PRINCE GEORGE’S COUNTY, Md: Defense Department officials must work quickly to surmount a stigma that’s preventing servicemembers from seeking help for the signature wounds of today’s wars, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said Jan. 25.
“We are clearly just beginning to deal with the long-term effects of the signature injuries of these wars — not just the visible, but the invisible,” Navy Adm. Mike Mullen told an audience of more than 3,000 military and civilian medical professionals at the 2010 Military Health System Conference at the National Harbor here.
Admiral Mullen stressed the importance of finding rapid health care solutions for servicemembers and their families and of ensuring they understand that seeking help is a sign of strength. He acknowledged that many people continue to suffer in silence.
“We are held back by a stigma that we cannot climb over,” he said. “Not just now, but five years from now, we still need to be working our way through the impact of these fights and what that means. We can’t expect it to just move away from us.”
Calling it an “exponential problem that takes exponential resources,” Admiral Mullen stressed the importance of finding quick solutions for servicemembers. “We need to make sure they have great lives,” he said.
Toward that end, he said, the officials from the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs are cooperating closely.
“It’s incredibly important to look at how we’re going to work with the VA, not just pass our patients over to the VA,” he said. “That actually reaches from the military to the VA and through communities throughout the land. We cannot forget these individuals who sacrificed so much and their families.
“We owe them more than that,” he continued. “We need to connect to them and make sure their care is representative of their sacrifice.”
Part of that care, he said, is speeding up processes such as the physical evaluation board that determines a servicemember’s fitness for continued military duty.
“We are huge, bureaucratic and slow,” the admiral said. “The one thing (servicemembers) want back is their life; the one thing they want back is time. We’ve got to move them through quicker.”
A pilot program aimed at resolving that problem has been under way for more than two years, he noted.
“We need that fixed, and we need to get everyone in it and move them through that process,” he said.
Admiral Mullen praised the military’s cutting-edge treatment and support facilities — including the Intrepid centers in San Antonio and Washington D.C., Fisher Houses, and Brooke Army Medical Center’s burn center — that are offering servicemembers exceptional support.
He also noted the importance of support from families.
“We need to be a military that is ready; a huge part of that … is the health of our force and the health of our families,” he said. “They are such an integral part of our readiness and our success, in ways I don’t think we totally understand yet. It’s because of their support, in so many ways, that we’ve been able to succeed.”
Admiral Mullen said he often talks to military spouses, and while he begins by touching on broad topics, the discussion always returns to the same issue: health care.
“These are families that have been through an extraordinary amount,” he said. “It is that much more important when they have been through so many deployments. It will continue to be that way.”
The chairman said leaders need to look to the future to ensure health care remains a constant presence.
“We need to think of the families as part of our readiness equation, and health care is a big part of that,” he said.
Along with caring for servicemembers and their families, Admiral Mullen, leaders also need to be mindful of caring for caregivers. He recalled events in 2004 when doctors and nurses were exhausted in the combat theater and “didn’t know when to stop.”
“People who have seen things they never thought they would see — and certainly that has continued throughout these wars — that needs to be something we keep in mind as well,” he said.
That care remains vital, he noted, particularly in light of recent events in Haiti, which was struck recently by a devastating magnitude 7 earthquake.
In 2005, Admiral Mullen, the hospital ship USNS Mercy provided support in the wake of a tsunami that caused extensive death, damage and suffering in Asia. That effort set health care officials up for success today, he said, citing the USNS Comfort’s rapid response to the current crisis. The hospital ship set sail for Haiti with only a few day’s notice.
“To be able to … get down to theater that rapidly, was truly exceptional,” Admiral Mullen said.
Admiral Mullen said he is grateful for the hard-working medical professionals who care for servicemembers and their families.
“If you can go back six years, six-plus years now, and think about what’s happened, it has truly been extraordinary,” he said. “And you have led the way in that, and you’ve led it not just here in hospitals in America, but you’ve led it on the battlefield.”
Military medicine has evolved rapidly, Admiral Mullen said, which underscores the importance of looking to the future to ensure the military as a whole is set on the right path.
He said he’s already looking ahead to determine what shape the military will take post-war.
“We’re certainly looking to the increase of troops this year in Afghanistan, but Afghanistan will end,” he said. “What happens when that adrenaline is back down, and we need it to be? We need to get it to a rotation that gives us more time at home than we have right now. But what does it mean when we get there?”
Cost is a major factor in that future, the chairman said, noting that health care costs have risen “astronomically.”
“Leaders have to make tough calls on what we’re going to do and what we’re not going to do,” he acknowledged. Leaders must balance investing in people, operations and in systems needed for the future.
“Those are hard, hard decisions, and I understand that,” he said. “But they must be made. They must be made sooner rather than later.”