By Steven Donald Smith
BETHESDA, Md., Aug. 31, 2006 – Officials from the Defense Department and military services got together here yesterday for the first "From Deployment to Employment" conference to discuss ways to better serve America's severely injured servicemembers.
The daylong conference was essentially a forum to exchange ideas about how to improve the quality of military health care and help coordinate various programs and services aimed at helping severely wounded troops return to the work force.
"This forum will focus on services available to facilitate and encourage reemployment of our returning wounded servicemembers," Dr. William Winkenwerder, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, said. DoD's Computer/Electronic Accommodations Program hosted the conference. CAP provides "needs assessment and training" to wounded servicemembers during their transition back to employment, whether it is in the military, government or the private sector.
"CAP uses science and technology to improve the health and the lifestyles of our servicemembers," Winkenwerder said. He said DoD has been working with other federal agencies, such as the Labor and Veterans Affairs departments. "We have to cut through all that usual red tape and get to helping the person, helping the family," he said.
Winkenwerder said the military health-care system is embarked on a major transformation effort. "What gave us the greatest impetus to begin transformation, at least in my judgment, was 9/11," he said. "We understood soon after, if not that day, that we were in an entirely new world and that we had to approach everything differently."
Military medicine, like the military as a whole, needed to become more nimble and agile in order to keep up with the challenges of the war on terror, he said. "To adequately support this mission within a transformed military we must create and sustain a high performance health-care system that promotes the highest quality care while being both efficient and effective," he said. Yesterday's forum included a panel discussion of wounded troops who spoke about their recovery experience.
Among them was Army Captain Scott Smiley, who lost sight in both eyes in April 2005 when a suicide car bomber struck his unit in Mosul, Iraq. Smiley called the medical care he received at Walter Reed Army Medical Center top notch, but he said he had a few issues with some of the procedures. For instance, while he was in the early stages of his recovery, a doctor asked Smiley's wife to sign his retirement papers. Smiley said he had just begun his recovery process and it was too soon for him to be forced to make a decision about his future in the military.
"I believe a soldier who is physically incapable of doing any job in the Army should be retired," he said. "But that soldier needs to be given the time to recover from his medical disabilities first." In December 2004, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld instituted a policy that allows injured troops to stay on active duty and do work within their capabilities. This applies to active-duty and reserve troops wounded on active duty.
"It's tough when you've been to war and been wounded on behalf of your country and you sometimes feel that the system is just not coordinated," Army Maj. Gen. Elder Granger, deputy director of the Tricare Management Activity, said while moderating the panel discussion. "At the end of the day, we're all trying to do good, but how do we consolidate that good? We need to come away from here with recommendations about how we can close the gap without allowing anyone to fall through the cracks.
"We've got to come up with an integrated system so that we all communicate the same message and sing off the same sheet of music," Granger continued. "I see it basically like running a race where you're passing off the baton. You can't allow it to drop. That's the bottom line." The conference also included several workshops, including one called "Military Support Program: Who Can I Call?" that brought together the directors of the military services injury support programs. The programs include the Army's Wounded Warrior Program, the Navy's Safe Harbor program, the Marine For Life Injured Support program and the Air Force's Palace HART program.
Also on hand for this workshop was the director of DoD's Military Severely Injured Center, Navy Cmdr. Dave Julian, who stressed that MSIC was launched in February 2005 as a way to enhance the services' programs, not replace them. "The Military Severely Injured Center was designed to be the augmenting force, a backstop if you will, to help provide resources to the services as necessary," Julian said.
The Military Severely Injured Center can be reached 24 hours a day by telephone at 888-774-1361.