Warrior Transition Unit’s role changes with times
By STEVEN BEARDSLEY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 8, 2012
GRAFENWÖHR, Germany — After injuring his back while training, Sgt. Justin Rajotte faced a problem. He wanted to stay in the Army, but he couldn’t handle the demands of his unit and soon felt singled out.
“You get the title ‘broken,’ and once you get that title, it’s hard to convince people that [the injury] is actual, that it’s real and that you’re not trying to get out of stuff,” Rajotte said recently.
He turned to the Warrior Transition Unit in nearby Vilseck, a place where soldiers with serious medical problems go to focus on recovery. Today, he’s back in a regular unit, has a new military occupation and is halfway to an associate’s degree.
Stories like Rajotte’s have become less common in Europe’s WTU. Five years after their establishment as a way station for soldiers in need of rehabilitation, the WTUs in Europe are seeing a decline in troops assigned to their companies. Meanwhile, more incoming soldiers are heading directly toward medical separation, a process that is primarily handled in the States.
The Army’s Warrior Transition Command is reviewing the size of the Europe battalion in light of lower assignments and drawdowns in Europe, part of a broader review of all WTUs that began in July, command spokeswoman Cynthia Vaughan wrote in a statement.
Brig. Gen. Nadja West, former commander of Europe Regional Medical Command, said the battalion might face cuts.
“We continue to look at the best size for the battalion,” West said.
Under a new rule that began last year, the WTUs process all Europe-based soldiers placed in the medical board process. The majority of them — roughly 500 since October — are sent to a WTU in the U.S. for medical evaluation. A small number, who have family in Europe and petition to stay, are allowed to remain in the theater, where they are assigned to their local WTU.
Since October, 59 soldiers awaiting medical evaluation have been assigned to Europe WTUs, according to battalion numbers.
More are expected. West anticipates processing 1,000 soldiers by the end of the fiscal year. Identifying those soldiers has become easier after the system used to monitor soldier medical statuses was made electronic last year, she said.
The WTU’s new role comes amid a decline in traditional assignments, or those soldiers with complex injuries requiring more than six months of rehabilitation before joining a regular unit or especially complex cases requiring medical discharge. In late June, the battalion had 109 soldiers, down from 179 two years ago. In October 2008, by comparison, the battalion counted 329 soldiers, according to the Warrior Transition Command.
Staff and noncommissioned officers often outnumber the soldiers they are caring for. The battalion currently has 13 more staff members and NCOs than assigned soldiers. The battalion leadership attributes that to Europe’s scattered posts and the need for trained specialists at each.
Following its review, the Warrior Transition Command will make recommendations about the Europe battalion’s force structure in August and forward them to a general officer steering committee, according to Vaughan, the command spokeswoman. The battalion was cut once before in 2010, when it inactivated its company in Heidelberg due to low numbers.
Warrior Transition Units were established across the United States and in Europe between 2007 and 2009. The Europe battalion has struggled from the beginning to find an appropriate size. It initially received too many assignments, as commanders placed their nondeployable soldiers in WTUs before heading downrange. Numbers dropped when the battalion tightened its entry requirements, and in 2010 the battalion inactivated one of its four companies, in Heidelberg.
Numbers have since remained low, with fewer new assignments to replace the soldiers who transition back to service or to civilian life.
At the same time, the U.S. has withdrawn from Iraq, and it continues to remove troops from Afghanistan.
The Army’s shrinking footprint in Europe is also likely to lower future assignments as two combat brigades are inactivated in the months ahead.
West said a reduction in size isn’t necessarily a bad sign given the WTU’s focus.
“I don’t think that, just because the numbers are diminished, the mission has diminished,” West said. “I think it might mean that, thankfully, there are less soldiers from the European presence that have deployed that are getting so severely injured, and that’s a good thing.”
A constant concern of the battalion is that it isn’t reaching some soldiers who need the unit, said Lt. Col. Michael Richardson, the former battalion commander. He called those soldiers the “ghost population,” a group he knows exists but can’t count or put his finger on.
Other factors appear to contribute to lower numbers. The application process is lengthier than the battalion would like, Richardson said. Tighter entry requirements lead to confusion about who is applicable for the battalion, and soldiers are sometimes unaware of or uninterested in the unit.
Maj. Stephen Harper, brigade surgeon for the 170th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, said even soldiers with medical issues are often reluctant to leave their unit for the WTU.
“The soldiers, they don’t always want to seem like they’re getting out of stuff. … They feel an obligation to the (original) unit, if they’re still with the unit, to help out as much as possible,” he said.
Others may fear the WTU is their last stop in the Army. Two-thirds of all soldiers assigned to the WTU over the past five years were separated, according to battalion numbers. Battalion leaders say no one is forced out, as soldiers set their own goals.
“There’s still a tiny bit of stigma out there, that they feel the WTU is where you go to get kicked out of the Army,” Richardson said. “That is so not the case.”
Rajotte believes ignorance of the unit combines with the stigma to keep soldiers away.
“I think it’s due to the lack of knowledge of what WTU actually is,” he said. “Like I said, there’s that stigma out there — you’re injured in your unit, it’s bad enough. And people will probably think it’s worse when they’re in the WTU. They’ll have that label of ‘broke’ and it’ll follow them.”
Whether the battalion’s new emphasis on the medical board process underlines that idea remains to be seen. West said the two roles are distinct.
“It is an increased administrative load on the unit, but they still have the capacity to take care of the primary mission of making sure the wounded, ill or injured are either returned to active duty if they heal or (transitioned out),” she said.