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Fort Carson says it welcomes scrutiny, will continue review of trauma care

April 26, 2010

One of the Army’s top medical officials will come to Fort Carson this week to review care for the post’s wounded warriors following a withering front-page critique in Sunday’s New York Times.

Brigadier Gen. Gary H. Cheek – the assistant surgeon general of warrior care and transition – will spend two days evaluating the post’s Warrior Transition Unit as part of an ongoing, service-wide review by the Army inspector general.

Although Cheek’s visit was scheduled before the Times published its depiction of the specialized medical units as “warehouses of despair” replete with drug abuse and harsh treatment, he said today the account could influence his probe.

“When we have articles like this one, it causes us to step back and review the policy,” Cheek said, speaking at a news conference hosted by Fort Carson in which he and another Pentagon official appeared by video.

Aside from that pledge, Army officials did not announce any investigations arising from the story’s claims.

The inspector general’s report is due to be complete soon, the Army said.

The Army introduced Warrior Transition Units in 2007 after Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., came under fire for substandard care. Nearly 500 soldiers are treated in Fort Carson’s unit, many of them suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and other war wounds.

In July 2009, the Gazette published two detailed accounts of the experiences of several Fort Carson soldiers who had seen intense and repeated violence during tours of duty in Iraq. Upon returning to Colorado Springs, some embarked on a spree of murder, attempted murder and manslaughter, while others have committed suicide, or tried to. All the while, some soldiers told the Gazette, they were ignored or berated for speaking up about their trauma.

The Times said it interviewed more than a dozen Fort Carson soldiers and mental health workers who said wounded warriors are “kept out of sight, fed a diet of powerful prescription pills and treated harshly.”

Fort Carson soldiers complained that “complex cocktails” of medications lead some soldiers to grow addicted and seek out to illegal drugs such as heroin. Meanwhile, those who miss formation and other requirements because of side effects are unfairly disciplined by their supervisors, the soldiers said.

Army Surgeon General Lt. Gen. Eric B. Schoomaker said the complaints weren’t representative of the program as a whole. He said a recent survey showed an Army-wide, 80-percent satisfaction rate among soldiers in the Warrior Transition Units. More than 90 percent of the Fort Carson unit’s patients are satisfied with their care, he said.

“I don't see them as necessarily crafting fiction,” Schoomaker said. “But I do believe that it is wholly unrepresentative of the totality and the context of what we’ve done for warrior care, especially in the last three years.”

Fort Carson officials defended the program and highlighted the steps it takes to ensure proper care.

Soldiers in the unit must submit to supervised urine testing at least once a month, and only 10 soldiers in the post’s substance abuse program are being treated for opiate abuse, said Col. Jimmie Keenan, who oversees Evans Army Community Hospital at Fort Carson.

About one-quarter of Fort Carson's patients receive narcotic painkillers, Keenan said, and physicians closely review any patients who are prescribed four or more medications at once.

The unit’s commander said the noncommissioned officers who work with the wounded warriors are closely monitored to ensure the soldiers are treated with “dignity and respect.”

“I’ve actually had to remove some (supervisors) from these positions because they weren’t getting it,” Lt. Col. Andrew L. Grantham, commander of the Warrior Transition Battalion at Fort Carson.

Fort Carson’s top commander, Maj. Gen. David Perkins, said he welcomed scrutiny of medical care at Fort Carson.

“If anything else, it just reinvigorates us because we know how important it is for the American people that we take care of their soldiers,” he said.

Call the writer at 636-0366.
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