WASHINGTON (March 29, 2012) -- Even in this "belt-tightening era," Defense Department officials remain committed to sustaining efforts that have led to groundbreaking medical advances in areas such as post-traumatic stress disorder, the Pentagon's top health affairs official told an audience of behavioral health experts and military leaders here today.

"The leadership of the military health system, to include the surgeons general of the Army, Navy and Air Force have been steadfast that the core mission of medical readiness responsibilities cannot and will not be compromised," said Dr. Jonathan Woodson, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs and director of the TRICARE Management Activity.

This includes the Pentagon's investment in medical research and development and in the nature of resilience, he added.

Woodson spoke at the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury's Warrior Resilience Conference, which is intended to provide service members, units, families and communities with resilience-building techniques and tools.

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey have made it clear that the department will do its part in the reduction and growth of federal spending, Woodson said, and the health budget is not exempt.

Defense health programs encompass more than $53 billion of DOD's base budget of $525 billion, the doctor noted. "We really now are at 10 percent of the DOD's budget," he said. "We need to make sure those dollars spent are adding value to national defense and to the department."

Woodson warned against the impact of a possible "sequestration." Unless Congress agrees on an alternative by January, this provision of the Budget Control Act would trigger an additional $500 billion in across-the-board defense spending cuts over the next 10 years, which Woodson described as a "meat-ax" approach to cutting costs and programs. "We cannot let that happen, and we're not going to let that happen," he said.

Woodson said he's committed to protecting medical research and development programs, which have made great contributions to medical science. "It's easy in the short term, but painful in the long term to cut research and development budgets," he said. Instead, he explained, DOD needs to put in place a more "agile" structure that identifies best practices across the services and enables rapid information sharing.

This will save money that can be applied to programs such as research and development, he added.

But just having a program isn't enough, Woodson said. It must be effective and easily accessible. Nearly 400 programs designed to aid troops and their families are in place, he said, but there's a lack of metrics to gauge their effectiveness.

"My greatest fear with the meat-ax approach is they'll cut programs that are truly beneficial … because we don't have a method of analysis that's robust," he said.

Woodson reiterated his commitment to ensuring troops and their families receive the best care possible. "I personally believe we are heading in the right direction on these organizational budgetary decisions," he said. "We will continue to provide exceptional service to all of those we serve."

The resources put forth to better understand how to prevent and treat psychological wounds are vital to service members and their families, who have been challenged as never before, and vital to long-term national security interests, Woodson said. Nearly 11 years of war have "exacted a toll on service members and their families," he said.

Woodson stressed the importance of leadership and communication in building resilience. "The environment that a leader [creates] in his or her own unit, however small, has an enormously positive affect on resilience," he said.

This environment, he told the audience, should include the means for open communication. "That reaching out for help when feeling overwhelmed by life's stressors can help sustain or restore health," he said. "Seeking help is a sign of strength, and we need to ensure that those who serve know where to turn for help when it's required."

Woodson lauded the attendees for taking steps to understand the nature of resilience and to deepen their understanding of psychological issues. Their efforts will be increasingly important as the nation continues to face numerous and complicated" threats, he noted.

"No nation in history has ever put forward more resources, more research and more military leadership attention to help address and understand how to create and sustain a psychologically healthy force," Woodson said.

"The importance of your work and efforts is extraordinarily vital to people who serve," he added. "It's vital to extended families and the friends of men and women in uniform, and vital to long-term national security interests."