WASHINGTON - With the number of seriously wounded and ill soldiers at a six-year low, the Army is closing down some of the special units set up to care for troops and reorganizing the program.
"That's good for the Army, good for our soldiers," Brig. Gen. David Bishop said of the declining population of severely wounded. Bishop heads the command that runs the so-called Warrior Transition Units, started in 2007 following the scandal over poor conditions at what was then Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, including shoddy housing and bureaucratic delays for troops who were outpatients.
Fourteen of the 38 units will be closed and some new community-based units will be established under the reorganization plan being announced Thursday.
Some 58,000 soldiers have passed through the special units since the start of the program, aimed at giving the most severely wounded, ill or injured soldiers comprehensive and coordinated medical and mental health care and provide counseling on legal, financial and other issues as they transition either out of the service to civilian life or back to military duty.
Some 49 percent eventually returned to duty in the Army, Bishop said.
But the number of people who need such care has steadily fallen because of the end of U.S. presence in Iraq, the decrease in troops in Afghanistan and the fact that Afghans are taking the lead on security missions there, Pentagon officials say. The population of the Warrior Transition Units stands at 7,070 this month compared to 10,053 in October of 2012 and more than 12,000 in 2008.
Today's population of soldiers in the special units is the smallest since the more than 6,200 in those units in September 2007, according to Army data.
In Iraq, al-Qaida-linked fighters overran parts of both cities in the Sunni-dominated Anbar province last week, seizing control of police stations and military posts, freeing prisoners and setting up their own checkpoints. Anbar was a hard-won battle by U.S. troops, some of whom ended up in Warrior Transition Units.
Iraqi troops, backed by pro-government Sunni militiamen, since have been clashing with the fighters and carrying out airstrikes against their positions in an effort to reassert control of the cities.
Some of the current Warrior Transition units have fewer than 10 soldiers in them and Bishop said reorganization -- even with the planned startup of a dozen new community-based units -- will reduce staff by some 500 people while at the same time standardizing and improving care for troops.
Bishop said the changes result from periodic reviews of the program and are "absolutely not related to budget cuts, sequestration or furloughs" of federal employees that resulted from the debt crisis.
Three specific things will happen under the reorganization plan. First, the Warrior Transition Units, which are at major military bases where there are military medical facilities, will be reduced to 24 from 29; secondly, there also will be a closing of all nine so called Community-Based Warrior Transition Units, which were largely used by National Guard and Army Reserve troops designated as able to heal in their home communities as opposed to on a military installation. Thirdly, officials will establish 13 new units that will allow troops to still get help in their community but will be answerable to the larger units on the military bases and so be better controlled and give troops better access to resources, Bishop said.
The reorganization is supposed to be finished by October.
Before the special warrior transition units were established, soldiers with health problems were placed on "medical hold" status, in which even the name implied a kind of limbo and they received less attention during recovery. The new units provided more structure, emphasized that as soldiers their new mission was to heal -- and it gave each patient a doctor, squad leader and nurse case manager who oversaw his care, coordinated with social workers, therapists and other specialists the soldier needed.
The program has had its ups and downs. A year after it started, the number of troops in the units spiked to over 12,000 because commanders were using them as dumping grounds for soldiers with lesser injuries -- a way to get them off their books and get replacements for their units. Eligibility requirements since then have been tightened to require troops being admitted have more complex or multiple health issues that will take extended treatment time and take the more comprehensive care the units were designed for. Some troops have said they disliked the units and felt they were warehouses for the sick, while many were satisfied with the program and felt they benefited from it.