Mullen Visits Pendleton Wounded Warrior Battalion
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
CAMP PENDLETON, Calif., Feb. 20, 2008 The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff stopped in here yesterday to see how the Marines Corps treats its wounded warriors.
U.S. Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaks with Marine Cpl. Giovanni Morales, a resident at the Wounded Warrior Battalion West at Camp Pendleton, Calif., Feb. 19, 2008. Photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley, USN
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Navy Adm. Mike Mullen visited the Wounded Warrior Battalion West facilities and spoke to wounded Marines in the program.
The battalion shows the wounded warriors that they are still part of the Marine Corps. “The focus is on healing and what to do with the rest of your life,” said Marine Lt. Col. Charles Johnson, the battalion commander. “We have counselors that can help them with vocational-technical schools, higher education, how to write resumes, how to navigate the (Department of Veterans Affairs system), as well as a number of nonprofit groups like the Semper Fi Fund that helps these Marines.”
The program is outside the medical environment, but is close enough to still get care to the Marines. For some of the Marines, the unit is a way station as they recover and return to their units. For others, the unit is a transition point as they move into the VA system and civilian life.
Thirty-three Marines are in the facility now, but there are another 125 at the Balboa Naval Hospital, 18 at the Palo Alto VA Hospital and 33 at Twentynine Palms, Calif. The unit has a staff of 33, but is building up to a total of 41 personnel, Johnson told Mullen during the tour.
While the primary mission of the Marines at the facility is to receive care, they are still Marines. There is a formation each day. They do physical training, they wear the duty uniform, and they conduct themselves as members of the Corps. The unit ensures the Marines get to their medical appointments, and it monitors treatment to ensure they receive the care they need and deserve. Johnson said the unit works closely with the military’s Tricare health care program to find the best facilities for a variety of traumas and make sure the Marines get into them.
Post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries are two conditions that challenge medical professionals throughout the United States. “A significant proportion of those Marines with PTSD also have a substance abuse problem,” Johnson said.
Marines with PTSD often self-medicate – mostly with alcohol – to try to relieve their symptoms, he explained. “The PTSD feeds the dependence, and the dependence feeds the PTSD,” Johnson said. “It’s a cycle we’ve got to break.”
The military is trying to get ahead of the disorder by sending psychological teams to Iraq and Afghanistan to get servicemembers to deal with the symptoms early. “These young men will talk it out with each other if given the chance,” said Debbie Paxton, a registered nurse who is a care coordinator at the unit. “This environment helps them, also.”
Marines who go back to their old units in their same jobs are eased back to duty. “We plug them in gradually,” Johnson said. Other Marines stay in, but the nature of their injuries means they cannot go back to their old specialties. Personnel in the unit provide counseling and advice as the Marines choose new military occupational specialties.
For Marines getting out of the service, there are personnel from the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Labor and nonprofit groups to help. In one innovative vo-tech program, the Marines learn to be media specialists in movie-making. When they finish the program, they receive union cards.
The unit has a program with the California State University system to get the Marines into college, and wounded veterans from previous wars often come in and speak to the Marines about their experiences.
“Each injury is different, and each care plan has to be individualized,” Johnson told Mullen. “We need to talk to these Marines about what talents they have and what their goals are in life. We need to help them to start looking forward, rather than focusing on what happened.”
Lance Cpl. Rodrigo Guerra, whose left leg was shattered by an improvised explosive device in Iraq’s Anbar province, will be getting out of the Marines. The unit has helped him with paperwork and with giving him a sense of purpose. “In the hospital, you never think you will get out,” he said. “This allows you to look farther down the road.”
Cpl. Ryan Draughn was a radio operator in Anbar province when an IED gave him traumatic brain injury. “I had planned on making the Marines my career,” said the 21-year old native of New Orleans. “I don’t know what I’m going to do now.”
But the people at the unit are helping him and his wife cope with the decisions he must make.
“They are all helpful,” he said. “They sit down with my wife and go over the treatments I receive with her. They are helping me with resumes and trying to decide what I can do. I know one thing: whatever I do I will approach it like a Marine and do my best.”