Thursday, October 26, 2006

The Men and Their Stories - Wounded Part 4 (Final)

Although the majority of the Camp Lejeune wounded warriors claim the title "Marine," a few of the residents prefer the nickname "Doc." Hospitalman first class (HM1) Glenn Minney is one of the few sailors who've come to call the wounded warrior barracks their home. A Navy reservist, Minney enlisted in 1985. "Doc" Minney was activated and deployed to Iraq in January, 2005. While serving with 3rd Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment, he was wounded by mortar shrapnel while standing atop the Haditha Dam, a 10 story high facility that serves as a Forward Operating Base for Marines and Corpsman stationed near the Euphrates River Valley. "It was a typical, hot day in Iraq. I had to go out to one of the CONEX boxes to get supplies for the Battalion Aid Station...and the dam came under mortar attack. I was out on the 10th deck on a catwalk and a mortar round went off about 30 feet in front of me." HM1 Minney remembered running back inside the dam, the unit going to General Quarters as four additional rounds exploded near the dam. At the time, he did not know he was injured. "My vision was a little blurry and I had a severe headache, but I didn't think much of it," Minney stated. The next day, however, his eyes started bothring him, and he began receiving treatments for pink-eye. Unknown to the "Doc", however, both retinas in his eyes had become detached from the concussion of the blast. Blood vessels had ruptured, allowing the vitrouse fluids to leak from his eyes. "I started developing tunnel vision, and it was slowly closing in, becoming pinpoint. I talked to my Battalion Surgeon, and sat him down in private and told him 'I am going blind'." Medevac'd to Al Asad, then to Balad, an opthamologist recommended immediate evacuation to Hamburg, Germany for surgery. His first surgery lasted 3 hours, and he received two more operations before heading home to the United States. On September 2, 2005, while convalescing at home, his vision again went black and he required additional emergency surgery. Still on active duty orders, he was offered the opportunity to move into the wounded warrior barracks in the fall of 2005. "At times, you can't talk to your spouse, your mother, your father, friends, about things they've never been exposed to. Being around people who've been there, and having the medical facility...that's the benefit to having the wounded warrior program. Care is first priorty, whether it be mental, physical or social - we go out of our way to hit all those avenues."

Monday, October 23, 2006

The Men and Their Stories - Wounded Part 3

LCpl. Peter Dmitruk, an 0311 with Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, arrived at the Wounded Warrior barracks in September, 2005. Having graduated from boot camp less than one year earlier, he returned to Camp Lejeune with a career's worth of experience. Deployed to the Syrian border in the summer of 2005, LCpl. Dmitruk became accustomed to the daily grind of snap vehicle check points, presence patrols and security patrols around town. Having just returned from patrol to his company's battle position, he was reaching into his pack which he'd tossed atop the hescoe barrier that provided cover for him and his fellow Marines. "A mortar had fallen pretty close...I didn't hear the mortar, but I felt it. It felt like I kinda got punched. My arm flew up into my body. I looked down and it was mangled...kinda looked like it had gotten caught in a shredder. I could see the blood, which looked like arterial bleeding." A company corpsman laid him down and injected LCpl. Dmitruk with morphine. "I remember laying down on the stretcher, apologizing to everyone for getting hurt. I didn't want to leave." A medevac helicopter landed shortly thereafter and took him to the forward resuscitative surgical suite (FRSS) at FOB (forward operating base) Al Qaim. "I remember asking the Batalion Commander if I could of the medical officers (was) there; I could see he shook his head, so I knew I was going home. He said 'this is your time to heal, you've done what you can'." His injuries resulted in the introduction of a titanium plate into his arm, a necessity after losing nearly five inches of bone. Skin was grafted from his leg to cover the wounds and hasten the healing process. Following numerous surgeries, LCpl Dmitruk moved into the Wounded Warrior barracks in January, 2006 and has since realized the significance of living there, vice convalescing at home or in his unit's barracks. "I realized that when I'm here (in the wounded warrior barracks), healing is the number one'll always find a way to get to your appointments. That's the reason you're here, to heal and to get better."

