Fort Riley, Kan., is home to the 1st Infantry Division’s Warrior Transition Battalion, the first battalion of its kind in the Army. The post has facilities for battalion headquarters, company operations, a Soldier and family assistance center and a barracks for transitioning Soldiers. The multi-million dollar facility, which has been open since 2010, isn’t special because of all its comforts and technology. What makes the facility special is the people in it — people like Sgt. Troy Tow, who went from patient to caretaker.
An Army “brat,” Tow followed in his father’s footsteps and enlisted in the Army in 2009. “I joined as 11-Bravo (infantryman) with Airborne in my contract, and I wanted to go Ranger and Special Forces and do all the elite stuff so I (could) be with a bunch of people that I knew wanted to be there for the right reasons,” he said.
“I was a little bit shocked,” Tow’s mother, Kim, said about him joining the Army, “and I was thinking to myself ‘Oh my God, this is not a good thing,’ because of the circumstances that it was when he told me he was joining.” She had always thought her other son, Kyle, would enlist.
After graduating basic training in February of 2010 Tow went to Airborne school and ended up a private first class at Fort Riley. Six months later, Tow received notice that his unit would be deploying to Afghanistan within months – his dreams advanced military training would have to wait.
Staff Sgt. John Johnson, Tow’s squad leader while on deployment, said he was a driven Soldier. “He’s probably in the top 10 of my Soldiers that I’ve ever had the privilege of working with. Motivated, always wanted to carry the machine gun, the 240B, and could handle it pretty well when the time called for it.” The two bonded over their home state of North Carolina, spending leave time together and becoming good friends. Johnson said he would give Tow advice on what to expect during deployment.
Tow deployed to Afghanistan in 2011. About four months after arriving, his unit headed into the heart of the Taliban’s training sites to clear the area of enemy forces and push them further south.
Tow went into the mission feeling confident, like it was just any other old day. “I knew we’d get in a firefight, but didn’t expect any harm to come upon me or my fellow Soldiers,” he said.
Three hours before sundown, July 18, they came to a village and stopped to set up camp for the night. Tow, a 240 gunner, was performing over watch on top of a building so the others could settle in when they heard shots from 450-500 meters away. He asked permission to fire, but was denied twice, since they were hoping the Afghanistan forces would move on the enemy. They did, but their attack was uncoordinated.
“I kind of got a bad feeling about how this was playing out…seeing them move on them, I didn’t like the way (it was) going. So we decided to go down and follow their tracks to get to the Taliban,” Tow explained. “We called in for air support so we had choppers over top, but by the time the choppers arrived to the destination, the Taliban guys were already gone.”
The enemy had been shooting at them from an abandoned schoolyard, where Tow and his fellow Soldiers began setting up a perimeter. Tow was asked by his lieutenant to fix another Soldier’s range card on the other side of the perimeter. Tow was on his way back to his position and that’s when it happened – he stepped on an improvised explosive device.
“I said ‘Hey, sir,” and I was reaching out my hand to give him the range card, and I didn’t know what happened at first. I just knew there was an explosion. So what was racing through my mind all at one time was, was I shot? Did I step on an IED? Did I get hit by a mortar? There was a million things going on in my head, but it was all in slow motion,” Tow said.
“It shot me up in the air, but as I am in the air, literally I could see all the dust, sand on the ground just come off, probably about six inches off the ground, it was just hovering. Like, it was just standing still,” Tow explained. He could see powder and white mist, and other Soldiers running in slow motion. All the while, he still wondered what had happened to him. Tow landed on his stomach about 15 feet from where he had been standing, and looked up.
“Then at one time, all that smoke and white mist and stuff just came in, just real fast, sshoomp, and then everything sped up so fast I didn’t know how to react.”
Tow was worried someone else in his platoon had been hurt, but also worried his legs were missing. He remembers yelling ‘my legs, my legs!’ until someone told him they were still there, at which point he felt a sense of relief. “And then they picked me up, put me inside of a building, and started working on me,” he said.
Johnson was not there the day his friend was injured–his brother had died stateside and Johnson had gone home to console his family–but when he heard about Tow’s injuries, he tried to get back to Afghanistan as soon as possible. He went to the hospital as soon as he got to Kandahar, but Tow had already been flown out in stable condition.
Tow’s mother was at work the day she heard about his injuries. She received a call at the office and someone told her that her son was on the phone.
“Of course, when they brought me to the phone, I was all smiles, and like ‘Hey!’ and it wasn’t nothing like that…you could barely hear him,” Kim said. There was a nurse on the phone at first, and she notified Kim that her son had been injured. Kim said her heart dropped. The nurse put Tow on the phone but his voice sounded strange because of the medication he had taken.
“He said ‘Well, I did it,’ and I said ‘You did what?’ and he said ‘Mom, I stepped on an IED.’” Kim was in such a state of shock she had to have a coworker take over the conversation because she couldn’t speak. She thought he would be missing parts of his body and didn’t want to hear anymore, afraid of what the nurse might tell her. Kim met him back at the hospital in Kansas, once Tow had been flown over from Germany. Though the first time she saw him it was a shock because he was heavily medicated and had quite a bit of swelling.
