Friday, Nov. 11, 2011

The Real Medical Legacy of America's Wars

In 2007, Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, better known as BAMC opened the Center for the Intrepid, which has become the premiere rehabilitation facility for amputees and wounded troops from Iraq with salvaged limbs. Week in and week out, BAMC cares for hundreds of the most severely wounded troops returning from combat.

TIME spoke with Maj. Gen. Ted Wong, BAMC's commander, about the incredible trust that comes with caring for wounded warriors and what it will take for the nation to ensure their commitment to the evolving needs of the veterans in the coming decades.

You've spent nearly three decades in uniform; what are the biggest changes you've seen for how we care for our troops?
One of the biggest advancements has been the rehabilitative care for warriors that have experienced limb loss or limb function loss. There's been great innovations and great advancements in prosthetics to replace lost limbs. But really it's also about how to rehabilitate somebody, how to teach them to function without a natural leg or arm. How to use the prosthetic. And also how to mentally and emotionally deal with those problems.

Every war results in incredible medical advancements born out of caring for those who are wounded. What will be the medical legacy of this war?
The two key areas: amputee care-limb replacement, and behavioral health-PTSD and traumatic brain injuries. Those are some of the signature wounds of the war.

When a soldier's had a concussive event, you don't put him immediately back into action. You make him take a knee, and make sure he's okay before you put him back on the line. The return to duty rate is phenomenal.

When troops returned home from World War II, they had weeks on troop ships to wind down and readjust. Now they're coming home in a matter of days, sometimes less than a full day from the battlefield. We've seen wounded warriors working together and taking care of each other here. Can BAMC be that troop ship for them?
As a new wounded warrior comes in, there's an effort to link them up to peers who are further along in their recovery. We know that with traumatic injuries, there are periods of depression and sadness. But they get over that with the help of the medical staff and by bringing in other injured warriors who are further along in their treatment and recovery. We know that by putting them together with other wounded warriors we can eliminate some of the unknown for the new guys and they can draw from each other's strength to get through the tough parts.

You bring folks together and they exchange stories and talk about their experience. The warriors then realize, hey, there's other folks like me and they see the successful recovery and treatment for these issues. That gives them the strength to continue on and get healed.

What's the most important aspect of caring for those with injuries that have a long, slow rehabilitation?
We need to be patient with them. We have to continue to encourage them. The road to recovery, in spite of all the latest advancements and treatments and technology, is not easy. With every two steps forward, there invariably will be a one step back. We need to make sure they're prepared for those setbacks and then provide the support and the encouragement to say, "Just keep pushing on and you'll get through it." Leveraging folks that are further along in their treatment phase helps give hope to these folks.

But it's important not to treat them any differently, not to be too easy on them. Granted, they will have handicaps, but don't try and do everything for them. Allow them to learn and adapt and they'll be more productive and effective in the end. We must push them to their limits so they can be adequately prepared to function on their own.

As the war in Iraq reaches its conclusion and the one in Afghanistan winds down, what's the ongoing mission for the Center for the Intrepid an the other facilities here at BAMC.
There's great benefit to continuing the CFI even if the operational tempo and the casualty flow starts decreasing. Because these prosthetics we're providing them will wear out in the end. This would be a great opportunity to bring folks back and refit them with new advances and new technologies. This is a great place to train outside healthcare providers on the latest techniques and procedures for orthopedic rehabilitation. I think there's a continuing mission for this place, as well as for the research. We want to continue to find the best way, not only for treating and rehabilitating these wounded warriors, but also to find the latest prosthetic devices as well.

I've heard military leaders describe caring for wounded warriors as a no-fail mission. The military seems to understand that. But caring for veterans is going to be long and expensive. What should broader America know about how to make caring for veterans a no-fail mission for the country?
Understanding that the veterans of today, the warriors that are out there on the front line defending our nation and our values and our way of life, are volunteers. They're citizens who have raised their had and said, "I'll step up and do my part." We owe them our support and our gratitude for doing what they do. That can be in many forms. It could be monetary support. It can be volunteer support. I can be just a matter of shaking their hand and thanking them for their service, which they do. As a nation, we owe that to take care of them because they've taken care of us.