Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Here’s how screwed up the Army’s Warrior Transition Units are: Genuinely sick soldiers try to get out of using them

The situation with Warrior Transition Units is so bad that the soldiers for whom the program was intended are insulted by suggestions that they do, a smart Army officer I know tells me. I mean, it is one thing to have less-than-satisfactory care for a wounded soldier-and I am confident that sort of thing will ...

U.S. Army
U.S. Army
U.S. Army

The situation with Warrior Transition Units is so bad that the soldiers for whom the program was intended are insulted by suggestions that they do, a smart Army officer I know tells me. I mean, it is one thing to have less-than-satisfactory care for a wounded soldier-and I am confident that sort of thing will be addressed. It is a far larger scandal for the Army to use these units as dumping grounds for soldiers who never should have been recruited in the first place, and who have never seen combat. So do read Brig. Gen. Gary Cheek's comment, posted yesterday -- but also read this:

Before I took company command, I went through our installation's mandatory pre-command course, a one-week course showing us the various support agencies on the base.  Among the speakers was a representative from our base's Warrior Transition Unit (WTU).  Although designed to rectify the abhorrent conditions of Walter Reed Hospital, they quickly succumbed to egregious mission creep. By the time I took command, not even a year after the Walter Reed scandal hit the press, representatives from the WTU were already referring to these organizations as ways to get non-deployable soldiers "off the books".  For example, if you have a private who's non-deployable for medical reasons, you can simply fill out the paperwork, send them to the WTU, and you'll get a replacement in a few months.  When faced with an impending combat deployment, commanders feel they have no other choice but to send medically non-deployable soldiers to the WTU.                                                                

Have I ever sent someone to the WTU? Yes. I sent my first sergeant to the WTU, and it resulted in the most difficult time in my entire company command. He had faced a string of unfortunate medical conditions, culminating with the discovery of a malignant tumor on his kidney, just a few millimeters from a major artery. Obviously, he needed serious medical care, and he couldn't have performed his duties in the unit any longer. I had to send him to the WTU.  

The situation with Warrior Transition Units is so bad that the soldiers for whom the program was intended are insulted by suggestions that they do, a smart Army officer I know tells me. I mean, it is one thing to have less-than-satisfactory care for a wounded soldier-and I am confident that sort of thing will be addressed. It is a far larger scandal for the Army to use these units as dumping grounds for soldiers who never should have been recruited in the first place, and who have never seen combat. So do read Brig. Gen. Gary Cheek’s comment, posted yesterday — but also read this:

Before I took company command, I went through our installation’s mandatory pre-command course, a one-week course showing us the various support agencies on the base.  Among the speakers was a representative from our base’s Warrior Transition Unit (WTU).  Although designed to rectify the abhorrent conditions of Walter Reed Hospital, they quickly succumbed to egregious mission creep. By the time I took command, not even a year after the Walter Reed scandal hit the press, representatives from the WTU were already referring to these organizations as ways to get non-deployable soldiers "off the books".  For example, if you have a private who’s non-deployable for medical reasons, you can simply fill out the paperwork, send them to the WTU, and you’ll get a replacement in a few months.  When faced with an impending combat deployment, commanders feel they have no other choice but to send medically non-deployable soldiers to the WTU.                                                                

Have I ever sent someone to the WTU? Yes. I sent my first sergeant to the WTU, and it resulted in the most difficult time in my entire company command. He had faced a string of unfortunate medical conditions, culminating with the discovery of a malignant tumor on his kidney, just a few millimeters from a major artery. Obviously, he needed serious medical care, and he couldn’t have performed his duties in the unit any longer. I had to send him to the WTU.  

Yet, he felt as if going to the WTU-an organization created specifically for soldiers like him-was a slap in the face. Why? Because almost immediately after its inception, the WTU became a dumping ground for problem children: malingerers, and those who shouldn’t have been put in the Army in the first place. Because of these soldiers, valuable resources are taken away from those who need it the most. 

Before deployment, our unit compiled a list of all soldiers who were considered medically non-deployable, and we found an ungodly number of troops coming out of basic training with back, knee, and ankle problems.  Some of them qualified for a special profile which prohibited them from wearing body armor, thus making themselves non-deployable.  Perfect WTU candidates! 

I ask you this: Is it realistic that 18-year olds are so broken that they can’t wear body armor, or are they riding the system? My money’s on the latter.   

There are many soldiers in the WTU-and across our formations — deserving of our care, but we’ve abused WTUs to the point where the wrong soldiers are getting the majority of the attention from understaffed units. 

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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