By Staff Sgt. Christina M. O'ConnellMarch 21, 2007
WASHINGTON (Army News Service, March 21, 2007) - More than 5,600 Soldiers from operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom have received world-class in-patient treatment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., but many have had a different experience with outpatient care.
In early March media attention brought to light several medical facilities and processes that were in need of immediate improvement, grabbing the attention of top Army officials and the rest of the nation.
Charged by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates with making immediate and long-term corrections to the leadership and systemic failures in the disability system, Acting Secretary of the Army Pete Geren has taken significant steps to bridge the gap between what the Army's wounded Soldiers deserve and what some have experienced at Walter Reed.
The two main issues recognized as unacceptable by top Army officials are the conditions of the outpatient barracks, Building 18, and the lengthy, bureaucratic process of evaluating Soldiers' disabilities. Both issues are in need of short-term fixes, but, more importantly, also require long-term corrections.
Following the March disclosures, all Soldiers living in Building 18 were moved onto the WRAMC campus and into Abrams Barracks, where each room provides Soldiers with a computer, telephone, television and Internet access. Immediate responses also involved a new leadership chain of command at WRAMC under Maj. Gen. Eric Schoomaker, and included new positions created specifically to ensure Soldiers' needs are met.
As Schoomaker took command March 2, a deputy commanding general position was created and filled by combat veteran Brig. Gen. Michael S. Tucker, whose mission is to work on behalf of the Soldiers as the "bureaucracy buster" and ensure the outpatient system is responsive to their needs.
"We've found that in many cases this bureaucracy that's grown over the decades frustrates the very best efforts of the most dedicated public servants," said Geren. "We've got Soldiers who are fighting a war overseas, and come back and battle a bureaucracy over here. It shouldn't be that way."
The new leadership team also extends to the Wounded Warrior Brigade, commanded by Col. Terrance McKendrick, created for the purpose of tracking Soldiers and ensuring each is taken care of. The squad leaders assigned to every nine Soldiers will look after those Soldiers, and make sure they are making appointments and getting needed care.
A One Stop Soldier and Family Assistance Center will ensure quick and easy access to case managers, family coordinators, finance experts and representatives from key support and advocacy organizations such as the Army Wounded Warrior Program.
Two separate expert teams have been handpicked to assess major Army medical facilities' outpatient care and community-based health-care organizations for reserve-component Soldiers, an assessment that Geren says will help identify the problems that need to be corrected throughout the system.
Long-term improvements rely heavily on the new leadership team and structure, but the Wounded Soldier and Family Hotline (800-984-8523) has been established to keep problems from slipping through the cracks. The hotline allows Soldiers and their families to directly contact the Army Operation Center and inform Army leaders of issues that need attention.
"This goes right to the heart of our commitment to Soldiers and their families," said Geren. "They've got to know that we're going to take care of them. The American people need to know we're going to take care of them so they'll continue to have confidence in the Army, the confidence the Army deserves. And this is an important piece of it, so this will remain the primary focus for me as long as I have this job."
(Staff Sgt. Christina M. O'Connell is the photojournalist for Acting Secretary of the Army Pete Geren, and is assigned to the Office of the Chief of Public Affairs at the Pentagon.)