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By JOSHUA COFFMAN firstname.lastname@example.org FORT KNOX — Little support from the Army awaited former Maj. Rob Appleby when he returned home from Afghanistan. Enlisted at 18, he served the next 18 years of his life in active duty and reserve. Appleby worked in special operations and also served a tour in Bosnia in the 1990s. After laying his life on the line for the global war on terror, next to nothing awaited him in the Army to treat his post-traumatic stress disorder when he returned home wounded in 2005. Today the former Pennsylvania resident works with soldiers in the warrior transition unit at Fort Knox, a program started a year ago this week. The unit was created Army wide last year to correct a bureaucratic nightmare and lack of healthcare and life-skills options facing soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. He helps wounded warriors learn about making budgets, investing money and learning job skills. “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t believe in it,” Appleby said. “I turned down $120,000 to take less than half of that to be here.” Returning from war, the former special ops soldier spent eight months in the 10-foot-by-10-foot room, coming out only to shower and eat. “I was pretty screwed up for a while,” he said. Appleby returned home and found himself to be little help from his family as he was left on his own to recover. His wife cared for him and his four children, all younger than 10. “I had 30 days to find a job and find a house,” he said. “The services they’re offering now, I didn’t get even 10 percent of it, he said.” Appleby began working for the warrior transition unit’s soldier family services center when it opened in January. The center, and its classes throughout the day, prepare soldiers for a return to duty or transition to life as a wounded veteran. The death of Sgt. Gerald Cassidy at the unit in September led to scrutiny of staffing levels in the then-months-old unit. At present day, staff rosters are more full than ever and, as construction wraps up, the Army’s transition to ease a soldier’s path to healing appears to be on track to succeed. The WTU is part of a larger “comprehensive care plan” created by the Army in the wake of the Walter Reed revelation. The national story has another tie to Fort Knox. Brig. Gen. Michael Tucker, then deputy commanding general at the post, was called up to streamline bureaucratic processes in the Army’s medical system. He earned the nickname “bureaucracy buster.” THE ARMY’S SHORT STAFF. At the time of Cassidy’s death, staffing levels ranged between 43 and 60 percent. The unit relies on a squad leader, a traditional tactical Army superior to oversee the wounded soldiers daily lives; a case manager, a senior nurse who meets with the soldiers weekly; and a primary care manager, or doctor, who meets with the soldiers on a monthly basis to evaluate their treatment. A lack of squad leaders early on led to a lack of accountability. Though the unit remains two soldiers short of its capacity goal of 30 such leaders, soldiers in the unit say they noticed a sea of change once more soldiers signed on to help. “It’s a big difference than when I got here,” said Sgt. Dwight Blackman of Hattiesburg, Miss., in March. A member of the Mississippi National Guard and WTU soldier, he had a heart attack while training for deployment to Iraq. “I can call my squad leader 24 hours a day; my wife can call my squad leader 24 hours a day,” he said. The accessibility of now paints a different picture from when Sgt. Gerald Cassidy lay in his room, possibly for days, immobilized by a high dose of prescribed Methadone. Army wide, the department failed to meet its goal of having WTUs fully staffed by the first of the year. On January 1, it met 90.8 percent of its goal, with 2,210 of 2,434 positions filled. As of early March, 2,575 workers, or 105.8 percent of the slots were staffed. Records from Cassidy’s death investigation include statements from soldiers who said the Army Sergeant routinely missed required formations. Others said they went days without checking in and never heard from superiors. Lt. Col. Gary Travis, WTU commander since January, said that is not the case now. Ireland Army Community Hospital, the main medical facility at Fort Knox, houses two ombudsmen for WTU soldiers to address concerns without facing retribution, and post leadership, including the garrison and post commanders, sit in on monthly town meetings at the unit. “We’re trying to find the ideal transition between medical care and command-and-control,” Travis said. A tactical Army guy, Travis reports to Col. Rhonda Earls, who heads the Medical Department at Fort Knox. The part-squadron part-medical framework allows soldiers to remain in a military culture while recovering. Each soldier has a mission: to heal. “This is the first time in 20 years I’ve seen a mission statement for a specific individual,” said Lt. Col. Dawn Erkenbrack, deputy commander of administration at the hospital. THE ARMY’S NEED FOR DOCTORS. On an average day, Maj. Mark DeMuth, a WTU doctor, “constantly” has soldiers in-processing from other facilities. He spends his morning evaluating their needs, about an hour for each. He then sees five to eight existing patients in the afternoon for follow-up care. Dr. William Kearney wrote the prescription that proved fatal for Cassidy. He stayed on the job after a medical board cleared him of any wrong doing. But apparent political pressure from Democratic Sen. Evan Byah, who hails from Cassidy’s home state of Indiana, soon after led to him being dismissed. An employee of the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, he now works at the VA hospital in Louisville. He called his removal from the unit “political” but he declined to discuss specifics of Cassidy’s case. His position stayed open until at least March, but it has since been filled. Recruitment of qualified civilian employees in the medical field is a primary challenge for the WTU at Fort Knox. Reasons for the difficulty include the pay scale, a rather remote location and the perception among some medical circles of working for the Defense Department. Still, the Army officers in command of the unit feel they are doing all they can and say they will strive to do more. “They take on the challenge,” Earls said. Joshua Coffman can be reached at (270) 505-1740.