Pentagon Pushes Back on Soldier Neglect Story

Officer refutes report saying soldiers treated in "warehouses of despair."

April 26, 2010, 2:22 PM

WASHINGTON, April 26, 2010— -- The Army's top medical officer today sharply denied a report that mentally wounded soldiers are being treated in "warehouses of despair," calling the newspaper characterization "poor" and "almost 180 degrees of the truth."

The New York Times said it based its front-page Sunday story on interviews with more than a dozen soldiers and health professionals stationed at the Army's Warrior Transition Unit at Fort Carson, Colo., quoting one active duty soldier who said his year-long experience at the WTU was "worse than being in Iraq."

Instead, Lt. Gen. Eric Schoomaker argued, most soldiers in the Army's 35 transition units are satisfied with the way they are treated. He said the overall satisfaction rate is 81 percent, and at Fort Carson, it is closer to 90 percent.

"It's wholly unrepresentative of the totality in the context of what we've done for warrior care," Schoomaker said of the New York Times story.

But some relatives of soldiers who have lived at the Fort Carson unit, designed to ease wounded soldiers in either returning to battle or to civilian life, say the paper's depiction is accurate and that the military personnel and civilian case workers stationed at the facility are ill-trained and ill-equipped to deal with the mental wounds soldiers suffer on the battlefield.

"I don't think, really, that these people are qualified to handle these guys," said Ashley Nowicki, whose husband, Sgt. Keith Nowicki, committed suicide in March 2009 after spending nearly a year at the Fort Carson WTU awaiting a medical discharge for post-traumatic stress disorder following his second deployment to Iraq.

While doctors and nurses are stationed at the transition units, the Warrior Transition Command is headed not by a career military physician, but by an artillery officer. The unit at Fort Carson is led by an intelligence officer.

"It needs to be run by medical personnel -- period," said Sally Darrow, the mother of a soldier who attempted suicide during his nearly year-long stay at the unit.

"He was depressed. He was feeling hopeless and helpless and they weren't doing anything but babysitting," Darrow said of her son, Pvt. Michael Crawford.

"He never went to therapy. There was nothing. They just gave him medicine," Darrow said. "I've got a bag full of medications that they want my son to take."

Relative of Soldier at Fort Carson WTU: You Can't Punish Them

Nowicki told ABC News that during her late husband's time at the Fort Carson unit, he only saw one psychologist and one psychiatrist, each every other week.

Darrow complains that soldiers like her son are routinely disciplined by noncommissioned officers for minor infractions that they are more apt to commit because of their mental or physical injuries.

"They are soldiers, but they have short-term memory loss. They're getting scolded and their pay cut and in trouble for losing their keys, or showing up to formation late because they can't get out of bed," Darrow said. "You can't punish them for stupid stuff like that."

But the Army says it must treat wounded soldiers as soldiers.

"We want our soldiers to show up at accountability formation so we know that they're safe," Lt. Col. Andy Grantham, commander of the Fort Carson transition unit, told reporters Monday.

Crawford, who suffers from traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress, was recently reduced in rank from specialist to private for overstaying leave and using marijuana, the Times reported. He now lives with his mother in Michigan as he awaits his medical discharge.

Crawford told the New York Times that the WTU is "just a dark place," and that "being in the WTU is worse than being in Iraq."

"In Iraq, he was with his comrades and they had a purpose," his mother explained. "They had each others' backs and they were on a mission. In the WTU, you are isolated [from your fellow soldiers]. They don't know each other. Half of them are in their rooms and they're not coming out."

Army officials, briefing reporters at the Pentagon Monday, made no pledge to initiate any further investigations of the transition units, beyond an inspector general review that is currently ongoing.

Army officials, briefing reporters at the Pentagon Monday, made no pledge to initiate any further investigations of the transition units, beyond an inspector general review that is currently ongoing.

But Brig. Gen. Gary Cheek, who leads the Army's Warrior Transition Command, suggested the publicly aired complaints might provoke "some adjustments to the program," particularly when it comes to dealing with mentally wounded soldiers who isolate themselves in their rooms.

"Even for a weekend, for a soldier that doesn't have something to do, I mean, that can be a problem," Cheek said.

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