(November 3, 2014, by William Coe – Honolulu Star-Advertiser)
New site for injured soldiers Schofield’s Warrior Transition Battalion offers military members a refuge
Sgt. 1st Class Bonifacio Castro II didn’t think it was necessary, but Army commanders told him otherwise: He needed a break from the infantry. In nine years with the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team in Italy, he deployed to Iraq once and Afghanistan three times. The personal losses mounted with each deployment.
“Since 2003 and to this day, the unit that I had been with has lost 93 soldiers that made the ultimate sacrifice,” Castro said Friday. “Twenty-eight of them which were in the same company as me. Thirteen that were in the same platoon as me.”
The losses also included his younger brother, Sgt. Jesse J.J. Castro, 22, a Schofield Barracks soldier who was killed in Hawijah, Iraq, in 2006 when a roadside bomb exploded.
Under rainy skies, his voice wavering with emotion, Castro spoke Friday to several hundred soldiers and officials at the outdoor dedication of a new $60 million Warrior Transition Battalion campus at Schofield, including a barracks for 120 soldiers.
“I ask God why is it that I can be shot multiple times and hit with grenades multiple times and still be able to come home, but yet my friends, my squad leader, my platoon leader and my first sergeant can’t come home with us,” the 30-year-old said. “And to this day I still catch myself asking God, ‘Why is it that you had to take my younger brother away from his family, my family, his wife and his son he never got to see born or hold?’ “
The Saipan native admitted, “I still fight this battle every day in and out.”
But Castro said there is hope — and support from family and friends.
In 2012, at the urging of his command, he was transferred to the Warrior Transition Battalion at Schofield to serve on its staff.
Castro said he has been able to use his combat experience to “help others who fall in the category that they need someone who will understand the battle that they face to this day.”
The Warrior Transition Battalion was created to provide personal support to ailing soldiers who require at least six months of rehabilitative care and complex medical management.
The battalion closely resembles a “line” unit with a chain of command, the Army said. Each soldier in transition works with a primary care manager (normally a doctor), nurse care manager, social worker and squad leader who coordinate care.
Warrior Transition Units were started in 2007 with the goal of improving care as the Iraq War raged. Other units could transfer out a soldier in need of serious medical care to a WTU and receive another to take his or her place.
With the end of the Iraq War in 2011 and U.S. involvement in Afghanistan diminishing, the Army is changing its medical care structure for wounded, ill and injured soldiers.
While the transition command had the capacity to treat 12,000 soldiers worldwide, the population had dropped to 7,070 in 2012, the Army said.
A year ago the Army attempted to downsize the Schofield program from a battalion to a company with a planned reduction in staff.
That didn’t fly with some members of Congress, including U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, an Iraq War veteran, as well as U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, a member of the House Armed Services Committee. Gabbard and U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono attended Friday’s dedication.
“There was some concern at that time that this unit would be downsized, and that’s where my concern was — to try and pre-empt that from happening, understanding the need for it and that, sadly, we have more troops who need this kind of place, this kind of home,” Gabbard said after the ceremony.
A total of 281 soldiers were in the program last November. There are 215 in it now, the Army said.
In January the Army announced it was closing five WTUs on the mainland with fewer than 38 soldiers then assigned to each.
About 40 individuals in the Schofield program in January were Guam Army National Guard soldiers coming off a deployment to Afghanistan, the Army said.
Fewer than 15 remain in the program from the deployment, but other Guam soldiers have taken their place, according to the transition battalion.
Gabbard said she is pleased the downsizing didn’t occur, “because this serves obviously not only people in Hawaii, but the Pacific as well.”
A four-story administrative building and five-story barracks now bring together functions that were previously spread out at Schofield.
“Being centrally located now has increased tremendously the efficiency of our operation,” said Lt. Col. Brian Peterson, the transition battalion commander.
With war deployments dropping, meanwhile, the patient demographics are changing. For 2014 fewer than 20 percent of soldiers in transition had a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, the Army said.
“We’re seeing more the post-conflict-type casualties, so it may be a combination of behavioral health, PTSD, but also we see a lot of the long-term health care cases,” Peterson said. “We see some cases along the lines of terminal cancer.”
The majority of patients are headed for medical discharge, officials said.
That’s the case with 1st Lt. Matt Turull, 30, who has been in the transition battalion for about eight months after he said he shattered his left leg and had three surgeries on it.
In the military, when you are a leader, “you focus on everybody but you,” Turull said. “At the WTU they really allow you to focus on yourself, make sure you are doing what needs to be done to take care of you and your family and all that to get better.”