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Helping soldiers heal: A conversation with Lt. Col. Aaron Termain

December 22, 2013
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This month, The Gazette sat down with Lt. Col. Aaron Termain, commander of the Warrior Transition Battalion at Fort Carson.

We asked him about the changes he has made in the battalion since taking command in March and the new approaches he's using to rehabilitate ill and injured soldiers.

We also asked him to respond to criticism the battalion has received in recent years.

This is the fifth installment in a periodic series of question-and-answer articles with top local military commanders.

GAZETTE: What are some of the changes you made in the battalion after taking over in March?

TERMAIN: The battalion was very well run. I took over from a very successful commander. I definitely had a big role to fill when Michelle Tuttle left. That staff was dedicated to her. The first 90 days was just me trying to figure out, "What did Col. Tuttle do?" and, "Don't screw this up."

I had been seeing WTB soldiers have trouble in their continuing education and rehabilitation programs. They weren't ready for school. They were questioning themselves.

Then I got to see the Warrior Games in May. When you see an individual with no legs run a 6-minute, 37-second mile, when you see military basketball teams - collegiate-level wheelchair basketball guys competing with that intensity, that unstoppable spirit - that's when I said, "That's what we need to tap into."

Inspired by that, one of the biggest changes I made was in the battalion's priorities.

The three main priorities were medical care and therapies, and nurse case management; continuing education and rehabilitation; and adaptive sports and recreation. The biggest change I've made is changing the No. 2 priority to adaptive sports and recreation.

People often question that. Continuing education and rehabilitation is a very important part of getting soldiers and their families back to where they want to be. But many don't come to the WTB with the right mindset to participate in the continuing education and rehabilitation program. Quite honestly, they come to me and they have a negative perception that they've failed - themselves, their mission, their team, their unit, their family. We try to break that negative connotation of coming to us. No, you're coming to the WTB because the Army, the nation, has made a contract with you and your family that we're going to care for you. We're going to do everything we can to allow you to heal, to transition, to get back to your life.

That brings us to adaptive sports and recreation.

When soldiers come to me, the Army has sent them with a profile of all the things they can't do. You can't run, you can't do situps, you can't jump out of a plane, you can't carry a weapon or a helmet. Can't, can't, can't.

My adaptive reconditioning team, the first week when soldiers are here with us, get started with their profile. They take a look at that profile, and they pretty much throw that profile away. They say, "All right, here's what you can do. I can get you into a kayak." And we do. We get them into a white-water kayak. Doesn't matter what their injuries or illness are. We can adapt the kayaks to them. I can get you on a bike, a recumbent bike, a recumbent hand-crank bike. You're missing an arm? We'll move all the controls to the left-hand side. When we get them on these bikes, in these programs, it builds up their confidence - their mind, body, spirit, self-esteem. They say, "All right, these are things that I can do."

The adaptive sports and recreation program gets criticized sometimes because it looks like fun. And make no mistakes, it is. We have a good time. We got to go to the Broncos-Chiefs game recently.

When you take a soldier who is mobility challenged and/or has post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury or whatever issues, and you tell him, "We're going to Mile High on Sunday for the Broncos-Chiefs game," you hand that individual a ticket and say, "Let's go. You have to get into Mile High. You have to find your seat. You have to find the bathroom. You have to find a hot dog. You have to find a beer. You have to deal with 75,000 cheering fans in a highly charged, emotional environment - all things that trigger your post-traumatic stress disorder. And then, at the end of the day, you have to get out."

If you can do that on a Sunday at Mile High, on Monday, when you need to pick the children up from school, go to the bank, go to the grocery store, get to your doctor appointment, that makes things so much easier.

GAZETTE: Tell me about the battalion's philosophy on family involvement.

TERMAIN: Of the three priorities, the cross-cutting effort is our families. At the WTB, we don't have a support group, a readiness group, because our families are members of the battalion. They are welcome and included in everything we do.

I tell them all the time, "If you want to put the kids to sleep, take them to one of my command and staff meetings, and we'll help you with that." They can come to adaptive reconditioning with us. They're welcome on almost every outreach program we go.

There's nothing they're not welcome at because I want them to feel welcome. I want them to feel part of the battalion because where I need them at is at our focus transition reviews.

Once a month, at least, we bring the soldier in and do a comprehensive review of his care plan. I see the power of the family member being a part of that team, taking ownership of the care plan, and having a much better transition. We don't always get complete resolution when we're talking with a soldier. There's an intimidation factor because you have officers, docs, nurses in there.

But when you bring the spouse in there and he or she feels comfortable talking, you get a better picture of what a soldier is going through. We learn things like, "He's waking up in the middle of the night." Is that a pain management issue or a behavioral health issue? We don't know. But we'll address it.

Having that spouse there with his or her concurrence and buy-in really helps tailor that program to that individual, and we have much more positive transitions.

GAZETTE: What is the biggest misconception about the WTB?

TERMAIN: That soldiers are sent here and nothing happens, that it's a place to go to cache soldiers until they process out. Nothing could be further from the truth. The moment they get into the battalion, we start the process, we set the tone. We say, "Welcome. We're glad to have you. We've got a lot of resources and we expect you to participate." I don't think that gets out of the battalion, what a day in the life of a soldier in transition looks like, from adaptive reconditioning to appointments and therapies, to focus-transition reviews, to the continuing education and rehabilitation program. It's a full day.

I think people think soldiers play Xbox up in the barracks here. And actually they're engaged, and we're always looking for ways to get them more engaged to get them ready to go back to the fight or back to the community.

GAZETTE: What's your reaction to the bad press the battalion has received over the last several years, including accusations that discipline is too harsh and some soldiers are prescribed far too many medications?

TERMAIN: I don't know. I don't know how to answer that. I don't know these individuals who wrote the stories. I can only tell you what I see, what I do at the battalion. And I don't see that. I don't see any of that happening. We are very patient with the soldiers. We give them every opportunity. The cadre and staff we hire and screen are special staff. Every individual is hand-picked for their personality, compassion, understanding. It's not a drill-sergeant environment.

I'm blown away by the compassion, by the foresight many of these noncommissioned officers show and how they handle these very complex cases. These are people with the right mindset, the right compassion, the right spirit to do this type of work.

GAZETTE: Going forward, what are your goals for the battalion?

TERMAIN: I want to expand my internship program. When sponsors come in and say, "How can I help?" I say, "Find me an internship in an industry that my soldiers would like a career in."

I also want to continue to expand our adaptive sports program. I want these soldiers to take what they've done and learned in the WTB and take it out to the community.

My other goal is to help as many soldiers as I can. The WTBs will eventually go away, as the engagements end, as the wars end. There won't be a need for a battalion-size entity. It will probably collapse down to a modified company of some sort because the tactics, techniques and procedures we've learned for properly transitioning soldiers are so important, and we don't want to lose those. If we need it again in the future, we'll stand it back up.

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