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Entrusted with military's well-being

Every day, the Army fights battles you don't see: to save lives, to keep a sprawling bureaucracy running smoothly, to heal soldiers' shattered psyches.

Those are the battles that Sgt. Maj. Robert D. Wojtaszczyk wages day in and day out in an office in the Washington suburbs, in military hospitals around the world and in phone calls with the woman he married.

Nicknamed "Whiskey" years ago by a supervisor who likened his once-feisty demeanor to "the way whiskey makes you feel in the morning," the former Eden Central High School football star joined the Army 25 years ago -- on Sept. 11, 1984.

Now "Sgt. Maj. Whiskey" is, at 43, the senior enlisted adviser in the military health care system. He's the soldiers' advocate in a worldwide medical system with 9.5 million patients, including his ex-wife.

And if you ask his boss, the fast-talking, mustachioed soldier back from Bosnia and Iraq has already made a big difference in four months in his new job.

"What an amazing guy," said Rear Adm. Christine S. Hunter, deputy director of TRICARE, the military medical system. "He does so much to keep us mindful of the fact that there are 9.5 million people relying on TRICARE for some or all of their medical care. His passion and dedication are phenomenal."

Wojtaszczyk has found fellow noncommissioned officers to be the eyes and ears of service members at several regional health centers, filling positions that had long gone neglected, Hunter said.

And he's giving service members a charismatic voice in the rooms where military planners in Washington work to improve a medical system battered by reports of ghastly conditions in Walter Reed Army Medical Center in 2007.

"I'm the cheerleader, the drumbeater" on behalf of enlisted men and women and their families, Wojtaszczyk said. "I'm also the person who kind of keeps it straight."

> An unexpected career

Wojtaszczyk came to this place, in a way, by accident.

He wanted to get a college football scholarship, but a broken leg in a high school football game ended that dream.

So the adopted son of Andy and Helen Wojtaszczyk of North Boston then took his mother's advice and followed his father's footsteps into the Army.

Wojtaszczyk thought that it would be a good way for him to earn money for college. He didn't envision that he would rise through the ranks to one of the Army's top enlisted posts.

Yet that's just what has happened, because when Wojtaszczyk joined the Army, he fell in love with it.

"I think the U.S. military is the most incredible organization in the world," he said. "There's no organization in the world that takes care of its people the way we do."

Hoping to be a chemical engineer, he entered the Army as a chemical lab specialist. Over the years, though, in a career that has carried him from bases in Maryland and Texas to Honduras, Bosnia and Iraq, he morphed into a medical specialist. He earned that college degree while serving in the Army, but he decided against applying to become an officer just because he likes staying close to the ground and close to the troops.

"I love being a field troop," Wojtaszczyk said.

In doing so, he has had to face two of the greatest challenges the Army has faced in decades: the Iraq War and the military medical system's struggle to keep pace with it.

Overseeing a medical unit and then a dental unit in Iraq in 2004 and 2005, Wojtaszczyk found himself confronting a war that was supposed to have ended more than a year earlier. Like countless other soldiers, he had to improvise, doing duty on the guard towers for that medical unit and surviving an ambush as he led that dental company into Iraq.

"I got to see those doctors perform miracles on a regular basis," he said.

And in the process, a change came over Wojtaszczyk. His ex-wife, Jennifer, said that before Iraq, the word that described him was "driven." But afterward, she said, the word to describe him became "vision."

Wojtaszczyk offered a twofold explanation.

"We did this war thing. Great, we kicked Iraq's butt. But there's a lot more to it than that. To have that reality kind of slap me in the face, . . . I don't know how anybody in that situation would not be changed," he said.

> 'Peace in my life'

Struck by the constancy and professionalism of his Army colleagues in the toughest of times -- their grace under fire -- Wojtaszczyk also reconnected with his faith.

"I came to peace in my life," he said. "This allowed me to be more at ease in all I do. I simply do not believe for one instant that I would be where I am today without this incredible peace that God has bestowed upon me."

That faith has come in handy as he has coped with the trauma experienced by both the Army and the woman he loved.

In 2007, the Washington Post revealed appalling conditions at Walter Reed. And that set everyone involved in Army medicine, including Wojtaszczyk, on a search for new ways to improve a military medical system that had not faced so many casualties in decades.

Wojtaszczyk said that for him and his colleagues, the controversy was a rallying cry.

"Time to tighten up the boot laces. Let's move this thing in the direction it needs to go," he said.

And now, he said, he's confident that the Army has done just that. "You can go visit our wounded warriors today, and you will see the incredible progress we've made in taking care of those troops and their families," he said.

In the military, he stressed, "the families serve, too."

That's particularly true for Wojtaszczyk, who has been married twice, both times to women in the Army. In fact, that supervisor who nicknamed him "Whiskey" did so because he felt that it would be too confusing to have two Sgt. Wojtaszczyks in the unit.

The father of three children from his first marriage, Wojtaszczyk acknowledged that military life can be hard on families. And it has been especially hard on his second wife.

He met Jennifer Butcher when they served at the same post in the Army in the 1990s. After an "incredible love affair" in the early part of this decade, they hopped on their motorcycles and drove from their base in Texas to a beach in Mexico to get married in 2002.

But after that, Jennifer said, the couple could never get stationed together. Then Wojtaszczyk left for Iraq, and when he returned, Jennifer got sent there herself.

Over time, those separations "became a little too much for us to overcome," Jennifer said.

> Post-traumatic stress

The couple divorced late last year after Jennifer returned to the United States facing an even bigger challenge: post-traumatic stress disorder, the living nightmare she carried with her after all the horrors she witnessed in Iraq.

Now an Army captain on medical leave, she's being treated by military doctors in Kansas. But she said that some of the best care she receives is from the Army medical adviser she still loves.

"I will love that man till the day I die," she said. "Whenever I had my really bad days, Whiskey is the one I called. He was my rock. I probably wouldn't have made it without him."

Wojtaszczyk credits his faith in God, and in the Army medical system, with his belief that Jennifer's best days lie ahead.

"This is an amazing person who is now facing incredible challenges, but through her treatment plan, she will recover," he said. "She will be a better person in the end. Why wouldn't everybody want that for themselves?"

In other words, Wojtaszczyk is approaching his ex-wife's struggles with the same philosophy with which he approaches military matters.

"Where other people see problems," he said, "I see opportunity."

e-mail: jzremski@buffnews.com

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