The Army plans to shut down nearly half of the special medical units it built during the Iraq War because the slowing pace of combat deployments and shrinking size of the infantry have been emptying these units of patients.
Ten of the Army’s remaining 25 Warrior Transition Units are scheduled to close by August 2016, Warrior Transition Command senior officer Col. Chris Toner told reporters on Friday.
The one at Joint Base Lewis-McChord will remain open and could grow because the Army is shutting three other West Coast sites in Alaska and California, a Madigan Army Medical Center spokesman said.
Closing the 10 sites likely will save the Army about $350 million a year, Toner said. Today, about 3,600 soldiers are assigned to the medical units, down from a peak of more than 12,500 during the Iraq War.
“We’ve seen a steady decline of our population over time. Thank God we do not have combat-generating casualties,” Toner said.
The roughly 800 soldiers assigned to warrior transition battalions that are closing likely have enough time to return to normal duty or separate from the Army, Toner said. Some could be sent to different Army posts.
The Army wants to retain the model of medical care that takes place at Warrior Transition Units. It’s a system the Army developed after it was embarrassed by substandard care provided to wounded Iraq War veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in 2007.
Soldiers are assigned to the units if they need long-term medical care for wounds, injuries or illnesses. About 44 percent of the 66,000 soldiers who’ve been assigned to the units since 2008 have returned to military duty; the rest separated from the Armed Forces.
“We are not walking away from warrior care, and this consolidation has everything to do with providing world-class warrior care,” Toner said.
The Army in 2011 opened a $70 million warrior transition complex at JBLM next to Madigan Army Medical Center. The News Tribune reported last month the unit now has fewer than 200 local soldiers assigned to it, down from almost 600 two years ago.
The Army has no plans to use the JBLM unit’s nearly-new barracks for another purpose.
By contrast, the Warrior Transition Command will hand similarly new barracks over to other Army forces at the installations where it is closing medical units.
Toner said those sites will become a reserve that would return to medical use if a significant conflict breaks out that would cause the Army to suffer high numbers of casualties. The barracks moving to other uses will be required to remain accessible to the disabled.
The 15 remaining warrior transition units, including the one at JBLM, will have a total capacity of about 8,000 soldiers, Toner said. That could increase to 12,000 quickly if war occurs.
“This is an enduring mission. The program itself is not changing,” Toner said.