Wounded Warriors

Tuesday's World Events   —   Posted on March 13, 2007

(by Jamie Dean, WorldMag.com) CAMP LEJENUE, N.C.–On a crisp morning on the North Carolina coast, traffic bustles through the main gate of Camp Lejeune, the largest U.S. Marine Corps base east of the Mississippi. The 156,000-acre site includes 11 miles of beach for amphibious operations training, 98 maneuver areas, and more than 40,000 Marines.

Clad in sweatshirts and gym shorts, pairs of bulky Marines jog briskly down winding sidewalks along neatly manicured roads. Others set up tall, green tents inside a circle of barbed wire for training exercises. Some prepare for target practice on one of 78 live-fire ranges.

Nearby in a brick, two-story barracks, Sgt. Jason Simms maneuvers a long hallway armed with a thin, black cane. The 28-year-old Marine, seriously wounded in Iraq in 2004, is on a mission of his own: recovering from his 18th surgery in less than three years.

Simms is one of 80 Marines at Camp Lejeune’s Wounded Warrior barracks, a renovated barracks for Marines injured in combat. The barracks opened in late 2005 to give wounded Marines much-needed help in two critical areas: navigating the complicated world of outpatient care, and recovering with others who have been through similar ordeals.

Simms is one of the nearly 24,000 military personnel wounded in action since the United States invaded Iraq four years ago this month. More than half of those returned to duty within three days. But for many of the 10,000 who didn’t return quickly, medical care is a dominating concern.

The issue of medical care for troops has dominated military news since revelations of gross mismanagement at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., surfaced in late February. The Washington Post reported that troops in Walter Reed’s outpatient center languished in squalid living conditions while wading through miles of red tape to receive proper care.

The scandal led Defense Secretary Robert Gates to dismiss the facility’s commander, Maj. Gen. George W. Weightman. One day later, Gates announced the resignation of Army Secretary Francis Harvey in connection with the scandal. He ordered an investigation of the military and veterans health-care systems nationwide, noting that the substandard conditions at Walter Reed might exist elsewhere, especially in outpatient care.

The Wounded Warrior barracks at Camp Lejeune doesn’t provide medical treatment or outpatient care, but it does help Marines manage the logistical details of both: Barracks staff provide transportation to medical appointments, assist Marines with paperwork, and help family members with lodging and car rentals when they visit. The barracks has wheelchair ramps, updated bathrooms, and lowered doorknobs on bedroom doors.

The two Marine officers who conceived the idea for the barracks know the importance of such services firsthand, since both were injured in Iraq. When the officers returned home from the field, they encountered the need for a support system for wounded troops. They proposed the idea for the barracks in mid-2005 and started housing six men in six rooms later that year.

Today, Gunnery Sgt. Bill Rosborough runs daily operations for the 80 barracks residents. He summarized the core idea of the project while sitting in an oversized recliner in the barracks lounge: “The people best prepared to take care of Marines are Marines.” Rosborough said the range of injuries has run from “amputees to shrapnel in the buttocks”: Some Marines have stayed only three days, but others have been here since it opened.

Vans leave the barracks daily, taking Marines to medical appointments on and off the base. Some pursue treatment in one of several military hospitals on the East Coast, including the Naval hospital on the base. Others get care from private hospitals with surgical and rehabilitative specialties well-suited for specific injuries.

But the barracks’ most important function, according to Rosborough, is allowing wounded Marines to heal together: “It’s much easier to talk to another guy who’s been through what you’ve been through than to talk to someone who hasn’t.”

That’s something Rosborough knows firsthand: The gunnery sergeant was seriously wounded in an IED explosion in Iraq six months after he arrived on the field. He doesn’t talk much about his injuries, except to say that he’s “had a lot of work done,” including several plastic surgeries. He still travels to nearby Wilmington for treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.

When Rosborough, 27, first returned from Iraq, the Wounded Warrior barracks didn’t exist, so he lived with his mother for three months. He felt isolated and quickly grew depressed: “I didn’t want to talk to anybody, and I didn’t want to see anybody. I just wanted to be alone, and that’s horrible for you.”

Rosborough turned in on himself and tried to move back into his own home, but he found he couldn’t cope with being alone for more than a few hours: “You want to be alone, but you can’t be alone.”

Months later, Rosborough returned to active duty. His injuries prevented him from returning to Iraq, so he came to work at the newly opened barracks. He wants to spare other Marines from the isolation he experienced, and he says when wounded Marines see others heal and recover, it gives them hope that they can get better too.

