On the back of a horse at a farm in Yelm, Mike Buccieri began letting go of the psychological wounds he carried after an Afghan insurgent’s bullet tore into his back and ripped him from the Army life he loved.
He found the equine-based therapy that worked for him when the Army sent him to a Warrior Transition Battalion, a medical unit he had once disparaged as a purgatory for “broken soldiers” on their way to being “kicked out” of the military.
Now he volunteers there to help other wounded veterans in their own recoveries.
“Yes, the Warrior Transition Battalion was the right place for me to be,” Buccieri, 31, said. “After about the fifth week of riding, I was actually opening up about things that had happened to me.”
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His progression from a withdrawn soldier just home from war to a budding social worker unfolded in an Army unit that once symbolized the toll of the long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the military’s failure to care for its wounded troops.
Embarrassed by allegations of mistreated wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in 2007, the Army spent more than $1.2 billion building facilities for its severely injured troops at large posts around the world.
They welded medical care into an Army setting with an aim of either helping soldiers return to their units or sending them on a path to a stable life outside the military.
Along the way, it linked troops with a panoply of community groups ranging from glass blowing to diving to personal writing coaches.
Today, the one at Joint Base Lewis-McChord and many of its sister facilities around the country are close to empty.
And that’s good news.
It means far fewer military service members are being hurt in overseas conflicts while the ones assigned to medical units are spending less time in them because processes meant to help them gain a footing in the civilian world are finally working as efficiently as they were designed to.
“We don’t have the numbers we had in the past,” battalion commander Lt. Col. Jeffery Mosso said. “Conflict and deployments have slowed down considerably.”
Less than four years after the Army spent $70 million on new barracks and facilities for wounded soldiers at JBLM, the local Warrior Transition Battalion now cares for just about a third of the number of military service members it was designed to treat.
As the local Warrior Transition Battalion turns to a peacetime footing, it’s reducing staff and leaving vacant many of the 204 two-person apartments the Army recently built at a campus adjacent to Madigan Army Medical Center.
Yet the Army has no plans to re-use the barracks for a different purpose, a JBLM spokesman said. If that changes, the Army would write up an “exit strategy” to turn the barracks back over to a medical purpose if a war breaks out in the future.
To some close to the battalion, the nearly new vacant barracks are reminders that the Army’s overhaul of its wounded warrior programs came late in the wars, after tens of thousands of troops had been hurt in combat.
“The facility is great,” said Brittney Hamilton, who has volunteered with JBLM wounded soldiers since 2009 with an organization called Operation Ward 57. “Everything just came a little late. Even when it broke ground, we were past the worst of Iraq.
“The really severe guys who could have used an elevator in the barracks had moved on,” said Hamilton, referring to the old, brick buildings where the Army first placed its Warrior Transition Battalion at JBLM before it had the money to construct the new campus.
Army sticking to model despite falling population
As of this month, 174 local soldiers are assigned to the battalion and another 35 receive remote care from the JBLM site, giving it responsibility for 208 wounded, injured and ill military service members. Five of the soldiers are there for combat-related physical wounds and 48 have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. The rest are in the unit for long-term illnesses or other kinds of injuries.
Two years ago, the battalion had 567 soldiers stationed at JBLM and 233 more spread out in the Northwest but under a remote care program for a total of 800 soldiers.
Other warrior transition units are seeing the same trend.
Col. Chris Toner, chief of the Army Warrior Transition Command, told the House Armed Services Committee last month that 4,196 soldiers are enrolled in the program — down from a peak of 12,451 seven years ago.
Despite the falling numbers, Army leaders insist they want to maintain the warrior transition model rather than reuse the costly facilities for a different purpose.
“We’ve come a long way since the days of medical holding companies and long wait times for injured soldiers,” Toner told lawmakers. “We will not return to that setting.”
Lawmakers agree. They say it’s a better program than what the Army used before the Walter Reed scandal, when injured soldiers generally were sent back to their units before separating from the Army without receiving special assistance leaving the military.
“I think it was a significant improvement in the way we treat wounded service members,” said U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, D-Bellevue, the ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee. “There’s a general feeling (among lawmakers) that we need to continue improving it.”
Lawmakers also worry that if they disband the medical units, the Army will repeat the mistakes of the Iraq War if drawn into another large conflict. They want the military to retain its capacity to care for wounded troops.
“These facilities are crucial to making sure our nation is prepared to care for service members who come home with long-term medical care needs,” said U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. “So even if they are thankfully not at full capacity right now, we need to make sure they are there for our service members when they are needed.
“I would certainly be interested in ways we can utilize these facilities to serve service members more effectively now, but I am going to fight to make sure we continue investing in policies and programs to improve support facilities at JBLM and elsewhere to make sure the WTBs will always be there to help service members recover and transition.”
“Fits and starts”
Warrior Transition Battalions are among the most scrutinized units in the Army because of their responsibility to heal soldiers at a vulnerable moment in their lives.
Building them “has not been without its fits and starts and it has not been without problems,” said U.S. Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., who led a House Armed Services Committee update on the program last month.
