Warrior Care: Army Surgeon General Discusses Progress

Tags: HeroStories

By Navy Lt. Jennifer Cragg

Special to American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Nov. 18, 2008 – With the Defense Department’s observance of Warrior Care Month as a backdrop, the Army’s top medical officer reflected on some of the warriors he has met and the lessons of courage and strength he has gained from them while serving as commander of Walter Reed Army Medical Center here and later as Army surgeon general and commander of Army Medical Command.

“I always remember some of the soldiers that were among those who came to me when I took command of Walter Reed about 18 months ago, in some of our darkest moments of this,” Lt. Gen. (Dr.) Eric B. Schoomaker said in a Nov. 13 interview on the “Dot Mil Docs” program on BlogTalkRadio.com.

Schoomaker recalled a roadside-bomb victim from Mississippi who was cared for at the point of injury in Iraq and later received care at Walter Reed after first stopping at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. “At the time he was discharged … to our outpatient facility,” Schoomaker said, “he really didn’t have family available.”

The soldier, he said, essentially was alone at Walter Reed and had problems navigating the campus and making appointments.

“I remember my command sergeant major and I sitting and talking to him at length,” Schoomaker said. “He was a great soldier and had a compelling story for us. We had to admit that we had failed to provide all of those safety nets that he needed.”

Schoomaker said he and other leaders took these and other lessons learned, and as a result, the Army has radically transformed the way it structures and provides health care to wounded soldiers.

“We have stood up enormous efforts within the entire Department of Defense, and starting with the Army, to improve upon that process, and that is what Warrior Care Month is about,” he said. “This effort is really aimed around the entire continuum of care for our wounded, ill and injured soldiers. It includes the recovery phase, the acute recovery from the acute injury or illness into rehabilitation, and finally reintegration either back into uniform or … citizenship, sometimes with a new job or new focus.”

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates designated November as Warrior Care Month to highlight the Defense Department’s commitment to providing the highest quality of care to servicemembers and their families, Schoomaker noted.

“I think it is very appropriate that he has chosen a month that begins with Veterans Day and allows us to focus on the contributions of our great soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen and their families,” he said.

Some of the initiatives the Army has created to assist warriors and their families in the last 18 months include the launching of Warrior Transition Units, which have dramatically changed how the Army cares for its injured, ill and wounded soldiers.

The Army’s 36 WTUs, composed of active and reserve component soldiers, ensure equal treatment for all, the general said. Nine community-based warrior transition units enable Army Reserve and Army National Guard soldiers to heal at locations nearer to their homes.

“We recognize very readily that our soldiers and our families really have earned through their oath of duty to this country and defending the nation, the very best in care and counseling, vocational rehabilitation and training if necessary, and then transition back into new jobs within the Army or in civilian life,” Schoomaker said.

More than 11,000 wounded soldiers are in WTUs, including about 34 percent coming from the combat theater. In the months before July 2008, Schoomaker said, WTUs were growing by about 925 soldiers per month. WTUs out-processed an average of 630 soldiers per month during that same period, with more than 47 percent of those soldiers returning to duty.

“We have learned over the last 18 months since we stood up the warrior transition units that soldiers and their families want some predictability, and we want to manage the expectations with them of where they are headed with their rehabilitation and their transition,” Schoomaker said. “We find that when we can create this tailored and comprehensive transition plan for the family and the soldier to help them with the future and reorienting their efforts, we get the best outcomes for the soldiers and their families.”

Other resources for injured, ill or wounded soldiers include the Soldier Family Assistance Center, which provides education, re-training, housing, and financial assistance, and the Army Wounded Warrior program, which serves those who are expected to need lifelong support. Also, some active-duty soldiers are being treated in Department of Veterans Affairs polytrauma centers rather than Army medical centers. These centers are world-class treatment centers for issues such as traumatic brain injuries, amputation and burns.

(Navy Lt. Jennifer Cragg serves in the New Media directorate of the Defense Media Activit