By Donna Miles, American Forces Press ServiceJuly 1, 2009
LANDSTUHL, Germany - Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates visited Landstuhl Regional Medical Center here on June 30, meeting with wounded warriors and the staff that treats them and touring a new USO facility that's providing them a better quality of life as they heal.
Gates paid a call to the largest U.S. military hospital outside the United States after presiding at change-of-command ceremonies at the U.S. European Command headquarters in Stuttgart.
The secretary toured the center's intensive care unit and the USO Warrior Center that opened in November, and he met with patients wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. The patients represented about a 50-50 split between the two combat zones, reflecting what the staff here calls a trend as battle injuries drop in Iraq but increase in Afghanistan.
Air Force Lt. Col. Raymond Funk, deputy trauma director at Landstuhl, called the fact that many of these patients survived their injuries to be flown here for advanced care a testament to the military medical care system.
Gates has been a champion of improving wounded warrior care at every level from the point of injury. He ordered more field hospitals and medevac helicopters to Afghanistan this spring after learning that many troops there were too far from advanced-level treatment facilities to be treated within 60 minutes - the so-called "golden hour" after being wounded.
Gates told reporters traveling with him yesterday that he has his staff tracking "every single medevac" flight, and that he believes the additional medical assets are making a difference.
"Now, we're down to about 68 minutes" in average medevac time in Afghanistan, he said. But there's still a disparity in the response times - sometimes as little as 20 minutes, sometimes an hour and a half. "I want to equalize that," he said.
In addition to providing more assets, Gates said, he wants to cut through the administrative hurdles required to launch a medevac mission in the first place. "We want to try to get them to the point where they launch the helicopter even if they don't have the full chain of approvals," he said.
As he visited Landstuhl yesterday, the secretary met some of the servicemembers who have benefitted directly from the additional battlefield medical capabilities he ordered and his overall emphasis on wounded warrior care. Army Sgt. 1st Class Jeffrey Lawrence, platoon sergeant at the Medical Transient Detachment, said he was delighted to see the way the secretary interacted with his troops being treated for "anything from mental health issues to gunshot wounds and everything in-between."
"He's in there with about 55 people, talking to each one and shaking their hands," Lawrence said as he stood outside the new USO center. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Their faces light up, and it makes their day."
Lawrence called working with wounded troops at Landstuhl the most rewarding job he's had in his Army career.
"The patients we take care of here are very deserving," agreed Funk, who has served at Landstuhl since 2004 and keeps asking to extend his duty here. "Everyone who comes here has been doing something for their country."
After Gates' visit, as he lifted off from Ramstein Air Base bound for Washington, he had two of Landstuhl's patients in tow, headed for military treatment facilities in Washington.
Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Tracy Morton and Army Spc. Anthony Martinez represent the large percentage of Landstuhl's patients who come to the facility with non-combat-related injuries.
Morton, a Navy corpsman who spent nine months at Forward Operating Base Sharana in Afghanistan's Patika province, was headed to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., to be treated for complications following appendicitis surgery.
Martinez is a Fort Drum, N.Y.-based UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter crew chief who spent the past eight months ferrying troops around Iraq. That all came to a screeching halt when he woke up one day - May 4 to be exact - with vertigo, then developed Bell's palsy, a facial paralysis that caused the side of his face to droop. Yesterday he sat alongside Morton in Gates' C-32 aircraft, bound for Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington for additional testing.
Both Morton and Martinez had experienced the full range of combat medicine the military provides deployed combat troops.
Morton, 42, first went to sick call at his forward operating base's Army hospital, where he got first-level care from a forward surgical team that had just arrived. From there, he was taken to Bagram Airfield for surgery.
The plan was to return him back to Sharana after recovery, but Morton began developing blood clots, gall bladder problems and an embolism.
Because troops taking blood thinners aren't permitted to serve in the combat theater - a precaution to safeguard against excessive blood loss in the event of an injury - Morton was again flown to Landstuhl. He spent two days in a ward, then to make room for other inbound troops, two additional days in an outpatient status while undergoing tests. From there, he was set to be transferred to Bethesda for higher-level care.
Martinez, got his initial evaluation by a doctor assigned to Contingency Operating Base Speicher. The 22-year-old 10th Mountain Division soldier was then sent to a combat surgical hospital, where he was diagnosed with vertigo.
He recalled the frustration of being taken off flight status and assigned to office duties as he waited for the symptoms to subside before the Bell's palsy set in. He paid daily visits to the doctor's office, getting evaluated by a neurologist at Balad Air Base who consulted closely with neurologists at Walter Reed.
From there, Martinez was flown to Landstuhl, a stopover on his way to Walter Reed for an MRI and other care.
Neither Morton nor Martinez knows exactly how long they'll be at the capital region medical centers, and both expressed regret that they've left their units behind in the combat zone. They also had nothing but praise for the medical care they've received every step of the way.
"I've been taken care of very well," Martinez said. "Everything has been there for me. They've been awesome."
Morton said his medical issues gave him the chance to experience firsthand the range of care patients he treats receive once they're evacuated from the point of injury.
"We would ship people off and not every really know what would happen to them," he said. But after his experience at Landstuhl, Morton said, he's a believer in the military medical system.
"The people here are really mission-oriented with the wounded warriors," he said. "To see how they handled wounded warriors at Landstuhl was mindboggling. It was obvious that their mission was to take care of us - at any cost."