Army doctors examine bad habits

According to data available in April 2010, Americans spend each year more than $50 billion on cigarettes, essentially smoking their money away. Roughly 30% of military active duty personnel smoke, and the Department of Defense health care system spends roughly $930 million dollars on smoking-related illnesses. This photo won honorable mention as an illustrative in the 2011 Military Photographer of the Year competition.


By TOM ROEDER | The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.) | Published: March 16, 2014

Leaders at Fort Carson's Evans Army Community Hospital hope soldiers will take a smoke break as the war in Afghanistan winds down.

Not a break to light up - commanders want soldiers to take a break from the bad habits that have festered in the ranks during 13 years of continuous combat, including tobacco, lack of exercise and lack of sleep.

"We're going from a health care system to a prevention-based system of health," said Col. Dennis LeMaster, who took over as commander of the hospital last fall.

The war brought a revolution in Army medical care. The service gained expertise in trauma care and invented a system that sped wounded troops from the battlefield to top-notch hospitals in Europe and America in hours.

The ratio of soldiers who survived their combat wounds hit all-time highs, with 14 soldiers recovering from injuries for every one who died.

But the end of combat brings a new focus for Army doctors, who were more focused on battlefield injuries than lifestyle choices that can lead to an unhealthy military.

"This goes into tobacco cessation; it goes into health choices," LeMaster said, explaining Army plans to have healthier troops by 2020.

Stamping out smoking is a starting point for a larger program.

"It's a proven fact that if you stop smoking, you'll get healthier," LeMaster said.

LeMaster came to Fort Carson in December from the hospital at Fort Wainwright, Alaska. He replaced Col. John McGrath, who was removed from his command after an investigation into how comments he made impacted the work environment.

LeMaster took the reins at a time of sweeping change across the Defense Department as the Pentagon works to cut $900 billion in spending over a decade.

"Right now the military health system is really assessing its capacity, its patient care and how best to use its resources in the out years," he said.

Medical costs for the military are in clear focus for the military, which is looking at everything from changing co-pays for troops, families and retirees to pushing healthy living as a way to cut costs.

"Our health care costs are spiralling out or control," LeMaster said.

On top of costs, Army doctors are also looking at lifestyle choices as a plan to get better results on the battlefield.

Making sure troops lead healthy lives will reduce their medical needs and result in a force that's more ready to fight if another war arises, he said.

"The force will have increased readiness," LeMaster said.

The Army medical system is still deeply affected by the wartime wounds. LeMaster said he's not cutting services to veterans.

"We have to ensure they are treated and healed," LeMaster said.

The post's Warrior Transition Battalion is staying in business and is growing its capability to provide "remote care" to soldiers who are sent home to heal.

The Army is shifting resources at Fort Carson to provide care for wounded troops across the Rockies. Experts from Evans are fanning out across several states in the region to make sure wounded soldiers get the medical care they need in their hometowns.

"As long as we have soldiers in harm's way, we will have a warrior care and transition program," LeMaster said. "I don't think our nation will allow us to turn our backs on veterans ever again."

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