WASHINGTON, April 8, 2011 — The conversation flowed easily this morning as Army Col. Sean M. Jenkins sat with several 101st Airborne Division soldiers, talking about everything from operations heating up in Afghanistan’s Paktika province to the impact of a possible government shutdown on his deployed troops and their families back at Fort Campbell, Ky.
The setting wasn’t Forward Operating Base Sharana, Jenkins’ 4th Brigade Combat Team and Task Force Currahee headquarters, or one of its combat outposts dotting the easternmost sector of Regional Command East in Afghanistan.
It was in a cafeteria here at Walter Reed Army Medical Center where Jenkins, traveling home for his mid-tour rest-and-recovery leave, paid a visit to check on his wounded troops. They gathered around the table, one in a wheelchair, one with a cane, another rubbing his steel-plated leg that always aches when the barometer drops, eager for news about the units and comrades they left behind.
The 101st “Screaming Eagles” have suffered heavy losses during their deployment as part of the surge force in Afghanistan. The 4th Brigade Combat Team alone has lost 15 soldiers since it deployed last summer, with scores more wounded and more than 40 medevacced out for advanced medical care.
So when Jenkins left Afghanistan for the first time in seven months for his mid-tour leave — before seeing his wife Karin, his bubbly, blonde 3‑year-old daughter, or his beloved golden retriever and black Labrador dogs at Fort Campbell — he spent several days with his wounded warriors at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas; and Walter Reed. “I came to say thanks,” Jenkins said, “and to talk with them about what is going on forward and how their teammates are doing.”
The chit-chat today in Walter Reed’s cafeteria, hallways and the Military Advanced Training Center where soldiers receive intensive physical therapy treatments bounced from one topic to another. They praised a heroic private first class from the unit who was undaunted as his unit faced the enemy, discussed the merits of the leadership novel, “Once an Eagle,” talked about improvements in military housing and heard news of the new 120 mm precision-guided mortar munitions round the brigade just received in Afghanistan. But beyond the casual and sometimes not-so-casual conversation, Jenkins worked to gauge how his soldiers are faring as they recover from lost limbs, shattered bones and other devastating injuries.
“I try to open up a stream of conversation with them about how they are doing, how they are being treated, how their medical care is going and what their concerns are,” he said. Throughout his conversations, he pulled out a pocket-size notebook to jot down names, email addresses and messages to pass on or requests to follow up on.
“These guys deserve everything we can do for them, and nothing less,” Jenkins said. “They need to understand that we are here for them, whatever it is they need.” Once of the most welcomed things Jenkins delivers to the troops — whether his own or members of another 101st Airborne Division element — is reassurance that they haven’t been forgotten.
“They are still part of the team,” he said. “And that is part of the message. I tell them, ‘Just because you are back here, attached or assigned to one of the hospitals for a period of time, you are still part of the unit.’ It is important they understand that linkage is not broken.”
Many of the wounded warriors call that some of the best medicine they could get.
“It’s very important to me. It’s part of your mental fitness,” said Army 1st Lt. Aaron Palmer, a 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment soldier whose femur was broken in three places and his iliac artery destroyed during an enemy attack in October.
“I can’t tell you how close we are overseas,” Palmer said. “Your unit becomes like your family, and it’s really great when that family keeps in touch with you.…Every time I see that [Screaming Eagle] patch, I know it’s a brother.”
“It helps me a lot,” agreed Army Sgt. Anthony Verra of the 4th BCT’s sister 2nd “Strike” BCT who lost both legs to an improvised explosive device in September. “Visits like this are really motivational.”
Army Pfc. Corey Kent, another “Strike” soldier, said he’s been “blown away” by the outpouring he’s received from his fellow Screaming Eagles since arriving at Walter Reed in mid-July, just three weeks into his deployment.
Kent was on a patrol near Kandahar, called in to provide security for another unit that had been hit by an IED. He suffered the same fate, losing two legs, one above the knee and one at the hip, as well as all the fingers on his left hand.
Today, he told Jenkins he had hoped to make the military a career and still plans to explore options the Army may open to him. “I’d feel like I was giving up if I just leave,” Kent said.
Jenkins said he encourages his soldiers not to let their wounds prevent them from striving for their dreams. “There are no closed doors,” he tells them. “Only you close the door if you physically want to close the door.”
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)