While exiting Augusta's Charlie Norwood Veterans Affairs Medical Center last week, I was astounded to hear a wheelchair-bound soldier say that only 10 active duty patients were receiving care in the center's 30-bed military rehabilitation unit.
This is the nation's only rehabilitation unit that operates inside a Veterans Affairs hospital.
On the same day, I received an e-mail from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff's Public Affairs Office that catalogs daily warrior and veteran care news headlines. The e-mail gave links to articles from many national and defense news outlets describing how inundated the military hospitals in Washington, D.C., have become due to the closing of the Army's Walter Reed Medical Center.
One of the headlines that caught my attention was, "Walter Reed doctors fear move may hurt their ability to treat" (Washington Examiner , July 25). The article detailed the concerns of Walter Reed physicians and congressional staffers regarding the number of patients being treated in Washington, and how the medical providers are "stretched to the limit" due to the transition of care to the new Walter Reed-National Naval Medical Center campus in Bethesda.
AUGUSTA IS THE home of both a Department of Defense and a Veterans Affairs Medical Center with extensive treatment and rehabilitation facilities; the only tri-track residential treatment for post traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury, and substance abuse (three signature injuries of this 10-year conflict); and nationally recognized spinal cord rehabilitation and blindness rehabilitation programs. Augusta also has two Fisher Houses, and one of the Army's top installations, Fort Gordon.
The research being conducted at local Army, Veterans Affairs and civilian medical centers positions the Augusta area as one of the top medical centers of excellence in the nation. Augusta is a Department of Defense medical hub of the Southeast region of the United States, where a quarter of our military force is recruited and tens of thousands of active, Reserve, and National Guard combat forces are stationed.
Before coming to Augusta, I led an organization for U.S. Special Operations Command that was considered the military's "gold standard" in wounded warrior care and family advocacy for our nation's 52,000 special-operations forces. I also served as an adviser to Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
WHEN ADVOCATING for our special-operations wounded, ill, or injured and their families, I always struggled with the trade-off required for our military and their families to receive medical care at Walter Reed or Bethesda and the inconvenience it placed on them. Most of our forces were not stationed near Washington, so families usually had to fly to and from home.
Not wanting to leave their recovering service members, many caregivers stay in Washington for years.
The cost of living in Washington, D.C., is exorbitant -- up to $210 a night for lodging (which is reimbursed by the government), but in addition to the high lodging costs come the higher costs of food, local transport and daily incidental expenses.
Since well over 50 percent of military families are dual-income, spouses leave jobs and parents leave work to be at the hospital, not letting anything stand between them and their service member.
I'VE ALWAYS FELT that if you take care of the family, you'll take care of the warrior. I have come to recognize the solution to the problem is linking top-notch medical treatment close to the family's home.
The government cannot be everything to everyone, and many communities have rallied by supporting non-governmental organizations to help service members, veterans and their families as they return to the community. The most important thing is not how our wounded, ill and injured are supported; the key is where they start, and how they finish this journey. What makes the most sense clinically, for the family and, of course, economically?
Given the above information, the question that we must ask is, "Why are Augusta's excellent medical resources under-utilized when facilities in our nation's capital are "stretched to the limit"?
The answer is: Send them here!
I URGE OUR community leaders, military leaders and Veterans Affairs officials to ask our representatives to begin using the resources of Augusta, Ga., which are already available, to provide vital care to the residents of our region while minimizing the negative effects on the families.
Why not Augusta?
(The writer is executive director of the Augusta Warrior Project.)