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Mideast edition, Wednesday, September 19, 2007

WASHINGTON — Defense health officials need to do more to not only fully heal troops wounded in combat but also rehabilitate and retrain them, health experts and returning troops said Tuesday.

“It used to be when a soldier got hurt you’d rush him back, fix him up and send him home to Mom,” said Capt. Dave Rozelle, deputy director of Walter Reed Army Medical Center’s new training facility for amputees in Washington. “But with today’s Army that’s a problem. … Now these men and women are telling us they want to continue to serve.”

The comments came at a U.S. Naval Institute forum on post-combat health care. Organizers said the goal was to find new solutions for emerging issues such as keeping amputees on active duty, recognizing and treating traumatic brain injuries and diminishing the stigma of post-traumatic stress disorder.

While panelists praised the medical care that wounded troops receive, they still see gaps in the long-term rehabilitation many troops receive.

Dr. Thomas Gaultieri, medical director for the North Carolina Neuro-Psychiatry Clinic, said the services need to do a better job diagnosing mild traumatic brain injuries, then providing the appropriate help.

“The vast majority can make a full recovery if they get the proper diagnosis and care,” he said.

That includes work programs for troops with limited mental faculties to help speed their recovery, or at least help them adapt to their handicaps. Meredith Beck, national policy director for the Wounded Warrior Project, said many such programs exist, but they aren’t always administered well.

“It’s not just dealing with Veterans Affairs or the Department of Defense with all the consultations and paperwork,” she said. “It’s also Social Security, it’s the Department of Labor, it’s housing.

“They all have the same goal to help, but we need to figure out a way so that these troops don’t get caught in the middle.”

Experts said the increase in the number of troops surviving battlefield wounds has led to many of the larger casualty issues. Current policies and requirements don’t always exist for troops who are severely incapacitated, because in previous wars they likely would have died.

Rozelle, himself an amputee who returned to the battlefield in 2006 just 18 months after losing his foot to a land mine, said he had to fight to get into an aggressive rehabilitation program and remain on active duty, but since then policy changes have made the process somewhat easier.

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