Wednesday, 11 March 2009

A land fit for heroes?

Army to review Fort Bragg's punishment for wounded




By KEVIN MAURER, AP
Wed Mar 11, 7:11 PM EDT



The general in charge of the Army's more than 9,000 wounded soldiers said Wednesday he is ordering a review of how the ones at Fort Bragg are being punished for minor violations. Brig. Gen. Gary Cheek said he is asking the Army Surgeon General to look at all discipline that has been taken against soldiers in the base's Warrior Transition unit to make sure each case was fair.

Cheek's comments come a day after The Associated Press reported that soldiers in the unit are being disciplined three times as often as those assigned to the base's main tenant, the 82nd Airborne Division. The AP also found that discipline rates vary widely across the Warrior Transition system; some units punish their soldiers even more frequently than the one at Fort Bragg, while others are far more lenient.

"We are transparent enough in this that we want to make sure that we aren't doing anything bad by our soldiers," Cheek said in a phone interview from Washington.

The Army set up 35 Warrior Transition units two years ago to help soldiers navigate the medical system and monitor their progress and treatment following the scandal over shoddy conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.

More than a dozen current or former soldiers who have been assigned to the transition unit at Fort Bragg told the AP that its officers are indifferent to their medical needs and punish them for the very injuries that landed them there. Officers who oversee the unit said they hold the wounded soldiers to the same performance standards as able-bodied troops, arguing that it helps them get back into fighting shape.

Paul Rieckhoff, founder and executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said his group is hearing similar things from soldiers throughout the Army. The service needs to view injured troops as patients more than soldiers, he said.

"There is still this culture of toughness that is pervasive throughout the military," Rieckhoff said. "They are probably in the minority, but they need to alter the system so that you don't have a guy with a head injury getting screamed at for missing formation."

Cheek said he is "very confident" that Lt. Col. Jay Thornton, the Fort Bragg transition unit's commander, does what's best for his troops.

"He has done good things for our Army and our soldiers there," Cheek said. "I think there is much more positive than negative, but that said, we'll take a look at it. We don't want to disadvantage a single soldier."

Several members of Congress also weighed in Wednesday on the allegations in the AP report. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., said the Senate Armed Services Committee is looking into the allegations but not yet formally investigating.

"It is my hope that we can get to the bottom of this issue," Burr said by e-mail.

Congressman Larry Kissell, whose district includes parts of Fort Bragg, plans to visit the base at the end of March.

"Above all else, we must ensure that our military heroes are treated with dignity and respect," Kissell said in an e-mail.

Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., said he heard about the problems at Fort Bragg's Warrior Transition Battalion last month when a group of soldiers came to Long Island to share their experiences. He said what he heard "sent chills up his spine," and he vowed to seek legislation to resolve the issue if the problems don't clear up soon.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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