Marine Corps Wounded Warrior Regiment is the only wounded warrior program of the services set up so that the regimental commander, an 0-6 (colonel), answers directly to a three-star general. Why is your program set up that way and does it speak to the priorities of wounded warrior care in the Marine Corps?
A. The commandant, prior to last April, had been talking about it [the Wounded Warrior Regiment], and figuring out what was the best way to do it and who should be the commander of it. We gave him about five names, and he stopped in Hawaii and met Col. Greg Boyle. It was late one night, and he called me and said ‘Hey Ron, I found the man. This is the one.”
Between April of last year and now, it has become a phenomenal, phenomenal organization. The commandant has his fingerprint all over it. In many, many instances, [Boyle] has permission, without going through me, to go straight to the commandant.
Other than winning the war, this is the commandant’s highest priority.
Q. The Marine Corps is forward-leaning in keeping its wounded Marines on active duty if they choose. Why, when recruiting is strong, not fill that slot with a physically fully capable Marine?
A. In a word, loyalty. We ask these young men and women to come serve the country, and to serve the Marine Corps, and the commandant has stated that he will not send any Marine home that he can legally keep. And he has stuck to that word. If a Marine wants to stay in the Marine Corps, they will stay in the Marine Corps.
He or she may be on the permanent disabled list … they may not be able to run the physical fitness test or be in the occupational specialty that he or she once was, but the bottom line is we owe it to them and it’s complete loyalty. And in the Marine Corps loyalty runs up and down.
Q. What do you think they bring to the fight?
A. If you had Terry Bradshaw [pro-football Hall of Famer and Super Bowl MVP] on the team and he got hurt and he wanted back on the team, would you take him?
Look at the value and the insight. He or she can talk about his or her experience. More than that, they can talk about stress and what stress is and they can help us identify stress. The toughest part about this stress thing is … it’s not easy to [for a Marine] to say ‘I have a problem.’
The country has a Marine Corps because they want a Marine Corps. We have these Marines sticking around because they’re valuable to us.
Q. What do you think it says to other Marines when they see an amputee walking around in uniform?
A. I would venture to say that I could have a squad of Marines and you couldn’t tell who is an amputee and who isn’t.
We had a Marine who lost his leg -- amputated above the knee – who came back and went to jump school and finished number one in jump school.
They’re a tough breed. And it also goes to show, ‘If I get hurt, my Marine Corps is not going to throw me along the side of the road. They’re going to keep me as long as I want to stay.’
I’m proud of our Marine Corps for doing it. That’s what I would want. If I got hurt, regardless of how significant [the injury], I would want the Marine Corps to say to me ‘If you want to stay Marine, you can stay.’
Q. Have you had to make any personnel or slot adjustments to accommodate or find jobs for these Marines?
A. No. It’s an easy thing. We work for those staying in. We work for those getting out.
Of the 6,614 Marines who received Purple Hearts since the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom, 2,727 are still on active duty. My aide is a wounded warrior. It’s a good thing.
Q. The Wounded Warrior Regiment call center is reaching out to about 8,000 former, seriously wounded, Marines. What is the importance of reaching out to former Marines?
A. Once a Marine, always a Marine. I think it’s a great feeling to say ‘I’ll never be forgotten.’
You’d be amazed the number of times I go somewhere and some Marine says, ‘You know, sir, I did four years and got out, and I wish I’d stayed in.’
It pings at your heart and you want to reach out and talk to them and, no matter how long they’ve been out, you want to … say ‘Hey, you’ve still got a family.’
Q. Where would you say we are with wounded warrior care in the Marine Corps?
A. I’d say we’re moving along fast. I don’t know if it’s fast enough. I’m an old guy and a Vietnam vet and you look at what happened in Vietnam when someone was injured and you look at what happens now ….
Modern medicine has moved along so much. I think it’s good, but if you lose one Marine, it’s not good enough. Is it ever good enough? I don’t know that it’s ever good enough. But it’s damn good right now.
I think we’re more there on the battlefield than we are back here. We didn’t know … that the number of stress casualties would be as high as it is. I don’t know that we have the number of docs and medics … in the military [that we need], so you have to outsource. I don’t know that we were prepared for this. We need a lot of outside assistance from outside docs.
Q. What are the challenges of wounded warrior program?
A. The challenges are keeping going and not losing momentum.
The government, the Department of Defense … have done damn well. But let’s say that some time in the future we wind down this war, my fear is the money drying up, and someone saying, ‘That was five years ago, and anybody injured five years ago, he or she is all taken care of. Let’s cut this money and put it toward something else.’
My fear is that somebody, somewhere along the line, will make the decision that the well is dry. And we won’t have any more money.
I don’t think this country has any greater asset than its wounded warriors. And I hope that we never forget them.
Q. Give me your definition of Marine for Life?
A. A Marine for Life is from the time you earn that eagle, globe and anchor, to the time we lower you in the ground, you’re ours. And even after you’ve gone to the great beyond, the Marine Corps will still be there if your family needs us.
[Editor’s note: This is the latest article in an AFPS series about seriously wounded servicemembers who are returning to active duty].