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The Men and Their Stories - Wounded Part 2

Born and raised in Augusta, Georgia, LCpl Phillip Tussey enlisted in the Marine Corps in October, 2003. His first duty assignment with Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment would prove to be his most memorable. Deployed to the city of Ramadi, Iraq in the winter of 2006, LCpl Tussey was on foot patrol in one of the most dangerous cities in Iraq when a sniper's bullet found its mark. "I felt something sting my leg. I tried to stand up...I fell to the ground, trying to get myself back up...I put my hand on my thigh and (pulling) my hand back, there was blood on my hand. I knew I'd been hit." The bullet had hit him inside his left thigh, 8 inches below his hip. Two fellow Marines picked up LCpl Tussey and put him in the back of a hardback HMMWV, his squad still under fire. Spent .50 cal cartiridges from the M-2 Browning machine gun atop the HMMWV turrent were hitting him in the face as the gunner provided covering fire to his squad. "They started medevac'ing me. There was only a driver and a gunner in there, so I picked up the radio and was calling the Staff Sergeant, telling him that we were up and that we needed to roll." Despite the pain from his shattered leg, LCpl Tussey remained conscious until he went into surgery at Charlie-med, Camp Ramadi's field surgical unit. Flying out of Ramadi the same evening, he traveled through Baghdad and Balad before flying to Germany, where he spent the following four days in a morphine induced haze. "They put a rod from my hip to my knee in my leg and two screws in my hip to hold the rod in place," described Tussey, who has endured numerous surgeries since his wounding. He's been at the Wounded Warrior barracks since June 28, 2005. "I can't really do much right now, because of the crutches," says LCpl Tussey, although he has not let his limited mobility keep him tied to the barracks. In July, 2006, he traveled to the National Naval Medical Center at Bethesda, MD with Lt. General Amos, former Commanding General of II MEF, to visit other wounded Marines and sailors returning from Iraq. Encountering a wounded Corpsman from own unit, Tussey recalled the Corpsman's comments upon seeing the unexpected visitors. "The (wounded) Corpsman that we knew couldn't thank us enough. He was so happy (to see us). He said 'you don't know what this means for y'all to come see me.' "

Friday, October 13, 2006

The Men and Their Stories - Wounded Part 1

Corporal Aaron M. Shareno deployed to Iraq on July 18, 2005 with 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment (2/2). Serving near the city of Karma, Iraq, Cpl. Shareno was 5 months into his deployment when he was wounded by a suicide vehicle-borne IED on December 14th, just 11 days before Christmas. His platoon had established fighting positions near a palm grove, approximately 25 meters from the edge of the road, when an insurgent drove his vehicle into the side of a 7 ton truck, detonating the explosives and instantly vaporizing the vehicle. The explosion sent shrapnel and chunks of metal through the air, knocking Cpl. Shareno and other Marines to the ground. "I got blown forward and a piece of shrapnel traveled through my palm and blew out the left matacarpal in my thumb - just shattered it," recalled Shareno. "When I got blown forward, I remember thinking I'm dead...I fell to my side and felt something was funny, not right...I saw my thumb drooping down...blood flowing out of my palm. It nicked two arteries in my hand. I put pressure on it below the wrist to stop the bleeding." Cpl. Shareno lauded the fast reaction of the Corpsman who treated him on the scene, but could not remember his name. "If I saw his face, I could recognize (him)", Shareno said. "He slapped a tournaquet on my was a unique experience." Medevac'd to Camp Fallujah Surgical, then ultimately to Balad and Germany before flying back to the United States, Cpl. Shareno regretted not being able to finish his deployment in Iraq. " I was a little shook up...more angry than anything...I (was) two months out (from leaving); ready to reenlist (when) I get hit. I just wanted to finish my pump, I wanted to reenlist and I wanted to continue on with my Marine Corps career." Now at the Wounded Warrior Barracks at Camp Lejeune, Cpl. Shareno is much less angry and is not letting his injuries get in the way of his career. "I plan on retiring from the Marine Corps," says Shereno. "I'm staying til I don't have fun anymore. Right now I'm having tons of fun."

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Wounded Warriors

In August, 2006, I had the honor of spending a week with 40 of our wounded Marines and sailors at the Wounded Warrior Barracks, Camp Lejeune, NC. All returned from Iraq sooner than expected, the result of a well-aimed sniper's bullet or the peppering blast of an IED. Despite their wounds, the Marines continue to march, all of them looking forward to the day they can join their comrades back in their old unit. Some, unfortunately, will never realize that dream, while others will return to duty for yet another tour in Iraq.

The photo shows Lieutenant General Amos (right), former Commanding General, II MEF, at the ribbon cutting ceremony of Maxwell Hall, the official designation for the wounded warrior barracks. LtCol Tim Maxwell, himself recovering from wounds in Iraq, stands atop the stairs with his wife and child. Tim is the mastermind behind the barracks concept and is owed credit for giving our wounded Marines a place they can call home during their recovery process. Here is my version of this success story:

Wounded Warriors

“My hands were in flames, and my whole face was in flames”, said Sgt. Jason Simms, recalling the fateful day in July, 2004 when his light armored vehicle was struck by the blast of an IED, or improvised explosive device. He was nearing the end of an 8 hour patrol with Delta Company, 2nd LAR Battalion, when his life changed forever.

