Defense Media Network

Interview With U.S. Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Chiarelli

Caring for soldiers

Including corps commanders, like you when you returned from Iraq?

Including corps commanders.

Tell me a little bit about your work on behalf of the wounded warriors and the structure of the Army Wounded Warrior (AW2) Program?

Well, that’s a very, very important initiative. What we have done with the publication of FRAGO 3 just over a year ago, which basically said, “Listen, we are putting too many people into Warrior Transition Units [WTUs – Battalion-sized units at 35 locations used to transition wounded personnel back to their home units]. They were being used to put non-deployable soldiers who had minor medical problems in with soldiers who were seriously wounded, and we decided that if we allowed that to continue, we were going to have unsustainable populations in the WTUs. So we went back and basically stated that the WTUs are for anyone who requires comprehensive medical care for six months or more. If their care and rehabilitation needs are less than six months, we leave them in their home unit and leave it up to the individual and the rear detachment commander to make sure the individual is getting to the appointments they need.

Do you find your units embracing compliance with this new policy and doing a better job?

Oh yes. They do, because want to get these folks back into the fight as quickly as they possibly can. What that has meant is that our WTU or Warrior Transition Battalion (WTB) total population has dropped from a high last year of over 13,000, to today somewhere in the vicinity of 9,000. We did not pull anyone out of the WTU, but rather, we “grandfathered” everyone who was already in one of the WTUs, but after the publication of FRAGO 3, we did not accept anyone with minor medical problems that did not meet the six-month criteria.

While the population is now smaller, it is now made up of much more high risk/difficult cases. One of the things we are looking very hard at is whether or not we need to decrease the leadership-to-soldier load and make it so that squad leaders are in fact taking care of fewer soldiers than the original ratio of 1 to 10, because the cases are much more complicated and difficult. We have been able to, with the establishment of Brig. Gen. Gary Cheek’s command, ensure we do a better job, and we are still building up the capability to provide personnel services to soldiers that are in WTUs.

Now, within the WTUs, you have two kinds of soldiers. You have the soldier who has made the determination that he/she is going to leave the service, and we respect that, and will help him/her get settled in civilian life. We have made a commitment to do that. But then we also have soldiers who want to remain in the service, and we have got to make sure that we have special care personnel down there that, as they progress through their rehabilitation program, are ready to provide them the job options that they want.

You have to love a soldier who has lost an arm or a leg or an eye, and the only thing they want to do is to get back to their unit and get back in the fight….

Did you know that we have more than 30 soldiers that have returned to the theater who lost an arm or a leg? We see that. Right now, I’ve got a young armor captain who’s lost a leg but has a dream of commanding an armor company, and there is no reason why he can’t do that, if he sticks to his rehabilitation program and makes the progress we know he is going to make.

One of the things you have talked about – and this is something that caught my ear when you first started to talking about the suicide problem – you talked about not only wanting to keep your soldiers from deciding to end their lives, but trying to back them up a couple of steps and to eliminate the pressures and circumstances that make them ask that question in the first place. Where is your thinking going on trying to back them up on asking the question?

Well, we want to move further to the left on the timeline with them. We have four major categories of suicide support in the Army: we have assessment programs, we have training programs, we have intervention programs, and we have treatment programs. In the past, we have focused on the intervention and treatment portion of this, which is reactive; that’s waiting for the problem to occur before you’re helping a soldier. And then in many instances, I found that we did not have the Army substance abuse counselors we needed, so that when a commander referred someone who was having a drug or alcohol problem to that program, sometimes it would take in excess of two months for them to get their first appointment. This was because we the Army had not kept pace with the number of counselors that we needed.

So when I say move to the left, what we want is to get into the “assess and train” portion of this problem, so we can help folks avoid having to need an intervention or enter a treatment program. What we’re really counting on to help us with that is Comprehensive Soldier Fitness – this idea that we can train soldiers to do difficult things and come out stronger, not weaker, because of those difficult things.

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John D. Gresham lives in Fairfax, Va. He is an author, researcher, game designer, photographer,...