Leahy: Army Unveils New Medical Pilot Program For Returning Vermont Guard Soldiers

(WEDNESDAY, Dec. 1) – U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) announced Wednesday that the U.S. Army Medical Command has begun implementing a new first-in-the-nation medical pilot program for returning members of the 86th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, which includes most of the line-of-duty injuries among the 1,300 Vermont National Guard members who are returning from deployments in Afghanistan.  The reforms, requested of the Army by Leahy, are designed to ease the recovery of wounded soldiers by returning them earlier to their homes and families.

Leahy, the co-chair of the Senate’s 97-member Senate National Guard Caucus and a senior member of the Appropriations Committee and its Subcommittee on Defense, has worked to assist wounded Vermont Guard soldiers throughout the course of their deployments to Afghanistan.  Leahy has also pressed the Army to improve the process for returning wounded Vermonters to their homes and families to recover.  Until now, some Vermonters, like other returning Guard and Reserve soldiers across the nation, have been kept hundreds of miles away from loved ones at Army medical centers across the country for prolonged periods, even after they were no longer receiving specialized care.  

The Army’s pilot program is part of the Warrior Transition Command, a sub-unit of the Medical Command responsible for caring for the Army’s wounded as they recuperate from injuries suffered in the line of duty.  The Army established the warrior transition process in the aftermath of revelations in 2005 that wounded soldiers were not receiving appropriate care.

Leahy said that while the Army’s current warrior transition process is a huge improvement over pre-2005 conditions, more improvements were needed.  “I was disturbed to hear that Vermonters were sitting in hotels outside Walter Reed waiting to return home to their families, long after medical teams had judged them ready to leave,” Leahy said.  “To their credit, Army leaders agreed with me and tailored a new process for National Guard soldiers, which we now are testing in Vermont.  I am pleased by the pilot’s initial progress, but we have a long way to go.  The unstinting goal, and the measure of this program’s success, is giving every Vermonter in the Guard the individual care that he or she needs and deserves.”

The pilot program applies to line-of-duty medical issues of soldiers just now returning from Afghanistan, not to deployment-ending serious injuries for which soldiers already have been flown to military hospitals for specialized treatment.  The improvements will consolidate two previously separate units, the Warrior Transition Unit (WTU), and the Community-Based Warrior Transition Unit (CBWTU).  Under the old rules of the warrior transition program, after being discharged from in-patient care, wounded soldiers would enter the WTU to remain nearby the medical center where they received out-patient care.  The leaders of the WTU kept tabs on convalescing soldiers to ensure that they attended their medical appointments, recovered well, remained in good psychological condition and maintained good conduct.  After a soldier’s medical team determined that he or she was ready to continue the mending process at home, the soldier was discharged from the WTU, entered the CBWTU, and continued his or her care while staying at home with loved ones.

This pre-Leahy program had caused Vermont Guard soldiers to run into trouble this year during the transition process from the WTU to the CBWTU.  First, CBWTUs around the country had reached their capacity, making it difficult for Vermont soldiers to find vacancies that would allow them to return home.  Even after Vermonters found rare vacancies, they often had to wait weeks and even months for official orders to report to the CBWTU.  And after clearing that hurdle, soldiers still had to wait for a window of time when the CBWTU would allow them to officially “in-process” – to be transferred from a sending unit to a receiving unit.

Now, by consolidating the WTU and CBWTU, the pilot program advocated by Leahy will remove all three of these barriers at once.  Soldiers will return home as soon as their medical care team makes that recommendation, without needing to find a CBWTU vacancy or wait for new paperwork.  In another benefit for returning Vermonters, the Army has based this pilot program out of Fort Drum, New York, so the majority of Vermont soldiers will be nearer to home even while they remain in-patients or while they receive out-patient care in the WTU.

Leahy said he will closely monitor the progress of the pilot program to make sure the Army accommodates any unforeseen problems.

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