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Wounded warriors

Military | Even as a scandal over medical care for veterans was building, Marines were helping other Marines recover from their wounds

Issue: "Why Grey matters," March 17, 2007

CAMP LEJENUE, N.C.- On a crisp morning on the North Carolina coast, traffic bustles through the main gate of Camp Lejeune, the largest U.S. Marine Corps base east of the Mississippi. The 156,000-acre site includes 11 miles of beach for amphibious operations training, 98 maneuver areas, and more than 40,000 Marines.

Clad in sweatshirts and gym shorts, pairs of bulky Marines jog briskly down winding sidewalks along neatly manicured roads. Others set up tall, green tents inside a circle of barbed wire for training exercises. Some prepare for target practice on one of 78 live-fire ranges.

Nearby in a brick, two-story barracks, Sgt. Jason Simms maneuvers a long hallway armed with a thin, black cane. The 28-year-old Marine, seriously wounded in Iraq in 2004, is on a mission of his own: recovering from his 18th surgery in less than three years.

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Simms is one of 80 Marines at Camp Lejeune's Wounded Warrior barracks, a renovated barracks for Marines injured in combat. The barracks opened in late 2005 to give wounded Marines much-needed help in two critical areas: navigating the complicated world of outpatient care, and recovering with others who have been through similar ordeals.

Simms is one of the nearly 24,000 military personnel wounded in action since the United States invaded Iraq four years ago this month. More than half of those returned to duty within three days. But for many of the 10,000 who didn't return quickly, medical care is a dominating concern.

The issue of medical care for troops has dominated military news since revelations of gross mismanagement at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., surfaced in late February. The Washington Post reported that troops in Walter Reed's outpatient center languished in squalid living conditions while wading through miles of red tape to receive proper care.

The scandal led Defense Secretary Robert Gates to dismiss the facility's commander, Maj. Gen. George W. Weightman. One day later, Gates announced the resignation of Army Secretary Francis Harvey in connection with the scandal. He ordered an investigation of the military and veterans health-care systems nationwide, noting that the substandard conditions at Walter Reed might exist elsewhere, especially in outpatient care.

The Wounded Warrior barracks at Camp Lejeune doesn't provide medical treatment or outpatient care, but it does help Marines manage the logistical details of both: Barracks staff provide transportation to medical appointments, assist Marines with paperwork, and help family members with lodging and car rentals when they visit. The barracks has wheelchair ramps, updated bathrooms, and lowered doorknobs on bedroom doors.

The two Marine officers who conceived the idea for the barracks know the importance of such services firsthand, since both were injured in Iraq. When the officers returned home from the field, they encountered the need for a support system for wounded troops. They proposed the idea for the barracks in mid-2005 and started housing six men in six rooms later that year.

Today, Gunnery Sgt. Bill Rosborough runs daily operations for the 80 barracks residents. He summarized the core idea of the project while sitting in an oversized recliner in the barracks lounge: "The people best prepared to take care of Marines are Marines." Rosborough said the range of injuries has run from "amputees to shrapnel in the buttocks": Some Marines have stayed only three days, but others have been here since it opened.

Vans leave the barracks daily, taking Marines to medical appointments on and off the base. Some pursue treatment in one of several military hospitals on the East Coast, including the Naval hospital on the base. Others get care from private hospitals with surgical and rehabilitative specialties well-suited for specific injuries.

But the barracks' most important function, according to Rosborough, is allowing wounded Marines to heal together: "It's much easier to talk to another guy who's been through what you've been through than to talk to someone who hasn't."

That's something Rosborough knows firsthand: The gunnery sergeant was seriously wounded in an IED explosion in Iraq six months after he arrived on the field. He doesn't talk much about his injuries, except to say that he's "had a lot of work done," including several plastic surgeries. He still travels to nearby Wilmington for treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.

When Rosborough, 27, first returned from Iraq, the Wounded Warrior barracks didn't exist, so he lived with his mother for three months. He felt isolated and quickly grew depressed: "I didn't want to talk to anybody, and I didn't want to see anybody. I just wanted to be alone, and that's horrible for you."

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