On the edge of the Arctic, on Alaska’s coastal plain and on the banks of the Tanana River two elite Army units assemble daily for a unique mission. On their report day the orders are simple, to heal.
The mission of the Warrior Transition Battalion – Alaska, consisting of Alpha Company at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and Bravo Company at Ft. Wainwright, is to ‘improve the life of each Soldier who walks through its doors.’
While the Soldiers that come to these units are all unique in their experiences and the challenges they face, they have at least one thing in common with each other; something didn’t go according to plan.
“Life has thrown a curve-ball at our Soldiers,” said Capt. Daniel Corbett, Commander of Bravo Company at Ft. Wainwright, “That’s where we come in.”
While no Soldier plans on getting wounded, ill or injured, and finding themselves assigned to a Warrior Transition Battalion (WTB), Lt. Col. Jason Benefield, the Battalion Commander, reassures incoming Soldiers that while their plan may have changed, the staff of Alpha and Bravo Company is there to assist them in their journey.
“I want them to have confidence in us, to trust that together, we can develop a new plan that will help them reach their full potential and help them be successful, whether they are going back to the force and into the fight or becoming a veteran,” said Benefield.
WTB-Alaska staff members, both military and civilian, work hard to instill this confidence and earn the trust of the Soldiers who are assigned to their unit.
The Soldiers, who all require at least six months of complex medical treatment due to wounds, illnesses or injuries, come from Active Duty, Reserve and National Guard units throughout Alaska.
There are three methods Soldiers become assigned to either Alpha or Bravo Company.
During overseas operations, Soldiers who are medically evacuated are met at the airport by a military cadre member and screened immediately upon arrival at the hospital by a medical team. This initial assessment determines if the Soldier is in need of complex medical care and assignment to the WTB.
The second, and most common, process is the regular intake board.
The ‘Warrior Intake Board,’ consisting of the commander of the United States Army - Alaska, commander of all Army Medical Activities in Alaska and the WTB commander (known officially as the triad of leadership) review recommendations from unit commanders. During the formal board proceedings the three commanders are presented with the complete background of the Soldier and medical recommendations. The board screening thoroughly sorts out the simple medical problems and votes on each recommended Soldier. If just one triad of leadership member votes ‘yes’ indicating he believes the Soldier requires complex medical care, the Soldier is immediately assigned to the WTB.
Lastly, Soldiers may be transferred from a WTB at a different installation if Alaska is listed as their home of record.
No matter how Soldiers find their way to WTB-Alaska, they find a caring staff, dedicated to their healing – not just physically, but holistically. When a Soldier arrives at the WTB, he or she is immediately assigned to a squad leader who serves as the Soldier’s sponsor, leader and guide through the recovery process. Only non-commissioned officers with proven leadership abilities, effective coping skills, and certification from special training conducted at the Army Medical Department Center and School, Fort Sam Houston, Texas are allowed to serve as WTB Squad leaders. The job is so demanding that squad leaders are kept on a strict two year assignment to the WTB.
“We are not just dealing with a Soldier as a team leader,” said Staff Sgt. Kathryn Martin, a squad leader for Bravo Company when asked to describe her role at the WTB. “We get to know our Soldiers on a one-on-one basis. We have to know how to communicate with each Soldier and get personal with them to know what makes them tick. I am very candid with my Soldiers and I tell them what to expect. I have never deployed, so I never say ‘I understand what you’re going through,’ instead, I prove to the Soldier that I am going to do everything I can for them,” she added.
During the first 24 hours, the Soldier (guided by their squad leader), and his or her family, receive briefings about the facilities, the personnel involved in the care and management of the Soldier, the expectations of the Soldier and a general outline of what to expect in the coming months.
“Within 30 days at WTB-Alaska, the Soldiers work with a team to develop a plan, called their Comprehensive Transition Plan (CTP), with both short-term and long-term goals that help them restore their overall health in six different domains,” said Benefield.
Progress through these domains; physical health, emotional well-being, social relationships, family dynamics, spiritual health and career is the responsibility of the Soldier but is aided constantly by the staff of WTB.
“The team here works very well together; there’s a lot of synergy,” said Benefield. “It’s a very strong team that has confidence in each other’s judgment and they bring all these different perspectives into this process for the good of the Soldiers.”
Each Soldier’s ‘team’ is based on a ‘Triad of Care’ consisting of a nurse case manager, a primary care provider (a doctor or physician assistant), and the squad leader. The Triad, along with the Soldier’s company commander, a social worker, an occupational therapist and other WTB professionals who interact with the Soldier, meet every week to discuss the Soldier’s progress through the six domains. In order to successfully navigate the domains to reach their transition goals, it is necessary for Soldiers to have trust in their care team. These weekly meetings allow a complete synchronization of effort, an examination of ongoing success and they help build a mutually beneficial & trusting relationship between all the stake holders engaged in the Soldier’s care.
Working with the Triad and the allied support personnel is often a new experience for Soldiers accustomed to the normally stratified and regimented Army life. Soldiers often find it shocking that their mission is no longer preparing for combat, fixing vehicles, or jumping from Airplanes but is simply to heal and prepare for the next step in life.
For Master Sgt. Marc Senzamici, a Soldier for 19 years who came to the WTB after his third combat deployment, working with his Triad of Care and adjusting to the WTB mission took several months. As a company 1st Sgt., Senzamici was used to taking care of the Soldiers in his unit and worked diligently with his Triad to transition to a mindset in which he was the one who needed the care himself.
“Our daily work revolves around medical appointments and day-to-day it is more care-based as opposed to a specific career field,” said Senzamici.
