WASHINGTON – One year after the joint military hospital in Bethesda was dedicated as the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta praised doctors and nurses there for coming together as a team and taking care of the country’s wounded warriors.
“This is a place where miracles happen, and you are the miracle workers,” Panetta said. “We are extremely proud and extremely fortunate to welcome our troops and their families back from war into your caring arms.”
Still, he said, there are many challenges ahead. The medical facility sees a constant stream of injured troops, complex injuries that are more common now that survival rates are the highest in history, and emotional wounds that can be harder to diagnose and treat, he said.
“Suicide is one of those great and terrible challenges to the health of our force,” he said. “The greatest challenge is identifying those who need our help.”
Panetta urged the servicemembers to look out for one another and offered a potential reason for the difficulty in identifying at-risk troops.
“This is my theory and my theory alone, but part of the problem with working off BlackBerrys and working off computers is that you’re focused on that element and you don’t reach out and talk to one another – to just communicate with one another,” Panetta said.
“It’s when you do that -- talk to one another -- that you understand what the problems are; you can look into their eyes and see it,” he said.
The VA and DOD this year have committed an additional $150 million to support mental health awareness, diagnosis and treatment efforts, Panetta said.
He also mentioned a new cancer treatment center at the hospital, which will be named for former U.S. Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.).
Though Murtha served in the Marine Corps and earned a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts in Vietnam, he drew the ire from many veterans and servicemembers in 2005 when he voiced his support for a withdrawal of troops from Iraq and criticized the war effort.
Panetta said Murtha, who died in 2010, was a “dear friend” and that he was “totally dedicated to the men and women in uniform.”
Murtha also loved earmarks, Panetta said, and as the chairman of the House Defense Appropriations subcommittee, he helped provide funding for the hospital.