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Reserve Component Personnel Need to Know About Medical Benefits

By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Sept. 13, 2002 – When some reservist and guardsmen who are sick, injured and suffering from some disease return from deployments or training, they don't know which way to turn for medical care.

That disturbs Kathleen Woody, director of DoD Reserve Affairs' Reserve Medical Readiness and Programs. Because, she said, not knowing what their benefits are can be a big problem for reserve component personnel.

Woody spoke at the seminar entitled "Post-Deployment Care Risk Communication and Terrorism: New Clinical Approaches."

Active duty service members have access to military treatment facilities whereas healthcare providers for reserve component personnel are in the civilian community. Therefore, reservists' exposure to military healthcare is limited, Woody pointed out.

A critical information pipeline is needed to ensure that reserve component personnel are educated about their medical benefits before and after they're deployed, she said. "In their post-deployment, they may not be sensitive to the fact that whatever symptoms they're manifesting might be related to their deployment," said Woody, an Air Force Reserve colonel who has served as a critical care nurse and nurse educator in civilian life.

She said someone in the medical field might make the connection, but a mechanic out on the flight line may not associate their problem with their active duty service. "Hopefully their civilian physician will," said the Operation Desert Storm veteran. "However, they may not because the civilian community doesn't have the same access or understanding of military medicine as the military physicians do."

More than anything in risk communications is the need to communicate the risk of post-deployment, immunizations, medications and medical procedures for reserve component personnel, Woody said.

"We need to drill it down, not just to the commanders and down to the troops, but we need to reach out to the communities and civilian medical providers," Woody pointed out. "The whole gist is to get the information out to people who need to be sensitive to reserve members in the areas they're deploying to. And, we need to ensure that reservists know what their benefits are."

Reserve component personnel are only entitled to military medical or dental care for any injury, illness or disease incurred or aggravated in the line of duty. That includes travel to and from military duties. But they must be tested to ensure the injury, illness or disease happened while they were on active duty, the colonel noted.

"But, for example, if you feel that your illness is related to your deployment, you can ask for evaluation and treatment of that medical condition. You don't have to be in an active duty status to do that," Woody explained. "Often the reserve member doesn't know that. And it's very important for commanders to know the process and pass the information on to their troops."

One example of this ignorance occured during the anthrax immunization program. "Many of our reservists were getting the anthrax immunization during their weekend duty and returning to their communities," she said. "They didn't know that one of the common reactions to the vaccine is the nodule. And, many of the civilian physicians didn't know nodules are common to the anthrax vaccine."

Consequently, she said, some physicians put patients on antibiotics, while others lanced the nodule. "They didn't know that in time the nodule would resolve itself," the colonel said.

"It has been quite a challenge to get information about anthrax down to the lowest level," Woody said. "There are a lot of issues that reserve component members had with the anthrax vaccine, especially our pilots and air crew members."

Since reserve component personnel are stationed around the world, Woody said it's important from a risk communication standpoint that they're given the right information about their medical benefits.

"When they're finished with their deployment, all they want to do is to go home back to the reserve community and their jobs," she noted. "So they're probably not going to report or be aware of a lot of things that happen post-deployment."

She told the audience about the dilemma of a soldier who was in Somalia before the Army Rangers. He had emotional problems and a hard time focusing. The soldier didn't know where to go for help or what resources were available after he returned home.

"He had to be referred to Veterans Affairs for treatment," Woody said. "So it's important to get information to the command level so the commander can provide guidance to people."

Woody emphasized that it's important that the facts are straight. "They need to be correct and not anecdotal," she added. "There needs to be a comprehensive communications plan to reach out to Reserve members in their civilian communities."

Educational programs should be targeted to military healthcare providers as well as commanders, service members and civilian healthcare providers, Woody said.

"It needs to be part of an overall communications plan so that your information is built from the top and drilled down," she said. "And the message needs to be consistent all the way down."

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