By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
Nov. 21, 2008 - Marine Capt. Ray Baronie was traveling in a convoy in Ramadi, Iraq, on Dec. 1, 2005 when an anti-tank round blasted his truck. Baronie's legs were shattered, his body cut and bloodied. His driver was killed. The truck rolled onto its side, and then he was shot at. But really hard times didn't hit until Baronie came back to the United States.
"That's really when hell started. In one year, I had 46 surgeries," he said.
Baronie's right leg was amputated above the knee. He lost major muscle from both legs. He can tap his thigh bone through the skin on the back of his left leg. He now walks with the help of a cane and a prosthetic right leg. Scars cover his arms.
But Baronie's injuries haven't stopped him from stepping in front of a Marine formation and continuing his active duty. In fact, quite the opposite. His injuries have uniquely qualified him to run one of three companies in the U. S. military designed to house and care for seriously wounded Marines.
Remarkably, Baronie was offered the job while he was still in the hospital recovering from his wounds. He now commands 100 or so Marines who make up Company A, Wounded Warrior Battalion East, part of the Wounded Warrior Regiment stood up at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va., by order of the commandant of the Marine Corps in April 2007.
"I had to get better because I had to get back to work," Baronie said. "How fast could I get back to work? That's what it came down to. I think me knowing that I had a job sped up my recovery."
Overwatch Key to Recovery
The Wounded Warrior Regiment comprises two battalions, one on the East Coast here on Camp LeJeune, N.C., and one on the West Coast on Camp Pendleton, Calif., and a third company in Hawaii. It is the realization of the Marine Corps' historic push to accommodate the influx of seriously wounded Marines since the start of Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom.
Each provides coverage for Marines receiving care in their areas. The battalion here has oversight of more than 300 Marines who are recovering this side of the Mississippi River. The West Coast battalion has oversight of about 200 recovering Marines.
To date, more than 6,600 Marines have received Purple Hearts since the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom. About 1,200 are seriously injured and still on active duty in various stages of their recovery.
Baronie is one of the Marine Corps' nearly 3,000 injured who have returned to active duty. And he is not the only leader in the company who was injured in combat.
"The first sergeant got wacked with an [rocket-propelled grenade], the gunny got blown up in Afghanistan ... and all three of my platoon sergeants have either gotten shot or blown up," Baronie said.
In these units, Marines spend their days concentrating on healing and transitioning to the next phase of their lives, whether that means recovering and staying on active duty or leaving the service.
A morning muster inside the dayroom starts each day here at about 7:30. Marines attend, if they are physically able. Every day company leadership visits each of the Marines, ensuring they are on the road to recovery. Nine squad leaders are responsible for about 10 Marines each.
"I think that's the key piece -- seeing them every single day. You can see if they're having a problem. You can see if they're depressed. You can see if they're over-medicated. That's the beauty of this place," Baronie said.
Activity as Therapy
The Marines occupy the two sets of barracks here. The more seriously injured are housed with the command staff. Others live across base. Married Marines live in town. Most receive medical support at Naval Hospital Camp LeJeune, but many go off base for specialty care. Others are sent to major medical treatment facilities across the United States.
During the day, Marines attend medical appointments and physical therapy, or meet with counselors and specialists. Of the Marines here, about two-thirds have jobs. If they are attending the local college, that counts as their job, Baronie said. Some have jobs in the barracks, others around base. One works in traffic court. Others help teachers at the local elementary school.
Staying active is key to healing, Baronie said. It is dangerous for Marines to stay isolated in their rooms for hours or days at a time. Baronie said he doesn't want any "professional X-Box players."
The battalion staff work out of temporary trailers arranged in a horse-shoe pattern beside 1940s-era red brick barracks. Wooden wheelchair ramps snake between the buildings. A new $27 million barracks complex is under construction that will move the Marines closer to the hospital and other treatment facilities on base. The West Coast battalion has a similar barracks construction project planned.
Three nurse case managers make sure Marines keep their appointments. This is sometimes difficult because medications and brain injuries muddle appointment dates and times for the Marines. More than three-quarters of them suffer from post traumatic stress disorder or a traumatic brain injury, Baronie said.
