By Mr. Jerry Harben (Army Medicine)April 13, 2009
When wounded, ill or injured Soldiers are tied up in red tape and frustrated by bureaucracy, an ombudsman may be just what the doctor ordered.
An ombudsman is defined as someone who investigates complaints and mediates fair settlements. At Army hospitals, ombudsmen are that and much more - sources of information, liaisons, counselors, perhaps even guardian angels.
The Army's ombudsmen program was established in April 2007 to help wounded warriors and their Families with complex issues such as health care, pay, physical disability processing, Reserve Component medical retention and transition to care by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
Less than two years later, 56 ombudsmen are working at 31 locations, and have helped 13,000 Soldiers deal with such issues.
One example - a Soldier with medical and mental-health issues faced discharge from the Army. After the ombudsman coordinated with the Soldier's case manager, chain of command, judge advocate and health-care provider, a medical evaluation determined the Soldier needed a medical evaluation board, a profile and transfer to a Warrior Transition Unit. As a result of the ombudsman's intervention, the discharge was stopped and the Soldier received needed medical attention.
Another example - a Soldier's mother reported that the Soldier was placed on convalescent leave following evacuation from Iraq. The Soldier needed orthopedic evaluation, but could not be seen for three weeks. The ombudsman intervened and an appointment was scheduled the next day. The Soldier was to undergo surgery in six weeks, but the ombudsman again intervened and surgery was rescheduled the next week. The ombudsman followed this Soldier for nine months, helping with referral issues, profile issues and appointments.
Medical Command brought ombudsmen from hospitals across the country together for a training symposium in San Antonio, Texas, April 6-10.
"It's a good way to confer with colleagues and share case experience," said Yvette Bennett, ombudsman at Fort Jackson, S.C. "We have to be aware of the new things going on."
The symposium covered topics ranging from legal issues to stress management.
"We've been given a tremendous amount of information, such as updates on policies and procedures, and points of contact," said Michelle Lantz, ombudsman at Fort Polk, La.
Almost all of the ombudsmen are retired Army noncommissioned officers who know where to go and who to talk to in order to get action on Soldiers' concerns. Bennett is a retired first sergeant who spent 21 years as an Army medic. Ron Warrick, ombudsman at Fort Campbell, Ky., is a retired command sergeant major who also has worked for the VA and Disabled American Veterans.
"Having a background of experience is helpful in doing this job. If I don't know the answer, I know where to get it," Warrick said.
Lantz is married to a retired first sergeant, and has worked for Army Community Service and as coordinator of the Army Family Action Plan. She said the symposium helped her appreciate the concern Army leaders have for wounded warriors.
"We really do have the ear of distinguished leaders. They are really interested in learning what's going on with Soldiers," she said.
The ombudsmen agreed that the most important skill needed in their jobs is the ability to listen and communicate.
"You have to hear what they have to say, a lot of times they don't know how to say it," Warrick commented.
"Over the past twenty-four months, the ombudsman program has grown from the initial 30 contract personnel to nearly 60 at 31 locations worldwide," said Lt. Col. Kenneth Ross, chief of the Medical Assistance Group at MEDCOM Headquarters. "During the five-day conference we commemorated 13,000 cases resolved for Soldiers and Family members. That is a testament to the dedication of these ombudsmen and their commitment to helping Soldiers and their Families."