KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — Just days ago, Pfc. Michelle Chaffee was in Afghanistan trying to open a hatch on an armored truck when the 37-year-old military policewoman strained her neck.
She thought it was just a pulled muscle and went to the doctor to get checked out.
Next thing she knew, she was on her way to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany with a bulging disc, the clothes on her back and little else.
“You don’t plan on getting injured, and you don’t plan on getting sent home,” she said. Most of her gear, including all her winter clothing, is still in Afghanistan.
So Wednesday, Chaffee was at the military clothing store in Kaiserslautern with a voucher to pick up new uniforms. She was also there for the grand opening of the first store in the Defense Department designed specifically to cater to wounded troops evacuated from the war zone.
“After nearly 12 years of war, you’d think that we would have been able to come up with something of this magnitude before now,” said Col. Fred Hannah, commander of the Army and Air Force Exchange Service’s Europe and Southwest Asia operations.
“But,” said Maj. Gen. Aundre Piggee, commander of the 21st Theater Sustainment Command who helped push the project forward, “better late than never.”
The store, attached to an existing military clothing store on Kleber Kaserne, features wider aisles, a wheelchair ramp, an automatic door and two Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant dressing rooms.
Since 2007, more than 13,000 troops have picked up replacement uniforms at Kleber, Deniz Barcala, the store’s manager, said. For some, the experience could have been better than it was.
“Because what we were doing is, we were trying to help them through the warehouse,” which afforded more room to maneuver, but “it wasn’t really working,” she said. “We needed some location just for them.”
The Kaiserslautern garrison spent $250,000 to convert part of the warehouse into a 720-square-foot Wounded Heroes Service Center.
Nothing like it existed when Staff Sgt. Josh Forbess, 35, was wounded in Iraq in 2003. He was evacuated to the Army’s burn center at San Antonio and, after recovering enough to get around, “I got my voucher and I went and picked out my own gear like many of these young soldiers do now,” he said.
It’s not uncommon for newly injured troops to have feelings of self-doubt, and any little thing that makes their life easier can help them better deal with their injury, he said.
“I know if this would have been around when I was injured, it might have given me a little different inspirational boost or mind-set,” Forbess said.