Recently, The Dallas Morning News and KXAS-TV documented examples of mistreated patients and verbal abuse at warrior units at Army hospitals in Texas. Their investigation prompted the Army to issue new training guidelines for the soldiers who volunteer to work in the transition battalions.
A 2013 Defense Department Inspector General audit of JBLM’s Warrior Transition Battalion documented similar concerns from soldiers and staff members. It spelled out the systemic flaws that have dogged warrior transition battalions since the program launched, such as:
• Inconsistent training for staff members.
• High turnover among the active-duty and Reserve soldiers who oversee patients.
• Frustration among patients who felt stuck in a program of indeterminate length. Some could be enrolled in a battalion for two years or more.
• Barriers to connecting patients with job-training programs in the civilian sector that could prepare them for opportunities after they leave the military.
The report, based on site visits in the summer of 2011, included several revealing comments from anonymous patients and staff members about the pressures they felt inside the battalion.
The Warrior Transition Battalion “steals your soul and puts you in a deeper depression,” one National Guard soldier told the auditors. “They tell me to plan for the future, but they cannot tell me when I can leave.”
Mosso said JBLM’s battalion has addressed those concerns by extending assignments for its staff members, giving them more time to learn their jobs and do them well.
Previously, the battalion’s cadre often spent less than a year working with soldiers under their watch before moving on to new assignments in the Army.
Also, patients are spending far less time in the battalion than in years past. In 2013, soldiers spent an average of 475 days in the battalion. Now, the average is 248 days in the battalion.
The speedier timeline gives patients far more certainty in planning their post-military lives.
“We kind of built this plane while flying,” Mosso said.
Congressional staff members and advocates for wounded soldiers say they’re hearing complaints from within the battalion less frequently than they did in 2011 and 2012.
Back then, wounded soldiers at the battalion drove national reforms to the Army’s disability program when they raised complaints about forensic psychiatrists at Madigan altering behavioral health diagnoses for reasons they did not understand.
“I think they’re doing well,” Rep. Smith said. “I don’t know everything that’s going on over there. It’s something that we need to be constantly vigilant on.”
Community ties help soldiers heal
Buccieri, the former sergeant who was shot in Afghanistan, spent about two years at the battalion. He went there in early 2012, about five months after he returned from Afghanistan wounded by the insurgent’s gunshot.
He didn’t want to be there.
“I was just a squad leader leading 20 guys on a deployment and now I can’t even get myself dressed,” he remembered thinking.
“With brain injuries and PTSD, you can’t always control the way you’re thinking. I didn’t want people to see me hurt. Everybody’s going to see me as being weak because I’m going to this unit where everybody’s broken and you’re just there until you get kicked out.”
His breakthrough came when he accepted an invitation to try horseback riding with a Snohomish County nonprofit group called Heartbeat Serving Wounded Warriors. It gave him an excuse to get out the hospital.
The horses helped him open up about his experiences, while the act of riding let his body heal.
“My wife, my instructors and my therapists could see it,” he said. “I didn’t catch on.”
All of a sudden, he noticed, “I could bend over a lot more. Looking at it week by week, it started to be ‘Oh, I couldn’t do this and now I can.’ ”
Buccieri became a volunteer with Heartbeat’s horseback program so he could keep working with horses and soldiers.
He left the battalion last year and now is a program manager at Heartbeat. He also is working on a certification program that will allow him to be instructor for equine therapists.
“It’s night and day with Mike,” said Janice Buckley, Heartbeat’s founder.
Hers is one of the nonprofits that have been at the battalion from the beginning. It also provides a scuba program and a Christmas gift exchange.
Other groups, such as Operation Ward 57, take soldiers out for morale-boosting events or provide emergency assistance to troops.
“The main thing is we don’t forget (wounded soldiers) because their journey is not over,” Buckley said. “It just started and I think it’s fortunate that there is a Warrior Transition Battalion for them to get their care.”
Getting care after toughing it out
Last month, this newspaper visited the battalion barracks. They opened in summer 2011 with a ribbon-cutting ceremony that drew Medal of Honor recipient Master Sgt. Leroy Petry and both of the state’s U.S. senators.
Former U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks took reporters into the apartments, where he showed off shiny countertops, new appliances and furniture designed for disabled soldiers.
Today, the barracks are a quieter place. Only a handful of soldiers could be seen in the halls and computer labs.
Two of them were Spcs. German Caquias and Wilfredo Perez-Santiago, Iraq War veterans from Puerto Rico who recently enrolled in the battalion for a combination of treatment for PTSD and physical injuries.
Both were wounded years ago: Perez-Santiago in 2009 and Caquias in 2007. They put off focusing on their injuries, hoping to stay in the Army.
“I tried to tough it out,” Caquias, 30, said.
“The Army is my life,” said Perez-Santiago, 34, who was wounded in Iraq six years ago by a vehicle with an improvised bomb inside of it.
They shared a goal that would have seemed impossible to soldiers in the battalion two years ago — to get out of the medical unit and move on in less than six months.
They were optimistic.
“I’m actually getting care,” Perez-Santiago said.
“Just trying to start a different a path,” Caquias said.