Tow had 5 broken bones, shrapnel covering most of the left side of his body, a completely dislocated ankle and a heel broken so badly the fracture went all the way around to the top of his foot. Fortunately, he didn’t lose any limbs or toes, but doctors told him he wouldn’t be able to walk for at least 18 months.
Tow wasn’t able to do much of anything at the beginning of his recovery, which was frustrating. “It was a long process,” Kim said, “the recovering part of it, because he is so much of a go-er.” Tow wanted to hurry up and get back out in the action, she explained. Not being able to do things was unacceptable — he knew his place and that was with his fellow Soldiers.
“It may sound silly, and it may sound stupid to some extent, but that’s where my heart lies, with those guys that deployed.,” Tow said. “And I wanted to still be a part of them, but I knew I had to go through my process as a warrior at the WTB to heal and transition back to the military side of things.”
Tow was so determined to be a part of the action that he was walking after six months. At nine months he was participating in physical training with members of his platoon when they returned from Afghanistan. He had to undergo countless hours of physical therapy, at the WTB and at home, to get all the motion back in his ankle and be able to walk, Tow said. He was also diagnosed with mild traumatic brain injury and stayed at the TBI clinic for about four months before he was cleared to leave.
Warrior in transition
Tow had such a positive experience with the WTB that he decided to stay on to help other Soldiers in their healing process. “I wanted to help them like I was helped,” he said. Tow is a squad leader with the Company B at Fort Riley’s WTB, and a member of the cadre, who are Soldiers and civilians specially trained to help those in transition to heal.
Soldiers are in-processed through the Headquarters and Headquarters Command first, Leona Walker, nurse case manager, said. From there, they are evaluated and a comprehensive treatment plan is initiated with the Soldiers’ input. The Soldiers are assigned a nurse case manager in one of two companies, as well as a primary care manager and squad leader/platoon sergeant, all of whom will address the Soldiers’ needs and provide an environment for healing.
“The goal of the WTB is to help the Soldier to heal and transition back to work, or transition back in to the civilian sector to go to school or work,” Walker said.
Tow, in his position as a squad leader in the cadre, has been specially trained to help Soldiers achieve their goals and is available to the Soldiers he is assigned day and night, Walker explained. Tow has heard some people say that the WTB isn’t particularly helpful, or that the cadre members are “out to get you,” but he doesn’t believe that at all. He does believe that his experiences help him better relate to the Soldiers assigned to him.
“I know most of these guys, 99% of these guys are there for the best interest of each Soldier, even though all the Soldiers might not want to believe it, but it’s the God’s honest truth,” he explained. Everyone wants to see the Soldiers heal and either transition into civilian life or get back into the military
“Not just anyone can do this job,” Walker said. “It takes people who truly care and are dedicated to the mission to help the Soldier in transition heal.”
Tow believes it takes a strong personality to do this job. Some Soldiers, though physically tough, are not mentally tough and may need more reassurance than others.
“You’ve got to be there 24/7 for these Soldiers,” Tow said. “They call you at midnight, 2 o’clock, 3 o’clock in the morning; you never know when they might call you. They need that person to call, and you’re going to have to step up to the plate and be there for them.”
Once a Soldier has reached his goal or has completely healed, the transition to civilian life or back to duty begins, Walker said. If the Soldier decides to rejoin the military, he will have to go through a medical board. Legal services are also provided for the Soldier, should he need it.
“During the whole evaluation and treatment process, the Soldier is given the opportunity to work (and) take classes to prepare them for returning to duty or transitioning out of the Army and working in the civilian sector,” Walker added.
Planning for the future
In the process of helping others heal, Tow has discovered that it helps him as well. He has some post-traumatic stress and just sitting down and swapping candid stories with other Soldiers about their struggles helps him continue to heal.
“It lets me speak my mind and share with them what happened to me so they feel comfortable sharing their injuries with me or what happened to them overseas,” he said.
Kim is extremely proud of her son and his work as a cadre member. Before he joined the Army, he wasn’t very independent or confident. Kim believes his lack of confidence may have stemmed from a long recovery period after a childhood injury. At 8 years old, Tow was struck by a drunk driver and had to undergo brain surgery. Tow had to learn to walk and how to do everyday things all over again. It took 8 years for him to fully recover. Kim believes the Army gave him confidence and “made him a man.”
“It’s just amazing to me how he has survived two tragic, tragic ordeals and this is where he ends up; counseling and helping other people. In a million years I never, ever would have thought he would be able to do that,” she said.
Tow hopes to join the Special Forces or Rangers in the near future, his injuries permitting. He credits the people at the WTB for his continuing recovery, citing their support and the opportunities to go to school to progress in his Army career.
“Every time I talk to him he wants to return … to (being) 11 Bravo or something along those lines,” Johnson said. “He just has high dreams, and I’m like, go for it, man. I mean, if you can do it, go for it,” he added.
“I’ve had a great experience with the WTB,” Tow said. “I’m ready to continue my military career … .”