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'We Take Care of Our People,' DoD's Top Medical Official Says

By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Jan. 24, 2005 – Dr. William Winkenwerder Jr., the assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, used six words today to sum up the military's health care mission: "We take care of our people."

Winkenwerder, who addressed several hundred people here attending the first day of the annual TRICARE conference here that runs until Jan. 27, lauded the many "bright and creative" military, civilian and contracted caregivers for the important work that they do.

"We will carry on in excellence," he stated, as DoD strives "to find better and better ways to fulfill our mission."

Winkenwerder cited several health-system successes as the war against global terrorism continues. For example, he noted, medical technology advances have caused more severely wounded servicemembers to be saved than at any time in U.S. military history.

He also said that more than 600,000 pre- and post-deployment health assessments have been completed. The collected data, Winkenwerder remarked, "is already helping us to better plan follow-up care and treatment" for service members returning from Afghanistan and Iraq.

"War," Winkenwerder acknowledged, "is always a difficult undertaking." He noted that stress, uncertainty, separation from loved ones, the daily risk of death or bodily harm and the witnessing of horrible events causes "mental injuries for many servicemembers even the very strong and the very brave."

Attending to servicemembers' mental health needs, Winkenwerder noted, represents "a challenge that we must meet, and we will, in a straightforward and timely fashion." Overseas combat-stress control teams, he said, "are doing a great job and they're making a difference."

And servicemembers' post-deployment health assessments and family support services, he said, identify those troops who need care and support upon redeployment.

"However, we must do more," Winkenwerder asserted. Therefore, he said the current post-deployment health follow-up program will be expanded as of today, "to include a required visit" with a health care provider, along with the submission of a health questionnaire.

All active, Guard and Reserve members, he explained, are required to make the visit and submit the questionnaire within three to six months after returning from deployment. Experience shows "this is the period of highest risk for mental and family readjustment problems," Winkenwerder noted.

Not every returning servicemember has serious mental readjustment issues, Winkenwerder emphasized. Those so affected, he pointed out, represent a minority of the total force.

"We want to remove stigma," he explained, "and bring every servicemember in and ask him or her personally, "How are you doing? How's your family?" If things aren't going well, Winkenwerder emphasized, "then, we want to help you."

There is no greater mission, DoD's top medical officer declared, "than to care for the uniformed servicemembers who keep this nation safe and secure, and to care for their families.

"I think there's no greater calling, or cause," he concluded.

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Dr. William Winkenwerder

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