By Lisa Daniel
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jan. 11, 2012 – First Lady Michelle Obama today announced a commitment from the nation’s medical colleges to better train civilian health-care providers in caring for war veterans and their families and to push for more research in the wounds of war.
Obama’s announcement at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond marked the latest endeavor of her “Joining Forces” campaign with Dr. Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, to rally nationwide support for military families.
Today, the first lady announced that the Association of American Medical Colleges and the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine, with 105 and 25 schools, respectively, have committed to leveraging their missions in education, research and clinical care “to meet the unique health-care needs” of the military and veterans communities.
“Today the nation’s medical colleges are committing to create a new generation of doctors, medical schools and research facilities to make sure our heroes receive the care worthy of their military service,” she said.
As part of the initiative, the associations pledged to:
— Train their medical students as well as their current physicians, faculty and staff to better diagnose and treat veterans and military families;
— Develop new research and clinical trials on traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder;
— Share their information and best practices with each other through a collaborative Web forum; and
— Coordinate with the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs.
Many of the medical colleges already are making strides, Obama said, including VCU’s project to ease veterans’ transition from war to home, the University of South Florida’s first-of-its-kind Center for Veterans Reintegration and the University of Pittsburgh’s creation of an imaging tool to see the wiring of the brain in vivid high-definition.
The idea behind Joining Forces is very simple, Obama said. “In a time of war, when our troops and their families are sacrificing so much, we all should be doing everything we can to serve them as well as they are serving this country,” she added. “It’s an obligation that extends to every single American. And, it’s an obligation that does not end when a war ends and troops return home. In many ways, that’s when it begins.”
The first lady said she became aware of this when she and President Barack Obama welcomed home the final troops from Iraq last month. “I couldn’t shake the feeling that even though we were marking the end of the war, this was not an ending for them. … For our troops, the end of war marks the beginning of a very long period of transition,” she said.
Sometimes the transitions from war to home “bring the hardest moments our troops and their families will ever face,” she added.
Obama said she wanted to emphasize that most war veterans return home with no mental health issues at all. But for many, she added, “the emotional wounds come flooding back,” leading to sleepless nights, rage, substance abuse and subsequent family problems.
An estimated one in six Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans return home with post-traumatic stress or depression, and at least 4,000 have had at least a moderate-grade brain injury, the first lady said, noting that many don’t seek help because of a perceived stigma.
“I want to be very clear today: these mental health challenges are not a sign of weakness,” she said. “They should never again be a source of shame. They are a natural reaction to the challenges of war, and it has been that way throughout the ages.”
Half of post-9/11 veterans seek help outside DOD and VA, and many of them are not connected to a base, Obama said. “We have to meet our veterans where they live,” she added.
“I want to emphasize the power of your chosen profession,” the first lady told medical students in the audience. “You will be there for some of your patients’ most powerful life moments. It is the essence of true service. You will have a unique opportunity and responsibility to make an impact on their lives. You will single handedly be able show these heroes that their country is there for them, no matter what they are going through.
“You will make a world of difference on these issues,” she continued. “You will change these heroes’ lives for the better, forever. You will uphold our nation’s sacred trust to its heroes and their families.”
Obama also had a message for service members. “No matter where you are, no matter what you are going through, please know America will be there for you and your family,” she said.
Asking for support is a sign of strength that will help not just those in the military, but for all Americans struggling with mental health problems, the first lady said.
Jerome Strauss, dean of the VCU School of Medicine, recalled being in medical school during the Vietnam War 40 years ago and getting no formal training in how to treat returning veterans. “I remember the uncertainty and anxiety of caring for these patients whose lives were changed by their war experiences,” he said.
“Now, we have a far better understanding of [traumatic brain injury],” he added, as well as a basis for curriculum and research in areas such as pain management and spinal cord injuries.
John Prescott, director of academic affairs for the Association of American Medical Colleges, said medical schools are “uniquely positioned to have a tremendous impact on servicemembers and their families,” and contain the best in research, clinical practices and education.
The association’s collaboration with Joining Forces, he said, shows “There is no time like the present to make sure those who have sacrificed so much get the care they need now and into the future.”
Prescott, a former Army officer whose son is in the military, said he has high hopes for the effort.
“We want to let all the troops and veterans here know that our nation’s medical schools are proud of your service and we only hope we can live up to the high standards you set,” he said.