“My hands suffered third degree burns…and my face took second degree burns. I took three bullets in the right leg, with shrapnel through my tendons and arteries” says Simms, sitting comfortably inside the II MEF wounded warrior barracks at Camp Lejeune, NC. Still recovering from his wounds, the Sergeant motions toward the passageway where Marines begin to congregate prior to their afternoon formation. “Everyone here has been wounded. I think the most important thing here is we were all wounded and we can all understand each other.”

The wounded warrior barracks is home to over 40 Marines and sailors of the II Marine Expeditionary Force, or II MEF. Located at Hospital Point aboard Camp Lejeune, the barracks formerly served as a bachelor officers quarters. In September, 2005, however, the BOQ was transformed into a home away from home for Marines and FMF corpsmen returning early from Iraq, their trip the courtesy of an Iraqi sniper or the blast of an IED. The newly renovated barracks provides the sailors and Marines a place to rehabilitate, allowing them to and focus on their medical needs rather than their next field evolution or unit training class.

The injured Marines and sailors are officially assigned to the Wounded Warrior Support Section, one of two sections comprised within the II MEF Injured Support Unit, or ISU. Established with the goal of tracking all injured II MEF service members and providing support to them and their immediate families, the ISU was developed in 2005, subsequent to a realization that some injured Marines and sailors were convalescing at home or within a variety of military and civilian medical centers, effectively cutting them off from their Marine Corps family.

Lieutenant General James F. Amos, former Commanding General of II MEF, recognized the need for a program that would track each and every wounded Marine and sailor coming home from the Middle East. Scribbling notes on personalized stationary, MajGen. Amos penned the following end state: "We will stay plugged in to every single wounded Marine who has been evacuated to CONUS for rehabilitation...until such time (sic) he no longer needs our assistance." According to the General's hand written memorandum, tracking and communication were the key elements that would lead to the successful formulation of the ISU. Later refining his end state by issuing a formal CG's intent, he wrote "I intend to develop an all encompassing program that provides continual support to all injured II MEF service members until such time as the service member no longer desires the support. This continual support will also extend to his or her immediate family. The program is directed to be a "one stop" shop for all injured II MEF service members, staffed with resident experts capable of finding solutions to all inquiries. It will provide continual command care and concern to the injured service member and their families throughout their transition to either continued military service or to the civilian community."

And so began the Injured Support Unit. Initially staffed with both recalled reservists and active duty personnel, its dedicated members made numerous liaison visits to wounded Marines in Military hospitals and VA centers across the country. Whether tracking the flight status of an injured service member from the time of injury until his return to CONUS, or assisting him in separating from active service, the ISU involves themselves in every facet of the Marines rehabilitative process to include the complicated logistics of family travel, convalescent leave, and follow-on medical treatment and rehabilitation, as well as VA transition and the medical evaluation process.

Since its inception, the ISU has tracked and assisted more than 2,000 wounded Marines and sailors. Unfortunately, not all of the injured Marines or sailors return to Camp Lejeune to rehabilitate among their fellow Marines and sailors. Many remain bed-ridden or continue to receive therapy at other locations, such as the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland or the military burn center at the Trauma Institute of San Antonio, Texas. Regardless of their location, the men and women of the ISU spend countless hours making telephone calls and personal visits to each and every Marine, ensuring no one falls through the cracks.

According to Major Daniel Hooker, Assistant OIC of the ISU, the unit quickly established a routine and developed primary points of contact at every hospital and trauma center known to treat wounded sailors and Marines. Referring to the ISU as the II MEF Chief of Staff's "hip pocket artillery" when it comes to injured support issues, Major Hooker emphasizes his primary goal: "Whenever we thought about the Commanders intent, it was simply, do we have an accurate list of the present physical location and contact information of all our wounded and are we actively helping them?"

"We have two main sections of the ISU" says Hooker. "The Injured Support Section...they handle the separate subsets of our wounded, which includes the medically discharged; the very seriously injured; the seriously injured; and the not seriously injured. The other main section is the wounded warrior barracks, also called the Wounded Warrior Support Section. In the barracks side, everyone has been wounded except the Lieutenant, while on the (ISS) side, no one has. Part of that was by design, in terms of the staff of the barracks. There could be very effective leadership and mentorship of wounded (Marines and sailors) by Officers and SNCO's that had also been wounded, in that they could serve as role models and could provide living proof that you can overcome your challenges, even severe wounds such as those LtCol. Maxwell sustained. He has served as an inspiration to the men, who in most cases, and as far as the residents of the barracks go, were less severely wounded than he was."

