The Washington Times
Thursday, August 13, 2009

As the Walter Reed Army Medical Center celebrated its centennial this year, its leaders highlighted the progress that has been made in the care of the wounded. In February 2007, media brought attention to the shortcomings in the treatment of wounded warriors. The Washington Post published a series of articles detailing cases of neglect and unsanitary conditions. Since then, changes in the command structure have been implemented and improvements have been made.

In March 2007, two men in particular were charged with making changes: Maj. Gen. Eric Schoomaker was appointed commanding general of Walter Reed Army Medical Center and North Atlantic Regional Medical Command, and Brig. Gen. Michael Tucker was appointed deputy commanding general of North Atlantic Regional Medical Command. Gen. Schoomaker and Gen. Tucker initiated comprehensive improvements in housing, case management, medical evaluation, leadership and family support through numerous measures under the Army Medical Action Plan.

In July 2008, Col. Norvell Van Coots assumed command of the Walter Reed Health Care System. He previously served as commander at Keller Army Hospital at West Point, and brought to the task many years of experience as an Army doctor and medical treatment facility commander. Col. Coots continued to make strides in the care and support of wounded warriors and their families, initiated by Gen. Schoomaker and Gen. Tucker.

Walter Reed provides care for soldiers with various illnesses and injuries. Because of the high quality of medical care in the combat zone, many soldiers arrive at Walter Reed after surviving severe combat injuries that would have been fatal in previous wars. The facility attends to those with loss of limbs or limb function. It is now an important referral center for patients with post-traumatic stress disorder and other behavioral health problems, and treats soldiers with mild and moderate traumatic brain injury.

Since the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, Walter Reed has treated more than 10,000 wounded, ill and injured soldiers. It has also activated the Army’s first Warrior Transition Brigade, which assigns a squad leader, nurse care manager and primary care physician to each of the wounded. By ensuring each wounded warrior has daily contact with staff that is responsible for support, leadership and individual case management, this innovative health care concept has effectively reduced the psychological stress of serious wounds on the soldier and his family.

A new rehabilitation facility called the Military Advanced Training Center helps soldiers who have lost limbs or limb function to regain a positive attitude toward life and to function as normally as possible with their disability. MATC staff use innovative new technologies in rehabilitative programs that are tailored to the individual needs of each soldier treated there.

“Walter Reed has always been on the cutting edge of military medicine and now you see soldiers walking on robotic legs and using prosthetics within a day of getting them,” Col. Coots said in April.

The Walter Reed Soldier Family Assistance Center provides consolidated support services to family members of wounded warriors. Family members are a vital part of the treatment and recovery team of each wounded warrior. Some may be traumatized by the sudden and swift turn of events when they are summoned to the hospital and reunited with their loved one.

As Col. Coots surveys his hospital daily, he interacts with those who are severely wounded and tries in a compassionate and gentle manner to give them hope - especially that new artificial limbs and medical equipment will make life worth living. Prosthesis is the key to survival for many of these young soldiers. On a regular basis there are medical breakthroughs in this area - from growing small body parts to moving about independently on artificial limbs that connect to the brain so they function as normal body parts. As a dermatologist, Col. Coots is also especially skilled in evaluating serious burns and other facial and body wounds.

Seven days per week, 24 hours every day, the medical staff face medical and psychological challenges with little relief or respite, bearing the responsibility of so many lives and the additional care of their devastated families. Col. Coots also offers support services to family members to in some way alleviate the burdens they face.

Col. Coots was raised in Richmond and the District. He graduated from Benedictine High School Military Institute and spent a year at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. While studying at Howard University, he was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in the U.S. Army through the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) program. He completed a tour of duty at Fort Meade as a medical service corps officer while he continued his education.

He served in Korea as a medical officer. He then served at Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas, doing tours of duty as a young military doctor. He later received the prestigious assignment as commander of Keller Army Community Hospital at West Point, as the 52nd surgeon responsible for the health care of 5,000 cadets and their support troops.

His innovative leadership at West Point resulted in the choice to beoint him as commander of Walter Reed Health Care System at a time when the facility was still under intense public scrutiny. Col. Coots turned the negative attention into an opportunity to implement a series of reforms and improvements in care and support for wounded warriors.

“Coots is a noted military historian, especially in military medicine. He is the perfect commander to have during our celebration of Walter Reed Army Medical Center’s centennial. His “I am Walter Reed” campaign has strengthened the pride of all employees for their organization and is spreading the word of our great accomplishments,” said Maj. Gen. Carla G. Hawley-Bowland,commander of the North Atlantic Regional Medical Command in a statement.

• Retired Maj. Gen. Gordon Ehrlich lives near the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

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