WASHINGTON – For the second time in two years, the U.S. Army is shutting down a number of the specialized medical units that were set up at military bases around the country to help care for severely wounded warriors returning from battle.
As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have begun to wind down, the number of service members with complex physical, mental and emotional wounds and illnesses has dramatically declined, erasing much of the need for the specialized care.
Ten of the 25 warrior transition units will be closed by August 2016, but officials said the reorganization is being done in a way that will allow them to restart the care if needed.
Army Col. Chris Toner, who heads the Warrior Transition Command, said there are about 3,650 soldiers in the units now, and about 66,000 have gone through the treatment centers since they were opened in 2007. At the peak, there were 45 WTUs, treating 12,500 soldiers at one time.
Toner said the Army was "very hesitant to take a big leap forward" and shut down more of the units. He said that maintaining 15 at major Army installations where there are large concentrations of soldiers would give the Army the ability to serve as many as 8,100 injured troops.
Plagued with a spotty history, the transition units began in the aftermath of the health care scandal at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in 2007, as the military grappled with the challenge of caring for an escalating number of seriously wounded troops coming home from the wars. The units were designed to give soldiers comprehensive and coordinated medical and mental health care and provide counseling on legal, financial and other issues as they transition either out of the service to civilian life or back to military duty.
But early on the number of soldiers in the transition units spiked as commanders began using them as dumping grounds to get soldiers with lesser injuries or behavioral problems off their books as the troops got ready to deploy to the warfront.
Now, Toner said, commanders are better informed about what soldiers can go to the long-term care units. But the Army is also looking at refining its criteria for getting into the units, so that active duty and reserve troops would have the same requirements.
Currently, to be accepted into a unit, an active duty soldier must require more than 6 months of care for injuries, illness or other psychological conditions that require complex management and limit the troop's ability to be on duty. National Guard and Reserve troops serving on active duty must require more than 30 days of care.
Toner said 48 percent of the soldiers in the units now are active duty troops and the rest are reserves. And, more than 1,700 of the approximately 3,650 soldiers are being treated for some type of post-traumatic stress or behavioral diagnosis. About 85 percent of those with stress or behavioral problems have deployed to the warzone at least once.
Throughout the history of the transition units, about 40 percent were able to return to duty, while the rest left the military.
Toner said closing the 10 units will affect about 800 soldiers and 300 employees. Over the next year, workers will be reassigned if possible to other jobs on the base or in the region, or could move to one of the remaining units. The patients will continue to receive care and could be transitioned to community-based or other nearby units over time. The Army expects to save about $352 million by closing transition unites at Fort Gordon, Georgia; Fort Knox, Kentucky; Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia; Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri; Fort Sill, Oklahoma; Fort Polk, Louisiana; Fort Wainwright, Alaska; Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska; Fort Meade, Maryland; and Naval Medical Center, San Diego, California.