Panetta Praises 'Outstanding' Walter Reed Employees
By Terri Moon Cronk
American Forces Press Service
BETHESDA, Md., Dec. 4, 2012 A year after the dedication of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center here, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta today honored more than 300 health care professionals for their outstanding performance, calling them "miracle workers."
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta addresses service members at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Bethesda. Md., Dec. 4, 2012. Panetta thanked the more than 300 attendees representing each of the facilities departments for their hard work and dedication in the year since the Base Realignment and Closure Commission merged Naval Medical Center Bethesda, Md., and Walter Reed Army Medical Center. DOD photo by U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
"I want to thank you for your leadership, because what you have here is a world-class center for healing, for compassion, and for empowerment," Panetta said.
Panetta awarded a Secretary’s Challenge Coin to each of the civilian and military honorees, who were nominated by their directorates for recognition.
"This is a season of renewal," the secretary said. "It's a season of joy, of peace, and of looking to the future and being thankful for the past. All of that is encompassed in these great medical centers, because that's what it's all about -- giving people that second chance at life -- and that's what you do."
Panetta noted he recently was asked what the toughest and most memorable parts of his job are. The toughest part, he said, is writing notes to the families of those lost in war and recognizing the pain they must feel. That, he added, “is something that leaves a deep impact on me."
The most memorable moments, he said, are those spent visiting wounded warriors at Walter Reed. Regardless of how "horrendous" their injuries might be, he explained, in their eyes he sees a spirit of wanting to fight, to get back into the battle, and to be whole again.
"Each time I visit these heroes here, I come away very moved and very inspired by their dedication, by their patriotism, and as I said, by that sheer strength of spirit that they have," Panetta said.
"We as a nation owe them an incredible debt of gratitude for their service and for their sacrifice -- men and women who are willing to put their lives on the line for this country [and] who are willing to fight and die for the United States of America,” the secretary said. “That represents the great strength of our country."
Wounded service members, he added, deserve the finest medical care the nation can provide.
"That's why I'm so grateful that we have the greatest medical health care system in the world right here,” he told the Walter Reed staff. “The strength of our system lies in you, and people like you -- thousands of dedicated professionals who are committed to caring for our sick and for our injured. … This is a place where miracles happen, and you are the miracle workers."
Panetta noted the nation and its armed forces are emerging from more than a decade of war -- the longest sustained period of war in U.S. history.
"There's been a nonstop flow of casualties from distant battlefields,” he said. “And our military medical community has, I believe, risen to the challenge time and time and time again. You have provided thorough and effective care for over 50,000 wounded warriors. And you've helped ensure that millions of our men and women in uniform are healthy and able to perform their vital missions."
The secretary also pointed out that teamwork has made Walter Reed the renowned institution it has become in the year since its dedication following the merger of the former National Naval Medical Center and Walter Reed Army Hospital.
"You made this happen by standing side by side as one team, as one joint facility -- Army, Navy, Air Force,” he said. “You are one of the best medical centers in the nation. You have become one of the best medical teams in the world. By raising expectations, … our corpsmen [and] our medics are now capable of delivering life-saving medical care right there on the battlefield. This is the new standard of medical care, and I'm very proud to say that it is the most advanced in the world."
Despite those achievements, Panetta said, more challenges lie ahead in the next decade, and preparation to meet them is critical.
"Thousands of service members are going to be coming home soon over the next several years. … We have got to be ready for their arrival by supporting their physical health, their emotional well-being, and their successful transition back into society," he said.
Some returning service members will bear both the visible and the invisible wounds of war, the secretary said, adding that since 2001, nearly 250,000 men and women of the armed services have had traumatic brain injury, and many more remain undiagnosed.
To care for them, he added, the Defense Department recently put new guidance in place and built concussion restoration centers in the combat theater. Traumatic brain injury centers now exist at many military bases around the world, and the value of rehabilitation has been discovered, he noted.
"Here at Walter Reed, you also understand the importance of caring for emotional health," Panetta said. "Together, military medical personnel and military families are raising awareness about those hidden wounds of war, particularly mental health."
Yet, the historic rate of suicide continues to haunt the military, he said.
"Suicide is one of those great and terrible challenges to the health of our force,” Panetta said, “and one of the greatest challenges we face as a nation, … and it's reflected in our men and women in uniform. Our greatest challenge is identifying those who need our help."
In the past year, DOD and the Veterans Affairs Department have committed an additional $150 million to target mental health awareness, diagnosis and treatment, Panetta said.
"We're working to increase the number of mental health professionals, improve access to suicide hotlines [and] emphasize family counseling,” he said. “We've got to continue this fight on every front. We've got to make people in the chain of command, people that serve next to each other in a squad, have a sense for looking out for one another, of spotting those conditions, of understanding that there may be trouble.
"As you support our troops in their greatest time of need," the secretary continued, "you are … the absolute best at what you do. We owe it to you to make sure that you have the full support you need to do your job. Your skill, your dedication, that tender compassionate care that you provide those who serve in uniform [are] qualities [that] are second to none.”