How open is the invitation to the WTU?

How open is the invitation to the WTU?

May 11, 2010 – As mentioned in a previous blog entry, I am addressing issues raised in the New York Times article published on April 25, 2010, “Feeling Warehoused in Army Trauma Care Units”, written by James Dao and Dan Frosch. Issues were addressed in an Army Roundtable Discussion on April 26, 2010. Comments made here in this blog do not pertain to or reference the Ft. Carson WTU, but they are factual statements about a similar facility.

Though I haven’t stepped into the Ft. Carson WTU myself, “Warehouses of Despair” is quite fitting for a unit I have visited. Furthermore,the men and women being damaged by the system are definitely kept out of sight. There is always more than meets the eye. The open invitation extended by LTG Schoolmaker, for people to visit the WTU, would not likely reveal a valid representation of what really goes on inside the walls of that building, or other buildings housing our wounded warriors, when visitors are not present.

A number of wounded troops have shared their desperate situations with me, but they are frightened that they might be identified so their names and their location must remain confidential at this point in time. As much as these troops want to be released from their situation, they are more motivated by fear. Rather than stand up and speak out, they continue to endure a harsh environment that inhibits recovery. Information here has been shared by those who are assigned to the unit, as well as their family members.

There is a big difference between a “guided tour” that is pre-arranged, and a “self-guided tour” that is unannounced. During my guided tour, I saw only one small part of the building. I viewed drawings of future buildings, saw evidence of plans for future programs, and met a small handful of civilians who worked at the facility. Previously, I had raised concerns thus prompting the invitation for a tour, but I never met anyone on staff that had been at the subject of my inquiry, nor did I have the opportunity to see any wounded patients assigned to the unit. I would have likely been fooled by the “tour”, if I had just been another VIP walking through the building. Because I have been pushing for proper treatment and stepping on toes, it was obvious to me that this was an orchestrated show to send me home convinced that I was mistaken about the information I had gathered on my earlier “self-guided” tours.

Typically, the units housing our wounded are filled with VIP’s who come to visit the troops. Celebrities, athletes, lawmakers, and military officers walk through and see the amazing drawings of future building plans, as well as carefully chosen wounded warriors who have amazing stories of courage, bravery, and who have fought back from devastating injuries and overwhelming odds. Visitors leave happy because they think they have done something positive to encourage our wounded troops with their visit. Sadly, in some cases, they may have likely done just the opposite. For starters, they only seen the “poster boys” put out for display. Believe if or not, while some may enjoy the attention, there are plenty of soldiers that resent being put out for “show and tell”.   More important to note – the VIP’s do not see soldiers who are sent away and told NOT to be anywhere near the building when the VIP’s come through. Anyone that is not happy with the command is always sent away during these visits. The command fears that a disgruntled patient may answer a visitor’s question honestly and cause problems for the staff.

The VIP’s are also unaware of the activity in the days prior to their visit. They miss the stress and the pressure that everyone endures as the staff forces the wounded warriors to quickly clean and get things in order. According to one soldier the VIP visits are nothing more than a big show and a big lie.  Picture if you will, a group of recruits at boot camp, scampering to get their belongings in order as the drill sergeant screams his threats. Do you think this is an exaggeration? Sadly, it’s the truth. Our wounded troops are threatened and humiliated if they don’t meet the expectations of those in charge.

During my “self-guided” tours, no one was expecting me so many on staff never even noticed me. I’m no VIP, so I was basically invisible to those in authority. They could have cared less about who I was and why I was present. I was thrilled because it gave me a chance to see a more normal daily routine.

It didn’t take me long to take note of the condescension and sarcasm coming from non-commissioned officers toward those in their charge. As well, it was quickly evident who was in emotional distress due to the surrounding environment. After spending a couple of hours quietly listening to some of the soldiers, many began to freely express themselves in my presence. A level of trust was created and my obvious empathy (or perhaps sympathy) actually drew these men to want to tell me their concerns and share their stories. For a few moments, the threat of humiliation and retaliation was gone and they could share openly of their frustrations.

On the other side of the coin, while a visit by a high profile VIP is met with great pomp and circumstance and much preparation, a request to visit made by one who is not rich and famous, nor on a political mission is often met with apathy. On one occasion, when I was first introduced to a particular unit of wounded warriors, I called and asked if it would be okay to simply send birthday cards to each soldier in the unit. Having noticed that a list of birthdays was in the newsletter, I inquired as to how I could prepare cards ahead of time and send them so that they could be distributed to the soldiers on their birthdays. I was immediately told that it would be far too difficult to do something like that as the soldiers were always in and out going to appointments and therapy and it would be next to impossible to get the cards distributed. One year later, this actually makes sense to me. Not because all of the soldiers have appointments, but rather because the unit is run with such disorganization that the right hand never knows what the left hand is doing.

My next idea was to purchase something for the unit that could be useful or entertaining to all. A local organization hoped to purchase a gift for the unit, and deliver it along with handmade cards made by local elementary students. I was told that the soldiers really didn’t like people coming in and gawking at them. I was made to feel as if I wanted to come in, gawk at the wounded, and set up a photo op for myself rather than thank our wounded warriors for their service and show them a small gesture of appreciation. At the time, I was very insulted, and with hindsight, I am even more disturbed. Not only do I now realize that VIP’s get fancy tours and the average American gets a door slammed in their face, but I also realize that these soldiers DO get gawked at all the time. I think it’s a rare visit that seems genuine without a photo op and media recognition for the VIP.

On another occasion, a friend of mine attempted to visit the same unit. She and her grandchildren baked cookies and planned to take them to the wounded soldiers. The children’s father was a deployed soldier and their grandmother hoped to teach the children just how important it is to show the troops our appreciation, especially when they have made such a great sacrifice for our country. She called to make an appointment to drop off the cookies and was told that it would be far too traumatic to bring the children in the building to see all of the wounded soldiers. The really sad part about this situation is that the soldiers in this particular unit looked completely normal. There were many different health conditions represented by this population of soldiers, but none were visibly disfiguring. The worst thing I ever saw during my time spent in this building was someone using a pair of crutches.

An open invitation to visit a barracks that is likely a high profile place, with a constant flow of visitors, is always accompanied with a quick plan of action to “look good” when the visitors come through for a tour. Certain people are chosen to ensure that the units are represented in a positive light, no matter what is really going on inside the unit. The average bystander is kept at arms length, and what really goes on behind closed doors will likely remain a mystery unless someone from the outside steps in and investigates.  My suggestion would be to show up repeatedly and unannounced. Eventually, you might see bits and pieces of the truth.

Originally published by the author on fellednot.com.

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