At medical center, healing is Marines’ only duty

Times Staff Writer

If Building 18 at Walter Reed Army Medical Center represents the nadir of outpatient care for wounded military personnel, the Marine Corps is hoping that a former maternity ward here represents the opposite.

At the 25-bed Wounded Warrior Center, opened in August, injured Marines and sailors live mostly in two-man rooms that are freshly painted and furnished.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. March 12, 2007 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday March 12, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Wounded Warrior Center: A headline in Saturday’s California section referred to Camp Pendleton’s Wounded Warrior Center as a medical center. It is an outpatient living area.

A recreation room and dining room are just down the hall. Medical case managers from the Marine Corps and Veterans Affairs arrive frequently to check on each patient’s progress. Last week one of the walls was nicked. It was repaired the next day.

Transportation is provided to therapy appointments. Someone is on duty 24 hours a day in case a Marine or sailor has an emergency. Some rooms have been designed for wheelchairs. Every room has a television and small refrigerator.

Unlike other barracks, the Wounded Warrior Center does not require Marines to stand watch or do other chores.


“Your sole job while you’re here is to get better,” said Staff Sgt. Logan Ballew, 27, who suffered leg and brain injuries in August while deployed to Ramadi, Iraq, as an explosive ordnance disposal technician.

Most of the Marines and sailors, like Ballew, have undergone multiple surgeries, in Iraq and then at the U.S. hospital in Germany and the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. Ballew also was a brain-injury patient at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Palo Alto.

“I’ve had to learn to walk again,” he said. Ballew is making good progress: He no longer needs his colostomy bag.

The Wounded Warrior Center is near the base hospital, making access to therapists easier. A fleet of golf carts is on hand. For longer trips, such as to the Naval Medical Center in San Diego, there are vans.

(The medical center has housing for Marines and others who are outpatients; this week there were 55 outpatients. The Marines have assigned a major to make sure injured Marines at the center get to their medical appointments.)

Dating to the 1940s, the building that now houses the Wounded Warrior Center is one of the oldest on the sprawling base. It has served a number of purposes. Before its most recent incarnation, it was a substance abuse center. In July, the substance-abuse services were relocated, and the building was renovated. The Wounded Warrior Center opened the next month.

Cpl. Jackson Luna, 23, was the first Marine to move in. He was shot in the back by a sniper in June and has undergone multiple surgeries. He said his pain had become manageable. He’s planning to reenlist.

“This is a lot easier than living with your unit,” Luna said.

The center is also the duty station for personnel whose job is to track all wounded Marines and sailors as they move through the complexities of a medical system that includes military hospitals, VA hospitals and private healthcare providers.

“We use every tool we can to make sure nobody falls through the cracks,” said Lt. Col. Paul Swanson, officer in charge of the center.

Still, Commandant Gen. James Conway wants additional efforts made, particularly as Marines are sent home on “convalescent duty,” sometimes in small towns without a nearby military or VA medical facility.

Conway announced last week that he has appointed a colonel to oversee the center here and a similar one at Camp Lejeune, N.C., under the aegis of a newly formed Wounded Warrior Regiment. For the center here, that could mean more staff and a bigger budget.

The center exists to help the individual patient, but coddling is not allowed. There is a daily roll call at 7 a.m. Marine haircuts are required. PlayStations are not allowed in the rooms because it is believed that playing video games could lead to isolation.

Generals and colonels are watchful. So are their wives. The Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund, a charitable group involving a number of officers’ wives and retired generals, has made the center a priority.

With 10 two-man rooms, and five individual rooms -- including two for wheelchairs -- the center can accommodate 25 Marines and sailors. Last week the population was 13.

Gunnery Sgt. Mel Greer, the noncommissioned officer in charge, knows what the Marines are experiencing. He suffered multiple gunshot wounds in Ramadi in October 2004. He walks with a cane.

“The only agenda here is the individual Marine, whatever it takes to help him,” Greer said.

Greer has noticed a pattern among new arrivals: a period of silence and uncertainty followed by familiar patterns of behavior and speech as the newcomers get to know other wounded Marines.

“They’re just typical Marines: busting each other’s chops, talking about girlfriends and cars, that kind of stuff,” he said.