Sgt. Simms, the Marine who recently underwent his 18th surgery, agrees. Simms sits perched on the edge of a chair with both feet flat on the ground. That’s something he hasn’t been able to do in nearly three years. When an IED struck his armored vehicle in Fallujah in July 2004, shrapnel ripped through his right leg, severely damaging the tendons and muscles. As he moved away from the truck, a nearby enemy gunman shot him three times in the same leg.

Simms’ most recent surgery extended his Achilles tendon, which had been damaged so severely it prevented him from resting his right foot flat on the ground. He’s also undergone extensive plastic surgery for severe burns on his face and hands. A dark pink line across his jawbone is the only sign of the burns on his face, but Simms’ hands remain scarred, and the pinkie finger on his right hand is gone.

Just above his scarred right hand, Simms wears a black bracelet on his wrist bearing the name of Lance Cpl. Tim Creager, who was killed in the explosion. Along with the date and location of the bombing, the bracelet reads: “We will not forget.”

When Simms returned from Iraq, he spent two-and-a-half months in a burn center. Not wanting to leave the Marines, he eventually returned to the regular barracks with his unit at Camp Lejeune. But unable to perform the same duties as the rest of his unit, and still reeling from the trauma of the explosion, Simms languished: “I just kind of sat there and nobody knew what to say to me.” When nightmares of the bombing jarred him awake at night, Simms had no one to share the burden.

When the Wounded Warrior barracks opened several months later, Simms signed up. “There’s always somebody to talk to who’s been through what you’ve been through,” he says. “They just understand.”

Now Simms assists with operations at the barracks and helps wounded Marines adjust to their new lives. When they first arrive, they’re often withdrawn and quiet, he says, but they “warm up real quickly” when they realize “everyone is here to help and they don’t have to be embarrassed.”

On the main hallway of the first floor, Marines wearing camouflage uniforms gather in small groups, leaning on crutches and canes. Some wear eye patches, others wear braces on their arms and legs. At the end of the hallway, a bulletin board displays nearly two dozen Polaroid pictures of Marines from the barracks who have returned to active duty. A handful of those have returned to Iraq.

While many in the Wounded Warrior barracks won’t return to Iraq, Rosborough says barracks life is designed to keep them productive Marines. Those who are able rise at 5:30 a.m. and attend morning formation. Each Marine has duties commensurate with his physical ability. Some man the gym on the first floor, perform maintenance duties, or tackle administrative tasks. Some go across the base to the school for military kids, tutoring them and reading to them. Others perform safety briefings for other Marines around the base.

Lt. Col. Tom Siebenthal says keeping wounded Marines as active and productive as possible is key to their recovery. Siebenthal, in charge of the Injured Support Unit for the II Marine Expeditionary Force (II MEF) at Camp Lejeune, works in a small office on the barracks’ first floor.

Siebenthal oversees a database of about 300 wounded Marines that allows the unit to track Marines from the point of injury on the field. Staff and wounded Marines in the barracks regularly contact each Marine to find out if he is receiving proper care and has specific needs. If a Marine medically retires, the unit still follows up with him once a month. Military hospitals have protocol for tracking the wounded, says Siebenthal, “but we’re like the big father figure making sure it all happens.”

The unit also connects wounded Marines and family members with nonprofit organizations that provide additional assistance with needs like travel expenses. Siebenthal says community support has been overwhelming, from large donations by the New York City Fire Department to homemade lasagna baked by ladies from local churches.

Camp Pendleton, a large Marine Corps base on the West Coast, has followed Camp Lejuene’s lead and now has its own version of the Wounded Warrior barracks. Next month the units are set to become the two battalions of the new Wounded Warrior Regiment, which will be based at Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia. Some 54 staff members will help oversee the barracks on both coasts, tracking wounded Marines and connecting them with resources across the country.

Siebenthal says he’s pleased with Quantico’s eagerness to take on the project. The staff will re-evaluate the system in six months and make necessary adjustments. “That’s not usually the Marine Corps way,” says Siebenthal, noting that the Corps typically sticks rigidly to set structure. “But they’re recognizing the need for flexibility in these situations.”

Rosborough says the barracks at Camp Lejeune already needs something else: more room. The unit is making plans for a new 200-bed barracks, but will make do with available space until then. As President Bush’s troop surge sends more Marines to Iraq, Rosborough says the barracks is preparing for more wounded: “We’re going to get a lot busier.”

Copyright ©2007 WORLD Magazine, March 17, 2007 issue.  Reprinted here March 13th with permission from World Magazine. Visit the website at www.WorldMag.com.