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Military Health System Excels at Mission, Senior Official Says

By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Feb. 16, 2007 – The Military Health System is a one-of-a-kind worldwide organization that provides superlative medical support for the nation’s 2.2 million servicemembers, the Defense Department’s top medical official testified at a U.S. House subcommittee hearing here this week.

Internal and external metrics show the Military Health System is doing an excellent job to ensure all servicemembers “are medically protected and fit for duty,” Dr. William Winkenwerder Jr., assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, told members of the U.S. House Armed Forces Committee’s subcommittee on military personnel Feb. 13.

However, military health care professionals “must build upon our successes to sustain this global, unique military medical system,” Winkenwerder said.

The Military Health System and commanders work together in ensuring servicemembers are in top condition to perform important national security missions, Winkenwerder said. More than 250,000 military members are deployed overseas in support of the war against global terrorism.

“We are also ensuring our servicemembers are medically evaluated before deployments, upon return and then again 90 to 180 days after deployment,” Winkenwerder said. “These health assessments provide a comprehensive picture of the fitness of our forces and highlight areas where intervention is needed.”

Post-deployment health surveys have shown that about 50 percent of servicemembers surveyed reported physical ailments, such as back or joint pain, and a third of respondents reported mental health concerns.

“Fortunately, as these clinical interactions occur, we have learned that only a fraction of those with (physical or mental health) concerns have diagnosed clinical conditions,” Winkenwerder reported.

In recent years, military medical care has been extended to reserve-component members called up for active duty, including their families, he said.

Winkenwerder lauded the performance of overseas-deployed and U.S.-based military medical personnel, saying they “have performed extraordinarily on the battlefield and in our medical facilities in the United States.” New standards of wartime medicine have been established, which have helped to reduce battlefield deaths, he noted.

“Our agility in reaching wounded servicemembers, and capability in treating them, has altered our perspective on what constitutes timeliness in life-saving care,” Winkenwerder said. “We are saving servicemembers with grievous wounds that were likely not survivable even 10 years ago.”

Many servicemembers who survive life-threatening wounds “have worked heroically to regain their skills to the greatest extent possible,” Winkenwerder said. Of 563 military members who’ve had major limb amputations, approximately 6 percent have returned to active duty, he noted.

The military health care system is alert to the potential for mental health issues among servicemembers who’ve served on overseas battlefields, Winkenwerder said.

“We continue to focus on the need for mental health counseling and family readjustment support for our servicemembers after they return home,” he said. Everyone who experiences war changes, he said, although not everyone has mental health or readjustment issues.

Yet, a minority of returning servicemembers do experience mental health issues and “their health is our concern,” Winkenwerder said. Servicemembers seeking help to address their mental health concerns should not be stigmatized for reaching out, he emphasized.

“In fact, we have evidence that we are already reducing this (mental health) stigma across the military,” Winkenwerder said.

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Dr. William Winkenwerder Jr.

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