By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
Marine Capt. Ray Baronie, commander of Company A, Wounded Warrior Battalion East, Camp Lejeune, N.C., walks through his barracks inspecting renovations. Baronie was injured when an anti-tank round struck his vehicle in Iraq in 2005. Baronie decided to stay on active duty because he felt he could still contribute to the mission. While he was still in the hospital officials asked if he would consider an assignment leading other wounded Marines. DoD photo by Fred W. Baker III Hi-Res
CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C., June 25, 2008 — In January 2006, as Marine Lt. Ray Baronie was lying in a hospital bed recovering from wounds he suffered in Iraq, a Marine lieutenant colonel in his dress uniform, sporting a question mark-shaped scar on the side of his head, paid him a visit.
Remarkably, he was there to offer Baronie a job. The wounded warrior thought maybe his medication was messing with his head.
The officer was Lt. Col. Tim Maxwell, himself a seriously wounded Marine, who had an idea to form a company to take care of other wounded Marines. He was recruiting help from within the wounded ranks.
Two years later, Baronie is back on his feet, albeit with a prosthetic leg and crutches, commanding Company A, Wounded Warrior Battalion East here. The company is the realization of both Maxwell's initial ideas and the Marine Corps' historic push to accommodate the influx of seriously wounded Marines since the start of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Corps' Wounded Warrior Regiment has its roots in the Marine for Life program, created in 2002. With its headquarters on Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va., and a battalion on each coast, the regiment has incorporated into its ranks all Marines and some sailors seriously wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan, both past and present -- about 9,000 total, said the regiment's commander, Marine Col. Gregory A.D. Boyle.
A veteran combat commander, Boyle launched the regiment in March 2007 under the guidance of Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James T. Conway. In a rare position for a colonel of any military service, Boyle answers directly to a three-star general, Lt. Gen. Ronald. S. Coleman, the Corps' deputy commandant for manpower and reserve affairs.
"There are no filters between me and him," Boyle said. "I don't have to go through one-stars, two-stars. Nobody has to take the meat out of my brief and make it so it can't be understood. It's unfiltered. I go right to the top, which is nice."
In fact, according to Coleman, Boyle often reports directly to the commandant, testifying to the historic precedence the service has placed on care for its wounded Marines. Besides supporting the war, warrior care is the Corps' No. 1 job, according its commandant.
"I get all the money I need. I get all the people I need. I get all the priority I need," Boyle said. It "is pretty rare in the Marine Corps to have all those things. All I've got to do is pick up the phone and I can get whatever it is I need to take care of wounded warriors."
Marine Sgt. Vincent Schneider talks with a fellow Marine Cpl. Chris Boreland at the Wounded Warrior Battalion East, Camp Lejeune, N.C. Schneider is a wounded Marine but works as the barracks manager there. Of the Marines there about two-thirds have part-time jobs or attend college. Staying active is key to healing, officials said. DoD photo by Fred W. Baker III Hi-Res
Besides those injured in the war, the regiment also assumes oversight of other seriously ill or injured Marines who need to focus their efforts on healing, and who may be a burden on traditional units that are steeped in a cycle of training and readying for deployment. The regiment also takes care of some sailors who were injured while attached to Marine units, such as those in ordnance and medical specialties.
The emphasis of the new regiment focuses on leadership, and Marines taking care of Marines, Boyle said.
"It's the Marine knowing that somebody cares about him. We're going to go talk to him every day. We're going to talk to his family every day. We're going to know who he is," Boyle said. "That's where we want our strength to be. I've got the money. I've got the people. But that doesn't make the program better.
"What the Marine is going to respond to is people walking into his room every day and asking how he's doing … and carrying on a conversation with him and showing that they care about him."
There are about 1,200 seriously injured active-duty Marines recovering in bases, hospitals and homes across the United States, and reaching out to them is no easy task. But, the regiment has managed to connect active-duty, reserve, Veterans Affairs and other resources into a giant network spread across the United States.
Boyle launched the regiment with a small, hand-picked command staff and slowly built it to a size of about 230. It likely will grow to about 400 before Boyle is finished.
A New System of Care
The regiment's headquarters is at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va., just a short drive from the Pentagon, and major military healthcare centers such as the NNMC in Bethesda, Md., and Walter Reed Army Medical Center, in Washington, D.C. Some of the staff are wounded Marines who working through their own recoveries.
While the headquarters is in temporary billets now, it is slated for a new headquarters building with construction starting this year. Before the staff moves in, they will have already outgrown it, said Boyle.
The regiment consists of a battalion here, another at Camp Pendleton, Calif., and a company in Hawaii. Each provides coverage for Marines receiving care in their areas. The east and west battalions divide their coverage of the United States by the Mississippi River, while the Hawaii company covers down on those recovering in the Pacific.
The battalion here has the command structure for two companies, but only one is in place. There are about 100 Marines in the company now, but it has oversight for more than 300. A new $27 million barracks complex is under construction that will move the Marines closer to the hospital and other treatment facilities on base.
The West Coast battalion has oversight of about 200 Marines and has a similar barracks construction project planned.
In the units, Marines spend their days concentrating on healing and transitioning to the next phase of their lives, whether that means recovering and staying on active-duty or leaving the service.