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Jim Garamone, American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Nov. 5, 2008 –
Navy Adm. Mike Mullen didn’t like the way wounded Vietnam veterans were treated when he first entered the service in 1968, and he is working to ensure that America’s wounded from Iraq and Afghanistan get the care and help they need and deserve. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said during a Pentagon Channel podcast interview yesterday that as one of the leaders of the U.S. military, he is passionate “about seeing to the needs of those who are wounded – who have sacrificed so much, whose lives have been changed so dramatically.”
Mullen said he also wants to help the families of the fallen. He wants “to make sure we are doing everything we can in the positions of leadership to make sure people understand what those families have sacrificed, and that we reach out to them and in every way possible and meet their needs for the rest of their lives,” he said.
The chairman spoke about meeting a homeless Operation Enduring Freedom veteran at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Los Angeles recently. “He said to me ‘I gave 100 percent. I’d really like 100 percent in return,’” Mullen said.
Medical care for wounded servicemembers has improved tremendously, Mullen said. Those who reach a field hospital within the first hour after being wounded – the so-called “Golden Hour” – have a 92 percent chance of survival. Medical professionals undoubtedly are saving the lives of many who would have died in previous wars, the chairman said.
“More than anything else, it’s remarkable medical personnel who have adapted and moved to the leading edge of medical care,” he said. “I can’t say enough for them.”
The whole process is one of speed, with those wounded in the combat theater quickly transferred to the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany and then further transported to wherever they need to go in the United States. But while much has been done, Mullen said, much more remains to be done, and this is especially true for long-term treatment and care, as the servicemembers and their families still want to live life and contribute to America.
“What we find out in my interaction with them and my wife’s interaction with them is their dreams haven’t changed,” Mullen said.
The servicemembers still want to “own a piece of the rock,” the chairman said. They still want to go to school, own a home, have good jobs and leave their children better off than they are. Realizing those dreams may be changed by the injuries, but the dreams remain, he said.
The question then becomes how the nation – through the Defense Department, the Department of Veterans Affairs and communities throughout the country – “reach out to meet the needs of these people who have given so much,” he said.
Many programs are available, Mullen said, but he added he is not convinced they are doing what they should. He said he wants to study the programs to ensure they are producing for the servicemembers – giving them the needed mix to realize their dreams.
The chairman also said the department has a long way to go in the handling of post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury.
“Leaders have to step forward to set the example,” he said. “A big part of that is the challenge of the stigma of asking for mental help.”
From his perspective, the admiral said, asking for mental-health help is the same as asking for help for a physical problem, and it is a readiness issue. “Being on your game mentally” is as important as being physically ready to accomplish the mission, he said.
“We’ve taken some steps with respect to removing the stigma, but we’ve got a long way to go,” the chairman acknowledged.
Connecting wounded servicemembers to communities also is extremely important, Mullen said.
“There is a sea of goodwill out there in our communities that will reach out and support those who are wounded and their families, and the families of the fallen,” he said. “Where we are struggling a bit is connecting those resources in communities throughout the land to those who need it. We’ve got to work on it structurally and organizationally to connect that sea of goodwill to those who have these needs.”
The needs of the wounded vary by family and individual. They also vary by point in the healing or rehabilitation process, the chairman said. “It can be very difficult to figure out what is needed, [and] when. But I know there are communities that are doing this and want to do this.”
All Americans need to ensure these veterans and families receive what they need, and have to ensure this support is sustained over time, the nation’s top military officer said.