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Eric Calley, left, poses with a friend at a tornado-ravaged site in Oklahoma where the two volunteered assistance earlier this year.

Photo by Eric Calley

Reintegration phase of recovery is test of Wounded Warrior Regiment’s success

27 Nov 2013 | Mike DiCicco

When Eric Calley left the Marine Corps in 2006, after four years of service and two tours in Kuwait and Iraq, there was no Wounded Warrior Regiment. His story illustrates what can happen to veterans in the absence of the support network the regiment has since created. It also shows the power the newly formed unit has to transform the lives of injured veterans whose plight may have been overlooked because they left the Corps before the regiment’s creation, or because problems like post-traumatic stress disorder didn’t manifest until after they separated.

Plagued by PTSD, guilt and anger issues, Calley took to drinking. The year after he left the Corps, he was convicted of drunk driving, but, he said, he continued to drink heavily.

“How do you go from being one of the few, the proud to being one of the [dirt] bags sitting in a jail cell?” the Lyons, Mich. native wondered. “If it wasn’t for Top Smith sending me to FOCUS Marines Foundation, I’d be in jail, or you never know where I’d be.”

That was Master Sgt. Chris Smith, who has been the Wounded Warrior Regiment’s district injured support coordinator for a district spanning Michigan and Indiana for three years.

“Just being able to make contact with us, and for us to turn around and be able to start making things happen in a week, they have hope again that they’re not just going to be lost out there,” Smith said.

The regiment’s 30 or so DISCs, stationed throughout the country, comprise an aspect of the Marine Corps’ wounded care program that is unique among the services.

Unlike other wounded warrior programs, after Marines separate from the Corps’ Wounded Warrior Regiment, their comprehensive recovery plans are handed off not only to Veterans Affairs representatives, but also to either non-medical care managers or, in more serious cases, DISCs, who monitor and assist the Marines for the next 90 days, said April Peterson, who heads the regiment’s Recovery Care Coordinator program.

“Those 90 days are really critical to prevent gaps, to ensure it’s a seamless transition from [Department of Defense] to VA services,” she said.

For Marines in the regiment, though, the reintegration phase of their recovery begins before they separate, when they receive their disability rating and end-of-active-service date.

“That’s when we know what semester he can start school back in Hometown, USA,” said Maj. Brian Bilski, officer in charge of the regiment’s Transition Cell. Or, depending on the Marines’ plans, a date can be set to begin vocational training.

Employers generally don’t want to hold a job open for more than a month, so this is when Marines start applying for jobs, Bilski said. But by this time, they’ve worked on résumé preparation, interview skills, networking and, in many cases, an internship.

“We set them up for success, and now it’s just a matter of finding the right job in the right place and linking them up with an employer,” he said.

Once Marines get their disability ratings, they can form a clearer picture of their financial future, Peterson said. The regiment works with the Marines on establishing their future budget, finding medical and other resources near their home, finding out who their Tricare insurance manager is and otherwise preparing for civilian life.

“Sometimes that is fast and furious,” she said.

The Marines and their families complete a weeklong training session with financial planners, Tricare representatives and others to prepare them to navigate the benefits system and work out long-term plans.

However, Peterson said, “They just want to go home. They hear a lot of it, and you’re trying to help them process it.” But points are often forgotten. Loose ends of the transitioning process may need to be tied up. That is why monitoring by the non-medical case managers and DISCs after separation is important.

Peterson cited the Corps’ several mottos about keeping faith and never leaving a man behind. “It’s the idea that you never leave the Marine Corps,” she said. “And so, with the Wounded Warrior Regiment it’s no different. We’re not just going to drop you at the doorstep of the VA.”

In the case of the DISCs, they’re not just representatives of the Marine Corps but actual Marines, mobilized reserve officers and staff noncommissioned officers, keeping track of the newly separated veterans.

“That’s why they’re a secret weapon, because they’re uniformed Marines taking care of veteran Marines,” Peterson said, noting that veterans who are not following their recovery plans can be quickly brought back in line by a gunnery sergeant knocking on their door.

“They still respect the rank, and most of them still love the Corps, and so they respond,” said Master Sgt. Scott Mahnke, the DISC for a district in upstate New York.

“Even though they’re out, they go into default mode,” said Smith, the DISC who pulled Calley out of his rut. “It’s engrained in their head.”

Calley doesn’t remember how he first came into contact with Smith in the summer of 2012.

“I was pretty bad-off, drinking-wise,” he said. “I was getting to the point where I was letting my disabilities control my life.”

Smith convinced him to attend the FOCUS Marine Foundation, a weeklong course for wounded, ill and injured veteran Marines. While he was there, he said, another Marine shared a personal story he’d been holding in, and Calley decided he had to do the same.

Just as he was leaving the Corps, a Marine who Calley had helped bring into the service was killed in Fallujah. Calley ended up being assigned to the funeral, although no one had known he was familiar with the deceased.

“For years, I’d drink to the end of the bottle just to forget about that,” he said. But after talking about it with other Marines, he was able to let go of the feeling that he was responsible for the young man’s death. He started moving forward.

Smith has about 35 wounded, ill and injured Marines he’s presently monitoring, and Mahnke has 22, but each ends up working with an additional 10 or 12 per month, who come to them in a variety of ways. They might be referred by the regiment’s call center, organizations that work with veterans, the Inspector Instructor staff of reserve units or others.

The DISCs work closely with the transition teams at the VA and with each other to meet the needs of their caseload.

“The success of this is the teamwork,” Smith said.

That cooperation is facilitated by the Marine Corps Wounded, Ill and Injured Tracking System, which allows everyone involved in a wounded, ill or injured Marine’s case to enter notes on all interactions and to view the Marine’s entire history in the medical system.

Coordinating all the DISCs is Terry Jones, the retired master gunnery sergeant who manages the program. Hiring his Marines involves a serious vetting process, he said, adding that he visits their houses, meets their families and makes sure their lives are in order before hiring them to help others bring structure to their lives.

“This is the most independent of independent billets in the Corps,” he said. “You have to be a stellar Marine to be successful as a DISC.”

In addition to making sure injured veterans are following their recovery plans, DISCs end up acting as career, financial and marriage counselors, Jones said. “You can’t send someone to class for that.”

Another aspect of the work is helping their charges to regain the sense of purpose and identity that some of them lose upon leaving the Corps, Smith said. “Part of our job is to help them realize life isn’t over, and we help them find their mission.”

In September of last year, Calley and a partner, another Marine Corps veteran, started The Fight Continues, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping wounded warriors from all the services to transition into civilian life. He assists with the Semper Fi Odyssey, an outdoor, six-day transition assistance program in Boswell, Pa. He volunteers on a veteran’s court and was recently certified as a peer support specialist in Michigan.

“I use my experiences to help others,” he said. “The Marine Corps went above and beyond taking care of me.”

Jones said that’s what the regiment’s post-end-of-active-service assistance is about. “This program is about keeping the faith,” he said. “’Once a Marine, always a Marine’ is more than a bumper sticker.”

— Writer: mdicicco@quanticosentryonline.com