Major Hooker was referring to LtCol. Tim Maxwell, the Officer in Charge of the Wounded Warrior Support Section. As the chief advocate for the development of a medical rehabilitation platoon, a place where Marines and sailors could live in an environment shaped by their experiences in battle and their struggle to recuperate, LtCol. Maxwell was himself seriously wounded by an IED while serving as the Operations Officer for the 24th MEU. Shrapnel from the blast tore into his skull, leaving him with traumatic head and brain injuries. Unwilling to give up his struggle to stay Marine, he learned to walk, then talk, besieged by therapy and rehabilitation. Despite permanent damage he suffered, his injuries are relatively unnoticeable to the average person. He has since regained his speech and his health continues to improve with each passing day.

It was LtCol. Maxwell who first suggested the central billeting concept, a place of cohabitation for injured service members. In addition to enhancing the II MEF tracking capability, the central billeting concept would reduce the Marine's feeling of isolation and provide an environment for shared experiences, as well as creating an opportunity for smoother transition back to their unit or when separating from the Corps. Most importantly, the barracks would provide a consolidated location where specialized services, medical oversight, and morale enhancements could be offered under one roof for the collective benefit of all wounded service members. Maxwell summarized his idea - "The concept was simple...let's just keep the guys together, so they don't have to spend time alone."

LtCol. Maxwell's cadre wear many hats while working in the barracks. They serve as ad hoc parents, mentors and role models, all but one having been wounded in the war on terrorism. "The units are not set up to help some of these Marines who need long term care, but (who) are not going to stay in a's a full time job doing that," mentions Gunnery Sgt. Barnes, Staff NCOIC of the Wounded Warrior Support Section. Pondering the benefits of the wounded warrior barracks, Gunnery Sgt. Barnes finds merit in the collective healing concept. "It's something I know because of all the doctors appointments (I required) and the amount of drugs I took for awhile," Barnes explains. "It's not a unit's lack of compassion or understanding, it's a lack of time to focus on those issues. Units don't have anything dedicated or set up to take the young Marines to their hospital appointments. Their hearts are in the right place...they want to be able to do that, but they have one focus when they get back, and it's not to's to rebuild and to get the unit ready to fight again."

Gunnery Sgt. Barnes stresses the wounded Marines aren't babied at the barracks. "I only give them compassion when they need compassion. I don't feel sorry for them because they got hurt...I got hurt. I don't expect anyone to feel sorry for me, either. If you need help getting your pant leg on, well...that's not something you need to feel sorry for anybody for. It's just something you need help shouldn't be embarrassing. You're still going to have to look good in your Alphas. They are required to be at work. We have a ton of jobs we get them involved in. The sergeants I've got here are squad leaders; they work around their doctors appointments. It shows them they can still do it."

Resembling little like the billeting at their parent unit, the wounded warrior barracks provides its inhabitants with private rooms, complete with individual bathrooms and separate living space. The barracks itself is modified with handicapped ramps and wheelchair accessible entry points. The barracks personnel were recently provided a beautiful stainless steel propane grill from the 2nd Marine Division Association, now permanently installed outside the barracks entrance. More important than its physical features, however, the barracks offers the wounded a place to share their experiences with others who’ve endured the same hardships and who share the same need for additional surgery and treatment.

"It's almost like being in Iraq" says LCpl. Brandon Love, a SAW gunner for 2nd BN, 2nd Marine Regiment who suffered severe shrapnel wounds in Al Karma, Iraq in September, 2005. "You find out about these guys...everybody has seen combat. Most everybody has seen their buddies get injured if not killed, and everybody here was injured. Those three things make us more alike than most people realize, regardless of where we are from, what our MOS is...the brotherhood and the camaraderie is the most beneficial thing." LCpl. Love's comments were quickly echoed by LCpl. Bruce Schweitzer, injured in March, 2006 while serving with 3/8 in Ramadi, Iraq, "They focus completely on your injury. It's all about your injury. They want to get you healed up and get you back with your unit."

General Michael Hagee, Commandant of the Marine Corps, had this to say to the staff of MARINES, the Corps Official Magazine in September, 2005. "Our Marines are just that; Marines to the core. Some have lost limbs or sustained other types of serious injuries, but amazingly they're trying to recover as quickly as possible so they can get back to their units. They don't slow down when thrown a curve ball and their resiliency and determination are breathtaking. When I talk to one of these Marines and they explain how they want to continue with their service, I want to make sure the Marine Corps takes the right steps to make that happen." Apparently, II MEF has taken the first steps and is continuing to march.