As the military engagement in Iraq winds down and the war in Afghanistan continues, health service demands at Fort Bragg remain high. With approximately 57,000 military personnel, 11,000 civilian employees and 23,000 family members, Fort Bragg is one of the largest military complexes in the world.
Lacking adequate clinical staff is not an option.
Thus, an ongoing partnership between the Department of Defense (DoD) and the U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS) Commissioned Corps to increase the health services available to military service members, their family members and veterans came at what COL Brian T. Canfield, commander of the installation’s Womack Army Medical Center (WAMC), describes as “a very important time of need.”
“This geographic area of North Carolina is in high demand and short supply of behavioral health providers, social workers, and in some cases, rehab therapists,” said COL Canfield. “Having [USPHS officers] readily available to take care of the soldiers who are rotating back from being evacuated or returning from deployment is imperative for us here at Fort Bragg.”
In early 2010, nine USPHS clinicians – including those serving as behavioral, physical and occupational health therapists – arrived at Fort Bragg and hit the ground running to help WAMC meet the needs of the 140,000 enrolled beneficiaries that it serves on a primary care basis.
Two years later, the USPHS officers, now 11 in number, have made themselves an integral part of the Army’s medical mission.
“On a 24-hour basis,” COL Canfield explained, “it’s not uncommon that we see three-to-seven patients with behavioral health issues ranging from attempted suicide to alcohol/drug addiction.” In response, USPHS officers helped create a 24/7 social work service at WAMC to ensure that those patients could be seen.
“Many times, that USPHS officer who is working on shift in the emergency department has added an additional capability for us that would’ve normally required additional wait time, or possibly having to be transferred to an inpatient care facility off base,” said COL Canfield.
Another issue at Fort Bragg and WAMC is that some soldiers sustain injuries in battle which impair their basic physical abilities, such as closing their hands to properly grip a steering wheel, making it difficult to move beyond the war, both physically and psychologically.
Again, seeing this need, USPHS officers created a Driving Rehab Program that enables returning soldiers to be screened and then offered therapy and/or special technology to help get them behind the wheel again, and restore some of that critical sense of independence for those soldiers.
“It could be something as simple as being able to get back into an automobile and regaining control of your own transportation to and from home or work,” explained COL Canfield. “The more rapidly they can be brought back into daily routines that they’re comfortable with, the sooner they can reengage in normal life.”
And USPHS officers are not just working to solve the problems of “now,” they are also working to help build WAMC’s capacity for the future.
LCDR Tricia Booker and LT Justin Peglowski suit up in preparation for their jump with the Golden Knights.
“Honestly, when it comes to operational psychology, we are making such powerful strides in terms of training and development – we would not be anywhere close to where we are right now if it weren’t for [USPHS officers] being here,” said COL Canfield.“I am incredibly proud of the [USPHS] folks that are here at Womack and what they are doing to make an impact here and I would like to see that continue for some time,” he continued. “In no uncertain terms, they have instrumentally contributed to our ability to take care of our soldiers and families.”
Recognition of the great work that the USPHS officers do at Fort Bragg extends beyond just WAMC. On May 17th, officers were honored with the rare opportunity to jump with the acclaimed Army Golden Knights; a world-renowned demonstration and competition parachute team. The Golden Knights have honored a select group of individuals by allowing them to participate in jumps with the Army team.
A year earlier, in May of 2011, Major General Rodney O. Anderson, Deputy Commanding General, XVIII Airborne Corps and Fort Bragg, also honored the USPHS officers assigned to WAMC. The officers were recognized for the outstanding and critical psychological/Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)/physical rehabilitative care given to warfighters and their dependents.
Although the USPHS officers wear a different color uniform and clearly stand out from the Army personnel on the base they serve, their mission of service is the same, and there is no doubt that they have become a part of the team.
When asked to describe the USPHS officers at WAMC in a final phrase, COL Canfield said, “Phenomenal performance; it’s been a great relationship that we’ve had, and we don’t want it to stop any time soon.”