RALEIGH, N.C. -- Before Soldiers separate from the Army, they should ensure they have complete copies of their medical records, including documentation of any illnesses or injuries they suffered while serving, said Joseph P. Edger.

Edger, who retired from the Army as a lieutenant colonel, now serves as the acting director of Durham Veterans Affairs Health Care System, which covers a large portion of eastern North Carolina.

Failure to secure that documentation, Edger said, can make it difficult or impossible to later on submit a medical claim for those service-related injuries. No matter how insignificant an injury or illness seems, Edger said, it should be documented, and Soldiers should keep copies of those records with them as they move into their post-Army careers.

Edger said before he retired from the Army, he spent an entire week combing through his own medical records to ensure everything was in order and that he had copies of everything. His torn ACL was documented, for instance. And he said he even made sure that the several bouts of poison ivy he suffered while on field exercises were also documented.

"You can't assume that everything has been correctly documented," Edger said, indicating that it's ultimately the Soldier's responsibility to ensure their medical records thoroughly reflect their medical history while they were in uniform.

Even more so, Edgar said, Soldiers shouldn't overlook some injuries or wounds as being too insignificant to record. Everything ought to be documented, he said.

"Soldiers, on deployments in particular, get bumps and bruises and treatment for them, thinking nothing of it," Edgar said. "A young Soldier thinks he's invincible, but as he or she grows older, that invincibility dissipates. The body gets sore. Some things tear, others break."

While Edgar said Solders should keep on top of their own medical records to ensure they are up to date, he also said both the Army and the VA are today making it easier than ever to ensure they are accurate.

The Army has already made the transition to electronic medical records, he said. And the VA is in the process of transitioning to the same electronic platform used by the Army and the other services. Edger said it will take at least several years for the process to conclude, but once it does, that should improve the ease of record handoff between the military and VA, he said.

VA OFFERS QUALITY CARE

When the Army does hand off a Soldier's medical record to the VA, Edgar said, Soldiers can be assured they are being passed to a top-notch medical care agency. The VA offers world-class care that is comparable to or better than care anywhere else, Edger said.

In fact, the VA is the largest, most integrated health care system in the world, he said. There are 9.05 million veterans enrolled in the system and 4.55 million are receiving VA disability compensation.

Edger said that one of the little-known reasons why VA care is world-class is that half a century or so ago, founders of VA hospitals that are now spread across the U.S. chose to try and locate these hospitals near major medical campuses in order to better share techniques, technologies and medical personnel.

For example, the Malcom Randal VA Medical Center in Gainesville, Florida, is situated next to the University of Florida College of Medicine. The Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center in Richmond, Virginia, is beside the Virginia Commonwealth School of Medicine. The Boston VA Health Care System is affiliated with Harvard Medical School, and San Francisco VA Health Care System is affiliated with the University of California, San Francisco, he said.

His own Durham VA Medical Center is situated across the street from Duke University School of Medicine, he said.

The Duke Health Care system, he noted, has been in the top five systems in the nation for having the best surgeon and doctors. About 80 percent of Durham VA Medical Center providers are classified as dual providers, meaning they work at Duke on some days and then cross the street to work at the VA on other days.

That cross-pollination of sharing medical ideas is key to having the best of the best, he said.

The Durham VA Medical Center was the first medical center in the region to perform cardiac catheterization and stent placement using the radial artery in the wrist versus the traditional route of the femoral artery in the groin.

Edger said he the Durham VA Medical Center has also been a national leader in treating Hepatitis C, with a cure rate of 97 percent.