Nearly a year after a scandal thrust Army medical care into the national spotlight, Madigan Army Medical Center took a major step Friday to improve the care of wounded soldiers.
• Photos:Warrior Transition Battalion activation ceremony
The medical center formally activated Fort Lewis' first Warrior Transition Battalion during a ceremony attended by dozens of soldiers and family members as well as the commanding generals of the Army post and Madigan.
The battalion's first two companies were activated last summer; the third and final company was activated Friday. Nearly 600 active-duty National Guard and Reserve soldiers are assigned to the battalion.
Commanders say the battalion is a much better system for treating soldiers' physical and emotional wounds while maintaining their well-being and morale than the medical-hold companies it replaces. "We are committed to providing you the best care that you so richly deserve, and you can count on it," Brig. Gen. Sheila Baxter, commanding general of the Western Regional Medical Command and Madigan, told soldiers at the ceremony.
The ceremony came nearly a year after reports emerged about shoddy living conditions and bureaucratic hurdles for many injured soldiers receiving outpatient care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., considered the Army's flagship hospital.
The reports raised questions about whether the Army was equipped to care for soldiers who survive serious wounds in Afghanistan and Iraq and require physical and emotional rehabilitation for years afterward.
In the wake of the reports, some soldiers went public with concerns about their treatment at Madigan; hospital officials defended the care but acknowledged that there were problems.
Madigan was one of 11 military hospitals visited by Army inspectors.
The Army announced it would make a series of improvements to improve care to wounded soldiers, including creating the Warrior Transition Battalion and associated units. More than 30 of the units were formed in 2007.
As with the medical-hold companies, injured soldiers are assigned to the battalion until they can either return to duty or are discharged from the Army. The battalion is commanded by a lieutenant colonel, unlike the medical-hold companies, which were led by junior officers.
The battalion not only focuses on the soldiers' physical recovery but uses a "holistic" approach to ensure their emotional, mental, financial and family needs are met, Army officials said.
"It brings more people to think through these things," Lt. Col. Karl Bolton, the battalion commander, said during an interview in the fall. Under the old system, people were "running from one fire to another," he added.
Soldiers assigned to the battalion also have moved into renovated barracks, which Army officials say allows them to provide more space and enables the Army to put all the services the injured soldiers would need under one roof.
Staff Sgt. John Stevenson was injured in a bomb blast in Baghdad in December 2006 while assigned to an infantry unit based in Germany. He suffered traumatic brain injury, is blind in his right eye and underwent four surgeries on his right arm.
He has no complaints about the care he received while assigned to a medical-hold company and, now, the Warrior Transition Battalion. The extra space in the new barracks is nice for the soldiers, he added.
"They're not so confined," he said. "They're a little bit more spaced out. They can meet people."
Stevenson, 36, said he wants to return to duty and serve five more years to receive full retirement benefits.
"If not, I've had a good run," he said.
At the ceremony, Bolton said the battalion's call sign of Task Force Phoenix is no accident.
He said the reference to the mythological bird "is a powerful metaphor for what our warriors have been through and captures the process of standing up the unit, as well: out of the fire, into rebirth."
Christian Hill covers the city of Lacey and military for The Olympian. He can be reached at 360-754-5427 or firstname.lastname@example.org.