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Darnall Army Medical Center hosts nation’s largest Warrior Transition Unit

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Posted: Wednesday, February 27, 2008 12:00 pm | Updated: 4:59 pm, Wed Aug 15, 2012.

By Joshua Winata

Fort Hood Herald

It’s been just over a year since investigative media reports last February revealed the deplorable outpatient conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, sparking a maelstrom of public outrage.

That story is now being rewritten by military officials who acted decisively to turn the situation around in a matter of months. In June, the Army began implementing the Army Medical Action Plan in response to the shortcomings in soldier and veteran care.

“It’s a tremendous opportunity for the Army to do the right thing for the soldiers and their families, and that’s exactly what we’re doing.” Col. Casper Jones III, Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center commander, said on Friday. “While it certainly is a work in progress, tremendous strides have been made.”

Those strides are illustrated in the Warrior Transition Units, or WTUs, established at 35 military medical centers throughout the United States last June. Darnall has the nation’s largest WTU, with more than 1,000 soldiers and a staff of about 200, and on Friday, Fort Hood officials highlighted some key improvements in a media tour of the facility.

In WTU units, the segregated system of medical hold (for active duty) and medical holdover (for Reserve and National Guard) is replaced by a more equal and uniform system of care known as the Comprehensive Care Plan. This concept looks at recovery from a holistic standpoint based on the soldier’s needs and clinical treatments, said WTU Battalion Commander Lt. Col. Brentley White.

“We’re putting the plan together for each soldier, which is individualized based on their medical needs,” White said. “To me, that is the key critical component as far as what has significantly changed over the previous year.”

While in the unit, the soldier’s mission is to heal, so the WTU provides every possible resource it can to assist the soldier in achieving that duty, White said. A triad consisting of a primary care manager, nurse care manager and squad leader is assigned to each patient, increasing accountability.

A Soldier and Family Assistance Center also has been established to provide support to families of wounded or ill soldiers with services including educational counseling, financial assistance, substance abuse referrals, youth and child care, pastoral guidance and legal assistance concerning benefits and entitlements.

“These services particularly just for them allows them the time for themselves and their families to get to that normalcy,” said SFAC Director Donna Morrisey.

The priority of family involvement became evident to 4th Infantry Sgt. Colton Lichty, who was admitted into the WTU after suffering from a heart attack last April, when he requested emergency leave to visit his sick mother in Chicago. With the assistance of WTU staff, he was able to cut through the usual red tape and was on his way to Illinois within six hours.

“It made things a lot easier for me. I had enough stress with the possibility of losing my mother. It was very unexpected, but with them helping me get out of here, it took a lot of pressure off of me, and that’s what they do here,” Lichty said. “Granted, that doesn’t deal directly with my illness, but it’s just one less thing I have to worry about.”

In addition to physical treatments, the plan considers spiritual, cognitive and occupational needs as well.

National Guard Cpl. Courtney Keopf has been at the WTU for 20 months following an incident in Israel that left his body in anaphylactic shock.

Keopf said that since June he has seen major improvements in his care, with weekly meetings with case managers, regular doctor visits and continual monitoring of his treatment and progress.

But while his body is recovering, Keopf is also taking online courses and works as a computer repairman, which prepare him for one day returning to the National Guard, he said.

“One thing they push here is continuing education because you have a lot of time, and they want you to utilize it,” Keopf said. “If it wasn’t for this place, I wouldn’t know what I’d be doing afterward. I’d have huge medical bills that I wouldn’t be able to pay, and I’d probably be on the streets.”

Keopf resides in one of 406 rooms currently housed in a series of modular buildings that temporarily serve as the WTU.

But there is still plenty of work to be done. WTU Command Sgt. Maj. Ricky Tucker described the unit’s development as an “ongoing mission.” Major milestones have been accomplished, but operational implementation of the Army’s many goals has still yet to be reached, he said.

White said that one of the major challenges facing the unit is the development of facilities, even with an additional 160 rooms scheduled to be added within the next two months.

Hospital Chief of Facilities Brian Prediger said a permanent headquarters and barracks facility to house the WTU is scheduled for completion by 2010. Prediger will meet with officials next month to finalize the conceptual design, which he estimates will cost between $60 million and $80 million. Meanwhile, temporary apartment-style facilities will be completed by early June.

Contact Joshua Winata at jpwinata@kdhnews.com or call (254) 547-6481

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