Steve Vogel reports in today's Post on the "Walter Reed Warrior Transition Brigade" -- a new kind of unit established at the Army medical center in the wake of criticism that it wasn't doing enough to take care of servicemembers. Prior to this, hospitalized servicemembers were assigned to a "medical hold" company -- described by friends of mine who have been through it as an administrative and organizational wasteland run by bureaucrats. But these new kinds of units are run by combat arms officers and organized along the lines of conventional units. They are designed to better take care of wounded troops and shepherd them through their appointments and struggles.
Commanders and senior sergeants set the tone for their units; their selection often determines success or failure. In the case The Post highlights, the Army chose Maj. Steve Gventer to lead Able Company, Walter Reed WTB. I know Steve from when we were lieutenants in South Korea together. We later served together at Fort Hood and again crossed paths in Iraq, where he served as aide to Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli.
He was an inspired choice at Walter Reed -- as the Post article makes clear -- because of his ability to see soldiers as individuals and understand their difficult struggles to overcome the wounds of war.
Gventer was preparing for room inspection when a platoon leader arrived to report an 18-year-old private from Arkansas missing. "I tried cell, I tried text messaging, nothing," Staff Sgt. John Guna said.
Guna offered one clue: "The kid ordered a set of tires for his car," delivered just the other day.
Gventer quickly grasped the point: "Once he got the new tires, he might have rolled."
"I'm going to try to call his mom," Guna said.
Gventer moved on to the weekly inspection, making sure the soldiers and their rooms were in good shape and checking for alcohol or improper medications.
In one room, he noticed Spec. Kain Schilling wearing a hero bracelet in honor of lost comrades.
"Who's on your bracelet?"
"Six of my buddies, killed," Schilling replied. "We were coming out of a village and got hit."
Gventer has his own bracelet, with the name of Spec. Carson Ramsey, a soldier from his tank company killed in Baghdad.
The next stop was Spec. Chad Spears's room. The soldier had been at Walter Reed more than a year, being treated for traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder and coping with an alcohol problem. "I had a suicide attempt, went through divorce," Spears said. "I was a troubled soldier for the longest time."
Spears had done well enough in an Army substance abuse program that he is no longer considered high-risk. Even so, the major peered into his refrigerator.
"I've still got to check, man."
There's a larger story here -- that of institutional learning in the Army. Lt. Col. John Nagl has made the argument that the organization or country best able to learn (in an institutional sense) is the one likely to win a counterinsurgency campaign -- or any war, for that matter. I accept this maxim in the area of warfighting, but I actually think it's even more relevant to those "administrative" areas that support the war effort -- like recruiting, procurement, and medical care for servicemembers and veterans.
On the battlefield, there is a Darwinian pressure to improvise, adapt and overcome (to use Clint Eastwood's memorable phrase from Heartbreak Ridge), and that pressure often helps to overcome institutional barriers and resistance. By contrast, in areas like recruiting and procurement, there is a peacetime atmosphere that enables institutional inertia and lethargy. Despite the fact that we are fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, much of the Defense Department (to say nothing of other agencies) is not really at war. Its personnel work peacetime hours, follow peacetime procedures, and have a peacetime mentality -- and these stateside organizations have not adapted to the demands or changed environment of these conflicts.
The myriad problems at Walter Reed flowed, in part, from this mentality. Despite the heroic efforts of the hospital's medical staff, and an endless stream of combat wounded, the administrative side of the house failed. It took a Pulitzer Prize-winning series, several sackings, a ton of Congressional attention, and public outrage to spur actions that should have already been done. No combat leader worth his/her salt would have let the conditions in Mologne House or Building 18 fester, but the leaders at Walter Reed did so. In my opinion, they did so because they thought they were just doing a peacetime job, and didn't fully internalize the need to do things differently because we're at war.
I'm glad the Army has put a commander like Steve Gventer in charge. But as the article indicates, he's still got a fight on his hands with the Walter Reed bureaucracy. We have a long way to go before we can say that we're doing all we can for the men and women at Walter Reed.
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Posted by: Ray Kimball | April 10, 2008 8:53 AM
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