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Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Eric K. Shinseki

Polytrauma Rehabilitation Center Dedication Ceremony
San Antonio, TX
October 25, 2011

Doctor Petzel [VA Under Secretary for Health], thank you for that kind introduction and for your leadership of VA's large and versatile healthcare system. Let me also acknowledge:

  • Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, who has been key to the creation of this polytrauma center. Senator, thank you not only for your support for Veterans on this project, but also for your support of soldiers during my earlier service with them. You were always resolute in your commitment to our military men and women and their families—while they served and now as Veterans;

  • Congressional staff members and other state and local officials;

  • General Wong [Commanding General, Southern Regional Medical Command and Brooke Army Medical Center, Chief, U.S. Army Dental Corps];

  • General Hepburn [Commander, 59th Medical Wing and Wilford Hall Ambulatory Surgical Center, present director of the San Antonio Military Health System];

  • Your senior enlisted advisors;

  • General Young [BG David Young, USAF, Ret., Former Commander, 59th Medical Wing];

  • Other flag and general officers;

  • Special thanks to —

    • The Joint Service Color Guard; The quintet from the 323rd Army Band; World War II Veteran, survivor of the Bataan Death March, and VA volunteer, Tillman Rutledge—Mr. Rutledge, thank you for leading us in the Pledge of Allegiance today; Chaplain Juliana Lesher—thanks for invoking today's blessings;

  • VA leaders —

  • Dr. Lu Beck, our Chief of Rehabilitation Services; Larry Biro, Director, VISN 17; Marie Weldon, Director, South Texas Veterans Health Care System; and Dr. Jim Wells, Director of our newest Polytrauma Rehabilitation Center [PRC];

  • Representatives of our Veterans Service Organizations;

  • Fellow Veterans, other distinguished guests, VA colleagues, ladies and gentlemen:

It's great to be back in San Antonio, especially when our purpose here today is to add a star to the constellation that provides healthcare for the men and women who have put it all on the line for us. San Antonio is the fifth of our five VA Polytrauma Rehabilitation Centers now ringing the country from Tampa, Florida, to Richmond, Virginia, to Minneapolis, Minnesota, to Palo Alto, California, and now here in Texas.

San Antonio is well-suited to its role as "Military City, U.S.A.," a role that began before the Civil War and one that, in time, saw it become home to both Army medicine and the Air Force's largest medical center.

Over that history, the practice of military medicine, like so many other things in this robust, young country, changed dramatically. In my own time in uniform, I witnessed drastic improvements not only in personal protection—steel helmets to Kevlar®, flak vests to chicken plates to 2nd chance undergarments to Ranger body armor—but also in treating trauma—combat lifesavers, "golden hour" medevac techniques and procedures, world-class surgical suites located well-forward on the battlefield, and strategic lift to quickly and safely evacuate the seriously ill and injured from the war zone to our best hospitals back here in the continental United States—a tribute to military medicine and joint doctrine.

Today, casualties survive catastrophic injuries that would have been lethal just a few years ago. In Korea and Vietnam, our ratio of combat deaths to surviving wounded was 1:3. In the first two years in Iraq, it was 1:13. A Veteran, who was heavily tested during World War II, informs that no double amputees survived combat in his regiment.

Today, that is not the case. We currently care for three quadruple amputees. More of our wounded are surviving—more of them are permanently disabled by devastating injuries. We are in a battle to bring them all the way home.

VA has long been a leader in prosthetic technologies. We are now also investing heavily in research, study, and treatment of the signature wounds of the Iraqi and Afghan conflicts—TBI—traumatic brain injury—and PTSD—post-traumatic stress disorder.

We've made enormous advances in treating some of our most serious TBIs—those arriving at our polytrauma centers comatose, with injuries that only a few years ago were thought to be irreversible and hopeless. Through innovative care, nearly 70 percent of these comatose patients have been brought back to consciousness—a rate far exceeding the national norm.

That trend line began with a congressional mandate in 1992 to integrate specialized TBI care, research, and education across the military and Veteran healthcare systems. VA's five Polytrauma Rehabilitation Centers are the direct results of that 1992 congressional mandate, bolstered by subsequent congressional directives in 2004 and 2008.

Today, DoD and VA share a symbiotic relationship on polytrauma through the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center [DVBIC]. Over the intervening 18 years, we have seen our collaboration thrive, resulting in a host of improvements in our treatment of TBI. But, there is still much more work to be done.

VA and DoD are one when it comes to the well-being of the youngsters, who accept in extremis missions. We are also one in recognizing the crucial roles played by patient families, whose long-term responsibilities are immense, sometimes overwhelming.

This new $66 million Polytrauma Rehabilitation Center provides care above and beyond anything available in the local public or private healthcare community. It offers family-friendly facilities to help patients re-learn walking, talking, driving, and re-claiming functionality in their daily lives. The center's dedicated staff of 160 provides in-patient and out-patient care for a wide range of rehabilitative needs.

Here's just one example of the great good that they do:

In October 2004, Marine Lance Corporal Kyle Anderson was severely wounded by a roadside bomb Iraq. Shrapnel penetrated his Kevlar®, tearing into the left side of his brain. Corporal Anderson was immediately medevac-ed to Baghdad, airlifted to Bethesda naval hospital in Maryland, and then on to the Minneapolis polytrauma center. He spent 30 days in a deep coma, and when he awoke, all he could do to communicate was to smile or cry.

Kyle had been a high-school state wrestling champ, but after his injury he couldn't walk, talk, or even swallow. He had to re-learn everything. His progress was agonizingly slow, but in time he learned to communicate through hand signals—thumbs up or thumbs down. Then his grunts slowly became words. Through sheer determination, on his part, mirrored by the unwavering love of those who cared for him, he slowly regained his ability to speak, eat, dress, and get around.

Today, after more than 2,000 rehab appointments, Kyle lives at home with his father and brother in a suburb of St. Paul. He works part-time as a housekeeping assistant at the Minneapolis VA, and he enjoys many things most 26-year-olds do—working out, going to movies, watching wrestling matches at his old high school. He's been hunting with his father in Africa, and he's making a film to tell his story.

Kyle's father says, "That neurosurgeon who saved my son's life in Baghdad performed a miracle. Then the people at [the Minneapolis polytrauma center] performed a miracle of their own."

The rehabilitation of every one of our patients is a battle we intend to win. That means each must be a collaborative effort, involving family, friends, fellow Veterans, professional caregivers, and the patients themselves.

Full return on investment for this new facility depends on the collaboration of the South Texas Veterans Health Care System, the San Antonio Military Health System, the Army's Institute of Surgical Research, and our affiliation with the University of Texas medical school—full partners in the battle of recovery and rehabilitation of our most seriously injured and infirmed. They had the will to survive. We owe them the rest of the journey home. The resource is here in San Antonio. It's now up to all of us to make the most of it.

God bless our men and women in uniform. God bless our Veterans. And may God continue to bless this wonderful country of ours.

Thank you.