By KATE WILTROUT
December 8, 2008
Spc. Edward Bennett helped detect and detonate roadside bombs in Iraq for almost a year before he realized something was wrong.
Dizzy spells. Memory lapses. Slight coordination problems.
A brain scan revealed that Bennett suffered from traumatic brain injury, one of the signature combat wounds of the Iraq war.
Bennett, a member of the Virginia National Guard’s 237th Engineer Battalion, was flown to Germany in June for treatment, then spent two months at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
Now, even though he’s still on active duty and getting treatment, Bennett, 22, is once again living at home with his wife in Virginia Beach.
He is assigned to one of the Army’s eight community-based warrior transition units. Bennett happens to live within a few miles of Camp Pendleton, a state military reservation that’s home to one of the units. Most of the 200 other soldiers assigned to the unit live hours away in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, Ohio, West Virginia and North Carolina.
Soldiers are required to check in daily by phone with their platoon sergeant and weekly with their case worker to make sure their recovery is on track.
“I see this as a common-sense approach,” said Col. Chris Jones, the unit’s chief medical officer. “We’ve allowed soldiers to come home to get their care. When someone is with their family and friends, they’re going to get better quicker.”
The Army created the community-based transition units in 2004 and ’05 to deal with a surge of patients at military hospitals. In addition to easing overcrowding, the program reunites National Guard and reserve soldiers with their families.
Not all of the soldiers have combat wounds. Some were injured — or, say, suffered a heart attack — while training for an overseas deployment.
Soldiers typically spend a few months to a year in the transition unit. Those who recover fully rejoin their previous units. Those with chronic medical conditions that make them unfit to serve are processed out.
Before they go home, soldiers spend about three days at Camp Pendleton. Jones, a physician, meets with each soldier, examines his or her medical history and recommends a care plan.
He sometimes hooks patients up with university hospitals or specialists outside the military medical system, and works to get Tricare, the military insurance program, to cover the tab.
The incoming soldiers also meet with Patricia Bischoff, a licensed clinical social worker.
“Some people are coming through intact,” Bischoff said. “Some people are coming through with a lot, a lot, a lot of problems. A lot of post-traumatic stress disorder.”
The biggest priority for soldiers in the program is keeping their medical appointments. They also are assigned to work at a National Guard armory or a reserve center near their home.
Bennett works at Camp Pendleton, doing filing and administrative work for the transition unit. He goes to occupational therapy twice a week at Oceana Naval Air Station’s medical clinic.
He also has appointments with specialists at Portsmouth Naval Medical Center at least once a week.
Bennett is confident about his future. He hopes to return in January to Old Dominion University, where he was studying engineering. He plans to re-enter its ROTC program and earn his commission.