As August comes to an end, Col. Deydre Teyhen and Command Sgt. Maj. Natasha Santiago look to close the book on their time as the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research’s commander and command sergeant major.
Leading the DOD’s largest biomedical research laboratory, they presided over a changing institution that works to ensure relevant, fieldable infectious disease and brain health solutions for the Warfighter during Multi-Domain Operations; more recently, they oversaw WRAIR’s participation in the whole-of-government coronavirus response. Together, their command philosophy embodied “People First,” emphasizing empowering staff to lead from where they are.
“It’s been a unique honor to serve as the 46th commander of WRAIR—and, with Command Sgt. Maj. Santiago, as the first female command team in the institute’s 127-year history,” said Teyhen.
Leading an organization of 2,700 Soldiers, civilians and contractors spread across 26 locations on four continents has unique challenges—even before the COVID-19 pandemic required physical distancing and maximum telework for non-essential personnel.
To ensure medical countermeasures to protect Soldiers from the diseases that occur in the locations they deploy, nearly half of WRAIR’s workforce is located overseas. During their tour, Teyhen and Santiago traveled extensively throughout Southeast Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and the Republic of Georgia to visit WRAIR laboratories—both to ensure a strong command presence and support for overseas staff, but also to maintain and expand relationships with joint, interagency, intergovernmental and multinational partners.
“WRAIR’s historic success is built upon our international partnerships based on decades of medical diplomacy; as Soldier health is often tied with world health,” said Teyhen.
Supporting the guidance of General James McConville, U.S. Army Chief of Staff, Teyhen and Santiago led by putting people first. Emphasizing dignity, empowerment and respect in their command philosophy, their tenure marked a 10 percent improvement in unit morale, 14 percent increase in feelings of respect and a 50 percent decrease in feelings of discrimination per Command Climate Surveys.
“We’re proud to continue the work of previous leaders and it is great to see improvements in respect and morale—ultimately, we are chasing zero; we want 100 percent of our team members feeling that they are treated with dignity and respect. But a 50 percent improvement is great progress—the strength of any organization is its people,” said Santiago, who relinquished responsibility on June 29th.
Other initiatives, like new efforts to improve internal dialogues or re-invigorate award mechanisms that had fallen out of use, sought to recognize and elevate new voices—particularly important as WRAIR welcomed staff from the recently deactivated U.S. Army Center for Environmental Health Research.
The focus on “People First” had tangible benefits for the research mission. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, WRAIR dove headfirst into efforts to prevent, detect and treat SARS-CoV-2 with 22 research proposals and nearly $75 million dollars in funded projects. “Fighting infectious diseases, like COVID-19, is why we exist and the team was ready to respond at the velocity of relevance because of our command emphasis on putting people first,” said Teyhen.
These efforts include developing a coronavirus vaccine candidate, currently scheduled to begin Phase 1 clinical trials in the fall; utilizing artificial intelligence and high-throughput testing to identify new COVID-19 treatments; working closely with military medical treatment facilities to advance new diagnostics tests; screening more than 20,000 Soldiers for pandemic-related behavioral health concerns and studying the relationship between sleep and the immune system.
“Investments in recruiting, training and empowering our workforce paid off; as early as January, our researchers began designing a SARS-CoV-2 vaccine and as the pandemic rose in intensity, our brain and behavioral health researchers began developing products to help Soldiers, families and leaders manage cognitive stress—not to mention our support staff who work around the clock to provide the tools our scientists needed,” said Teyhen.
Yet, a rapid pivot and ongoing response to COVID-19 is not the only point of pride from the tenure of Teyhen and Santiago. As the future battle space shifts, research efforts needed to change as well. Their command emphasis on relevant and aligned research allowed the institute to pivot to product development mindset focused on the unique needs of MDO, where access to medical evacuation and resupply are severely limited.
Three products that were developed or tested by WRAIR received FDA licensure—tafenoquine, a drug to prevent and cure malaria; intravenous artesunate, a drug to cure severe malaria and Ervebo, a vaccine for Ebola’s Zaire strain—bolstering access to fire-and-forget preventives and effective treatments against infectious disease.
In a clinical application, a WRAIR-developed “cocktail of bacteriophages”, viruses that target specific strains of bacteria, were used to save the life of a patient with a multidrug-resistant bacterial infection. MDR infections of combat wounds are forecasted to be one of the most pressing threats of MDO as casualties are forced to remain in the field longer and make use of antibiotics made increasingly ineffective due to resistance—bacteriophage therapy could be one way of overcoming this danger.
WRAIR, in partnership with the Israel Defense Forces, developed and began the implementation of iCOVER, a six step, peer-to-peer process for the Warfighter to mitigate acute stress reactions. iCOVER eliminates the need for technology to aid someone experiencing this stress.
Work also continued to overcome the negative performance impact of sleep loss—including the development of a fieldable fatigue management tool and a new mobile app, which provides individualized recommendations for when to sleep and take caffeine for optimal performance.
Innovating in the field of traumatic brain injury, WRAIR has advanced several strategies including identifying new biomarkers to enable TBI diagnosis in the field without the need for extensive medical equipment, and new drugs and drug delivery systems, like biodegradable hydrogels, to help protect the injured brain following severe open-head or penetrating TBI before evacuation.
Santiago is heading to Fort Gordon, Ga., to serve as the command sergeant major for Eisenhower Army Medical Center. CSM Rodmond Churchill will be arriving this fall as the incoming command sergeant major. On August 28th, Teyhen will change command with Col. Clint Murray, formerly the U.S. Forces Korea surgeon; Teyhen is the inbound director of the Military Health System Governance for the U.S. Army Office of the Surgeon General.