By Lisa Daniel
American Forces Press Service
June 24, 2010 - The new National Intrepid Center of Excellence in Bethesda, Md., will constantly improve the ability of military and civilian health care providers to treat traumatic brain injuries and psychological disorders in war veterans, Deputy Defense Secretary William J. Lynn III said at the center's opening ceremony today. Lynn joined military leaders, civilian dignitaries, wounded warriors and their families for the ceremony to mark what officials describe as new and unprecedented research, diagnosis and treatment for the "invisible wounds" of war.
The center, located on the National Naval Medical Center grounds, will serve as a hub for servicemembers and their families to get better diagnosis and treatment plans than are available at their local military installation, Lynn said.
"This will constantly improve our ability to treat these injuries and, ultimately, to lessen their impact," he said.
The 72,000-square-foot center is one of six created under the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury, established in 2007 to lead Defense Department work on brain science and treatment in collaboration with the Veterans Affairs Department, as well as academic and other institutions.
"The need for such an institution could not be more pressing as our military approaches its 10th year at war," Lynn said.
The deputy secretary noted that advancements in medical care and equipment have allowed more servicemembers to survive combat injuries, but a great many troops are returning with brain injuries and psychological problems. Studies show that more than 10 percent of military members who served in Iraq suffered concussions, and at least 12 percent show significant signs of combat stress, depression or similar issues, Lynn said. "They'll need care long after the wars are over," he added.
Combat veterans with brain injuries and psychological problems "face a battle for recovery that is as arduous as their time deployed," Lynn said. "We as a department recognize that our obligation to our heroes does not end when they leave the battlefield."
Lynn called brain injuries and psychological problems an "inevitable consequence of combat" that deserves as much attention as any other injury.
No one understands that better than the health care team at the Intrepid Center, the deputy secretary said. The team, many of them from Walter Reed Army Medical Center, has developed exam protocols for early diagnoses, and post-deployment screening for TBI that have been adopted by some NATO countries, he said.
The department has done other things to promote mental health, Lynn said, including appointing directors of psychological health in every state to offer consistent service to National Guard members and their families. And, he said, they've added more than 2,000 mental health providers even in the midst of a national shortage of mental health professionals.
Finally, he said, the department continues to emphasize to servicemembers that their careers will not be jeopardized for seeking mental health treatment.
"No one is more supportive of the mission of the center" than Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, Lynn said, adding that Gates deeply regretted he had to cancel his appearance at the ceremony due to the situation surrounding the need for a change of command in Afghanistan.
Lynn also recognized Arnold Fisher and his son, Ken, private contractors who started The Fisher House Foundation. The foundation is building a third house on the National Naval Medical Center grounds specifically for families of patients at the center. The center's dedication to working with families follows department leaders' understanding that "when you enlist a servicemember, you enlist the whole families," he said, noting that the sacrifices of troops are those of the whole family.
"Through this center, we now have a place to deliver the care our wounded warriors deserve and in a way we can all be proud of," Lynn said.
Tammy Duckworth, the Veterans Affairs Department's assistant secretary for public and intergovernmental affairs, said the center is critical for helping wounded warriors return to duty. Duckworth was an Army major with the Illinois National Guard when the helicopter she was flying over Iraq in 2004 was struck by enemy fire. She lost both legs and partial use of one arm in the crash.
"This Center for the Intrepid is going to be the place where wounded warriors are going to face some of the hardest things they've ever faced -- harder than they ever faced in combat," Duckworth said. But, she added, the center also is "a place of hope and jobs, and a place for families."
"There is nothing we can't do as servicemembers without our family members standing next to us," she said.
Navy Rear Adm. (Dr.) Matthew L. Nathan, commander of the National Naval Medical Center, said the center will combine the science of brain imaging with the art of compassion in a healing environment that "draws on all the senses."
The center, which was paid for with $65 million in private donations to the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund, includes $10 million in the latest imaging equipment that allows healthcare providers and researchers the rare ability to see inside the brain for better diagnosis and treatment plans.
"When you see this facility for the first time, you see hope," Nathan said. "We cannot always be the savior, we cannot always be the cure, but we can always be there. And we will never, ever stop trying until we can be the cure."
Clifford L. Stanley, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, toured the center earlier in the week and commented on its unique design for meditation and "inward-looking therapies."
Far from a standard clinical environment, the center is a design of soft lines and natural lighting, and includes a "Central Park" of skylights, green plants, an ornate wood floor, and the sounds of birds chirping.
Stanley said the center is a "place where [wounded warriors] would want to come." He said it will foster realistic expectations and help wounded warriors and their families "achieve their new normal."