Baronie cuts them no slack, though, for missed appointments. "The reason why you were sent here wasn't to pull triggers," he tells the Marines. "It wasn't to go into the field. It is to heal. You go to your appointments. You have to do your part to get better."
If that sounds strict, it is. But that's because Baronie is looking out for the Marines. Just as other units prepare their troops for war, he prepares his Marines for the next stage of their lives.
"I try not to call them wounded warriors. I call them Marines," Baronie said.
Planning for the Future
"Life doesn't stop when you get wounded. You've got to have some type of responsibility and, whether you choose to stay in the Marine Corps or move into civilian life, you're still going to have to press forward," Baronie said.
"What happens when you go into the civilian world and that corporation you work for ... is trying to make money and you don't come to work? They might not care that you're wounded. You may hear two words -- you're fired."
The career planner for the company is himself an injured Marine who has stayed on active duty with a permanent disability, working limited duty. Marine Corps leadership has vowed to keep all injured Marines on active duty who can still work in some capacity. The limited duty assignment allows the Marine to receive a disability assignment from the service, for later benefits, but to stay on active duty in a job they can perform. The Marine can later decide to leave the service if he or she finds the circumstances too difficult.
For many, that next step is sometimes a greater dilemma than their recovery. Mixed emotions swell as they are forced to reconcile what they want to do with what their bodies will now allow them to do.
"These guys are torn right now because all of them are grunts (infantrymen). They left high school and didn't want to go to college. They wanted to join the Marine Corps and they wanted to shoot and blow up stuff," Baronie said. "And now ... they may be able to stay in the Marine Corps, but they know that they won't be able to go back to that grunt community. They'll be found unfit to do that strenuous [job]."
The career planner, a Veterans Affairs representative and a "transition coordinator" all work from the battalion's resource center in the barracks. They help the Marines look at their decisions from more than an emotional perspective. They map out college plans or suggest other training programs, career paths, benefits and other financial incentives that are available, so that the Marines can look at the big picture.
Injuries Add Credibility
For Baronie, the difficulty is relaying to the Marines that they still can contribute to the mission, even if they're not on the front lines.
"Trying to get these guys to understand that just because you're not sweating, freezing, starving, and miserable in a grunt community, you can still participate and contribute to the Marine Corps mission," Baronie said. "Helping them understand that right now is the hardest thing."
Baronie's decision to stay in was easy, he said. As an adjutant, or an administrative officer, he is still able to handle the work.
"It was a slam dunk (decision) to stay in ... since my job is administrative in nature," Baronie said. "I can punch this keyboard until my hand turns blue and I can still be a good adjutant. I can still do legal, I can still count Marines. I can still do all that."
Still, Baronie's crutches bother him; it's hard to carry stuff. And, he looks different. But what bothers him most is that it's hard to return a fellow Marine's salute.
He's not sure if he will stay in past his next assignment.
"Right now, I know I am contributing to the Marine Corps in this capacity. I'm putting a lot of hours in a day and taking care of my guys to the best of my ability," he said. "If I go to another unit and that training is going 45 miles an hour and I'm only good with 30, I will walk away. I will not stick around for the sake of sticking around.
"If the Marine Corps mission is slacking because of me, it will be time for me to go," Baronie said.
But for now, as Baronie moves around his company, inspecting repairs, talking to Marines and stopping in their small kitchen to see what is cooking, it is clear that he is one of them.
His injuries give him credibility. They know he has "been there" and do not hesitate to pull him aside to talk. Sometimes it's about problems. Sometimes it's just to talk.. Occasionally a "wheelchair jousting" match will break out in the halls, or -- Marines being Marines -- they begin good-naturedly beating each other with their crutches.
For Baronie and his Marines, this is home. "I don't want to work anywhere else. I love just coming to work and hanging out with them. These guys are awesome," he said.
(Editor's note: This is the latest in a series of AFPS articles about seriously injured servicemembers who are returning to active duty.)