Nurse case managers serve as the medical points of contact for every Soldier, scheduling and coordinating all of the Soldiers’ medical needs. They work together with the primary care provider to make sure every medical condition is properly addressed and that nothing is missed.
“If there are specialty consults required, the nurse case manager tracks it,” said Ms. Melody Quesenberry, supervisory nurse case manager, WTB-Alaska. “If there are records that need to be sent prior to an appointment, we take care of that as well. A lot of education is done with the Soldiers.”
Quesenberry added that if a Soldier has any medical concerns, their first stop is to their nurse case manager and any concerns are triaged before their next medical appointment.
The unit also employees a dedicated staff of support specialists who supplement the Soldiers’ healing process with assistance in areas as diverse as financial management, resume writing and spiritual resiliency.
“To be a successful cadre member, a level of caring and adaptability must be displayed”, said Corbett. “How we reach or engage a Soldier here is different than ‘on the line’ (referring to the Soldiers in deployable, high-tempo units where Sergeants can be infamous for their discipline techniques.) We don’t necessarily use a softer approach, we still expect them to behave professionally like Soldiers, but it is a different approach, it is an adaptive and compassionate approach.”
When Martin and the other WTB-Alaska team members tell Soldiers they will do everything they can for them, they mean it. Their support is not limited to normal business hours, nor is it only for the Soldiers. “Like the Soldier, their Family members never planned to have their loved one as part of the WTB so they are in transition too,” said Benefield.
To assist in this area, the Soldier Family Assistance Centers (SFAC) located at both Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and Fort Wainwright, work closely with WTB Soldiers and Family members to provide support programs through the transition process.
“In a nutshell, we solve problems,” said Russ Black, Alpha Company’s SFAC director.
Black and his staff assist with goal setting and developing a strategic life plan by arranging for higher education opportunities and job experience for the Soldiers. They also act as a clearing house of information for the families.
The SFAC staff at Alpha and Bravo companies also act as liaisons with the civilian community outside their gates. They create partnerships with organizations and programs such as Equine Therapy, Alaska Healing Hearts, and the Elks Club. These partnerships not only provide therapeutic activities, but also allow Soldiers and Family members to enjoy some unique Alaskan experiences.
Sergeant Robert Somerville, an Alaska National Guard Soldier, found the Healing Waters programs especially helpful as a part of his Comprehensive Transition Plan. The people who work this program are dedicated to the physical and emotional rehabilitation of disabled active military service personnel and veterans through fly fishing and fly tying education and outings.
“I’ve been building myself a 10 and one half foot fly fishing pole and tying my own flies, I also volunteer to staff the booth at the Alaskan Outdoorsman Festival. It has not only helped my concentration and memory but also my physical recovery from shoulder surgery. I would definitely recommend the program to any veteran or Soldier at the WTB,” Somerville said.
The SFAC takes an active role by including all the Soldiers, Cadre and staff and their families in special events. Fall festivals, back-to-school picnics and potlucks are all common sights at both Alpha and Bravo Company.
Unlike any other WTB, WTB-Alaska is split geographically with its battalion headquarters and Alpha Company located near Anchorage and Bravo Company operating in Fairbanks.
“This separation does not keep the two units from working together,” said Benefield. “In fact, weekly administrative & medical meetings, quarterly award ceremonies, promotions, reenlistments and other special occasions all utilize a video teleconference system so cadre, Soldiers and Family members from both sites can participate.”
A major issue that arises is Alaska’s is the very limited specialty care services available. The limited availability of specialty care in Alaska presents another challenge unique to the Soldiers in the WTB.
“We have to send some of our patients to the lower 48 to get some specialized out-patient care or long-term behavioral health care, which can be a real challenge,” said Col. Young Chun, The Battalion Surgeon.
The austere climate and remote conditions of Alaska do present some hurdles, such as frequency of depression during the long winter months, but also offers many advantages.
“Living in an isolated place, the people we work with are the people we depend on and it makes the team stronger,” said Corbett. “Much like a unit that is deployed, the person you have on your left and your right is who you have. You become very close with those around you.”
In order to combat the challenges of isolation and working in a demanding environment, WTB-Alaska leaders put a strong emphasis on resiliency and camaraderie. Skeet shooting competitions, mountain hikes and Salmon fishing expeditions are examples of the local Alaskan experiences that units exploit.
The pride team members show in their jobs has a direct reflection on the successes WTB-Alaska has seen over the past six years. “The camaraderie we have between the cadre members is unique,” said Benefield. “They work well together, they use each other’s expertise effectively.”
One soldier typified the unit’s individualized, determined approach to warrior care. He reported to the WTB after an IED explosion brought him to Alpha Company. He sought a return to active duty but experienced such significant pain in his foot, he considered having it amputated. Benefield encouraged him to look at all available options before making a final decision.
The unit researched a wide variety of treatments, ultimately sending the soldier to Fort Sam Houston’s ‘Center for the Intrepid’ where he was fitted with a special brace that helped support his leg. He responded so positively to the treatment that he was able to pass the Army Physical Fitness Test and return to duty.
For as long as Soldiers live in and deploy from Alaska they know they can rely on the dedicated staff of the Warrior Transition Battalion. Benefield summed his unit’s feeling best, “Although our greatest day would be the one in which we have no Soldiers to treat; we are here, ready and dedicated to the health and wellbeing of these Soldiers who have universally sacrificed so much and deserve all the best we can give them.”
• By Brandy Ostanik, PAO,Medical Activity, Alaska and Cpt John Lunieski, Alaska Warrior Transition Battalion Fort Wainwright, Alaska.