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Prevention, screening allow Airmen to come home healthy

By Staff Sgt. C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (April 29, 2004) -- Surgeons general from the Army, Navy and Air Force testified before Congress on April 28 on the status of health care in the services.

Air Force Surgeon General Lt. Gen. (Dr.) George Peach Taylor Jr. spoke to members of the Senate Appropriations Committee defense subcommittee. He said the Air Force's predeployment efforts at disease prevention and in-the-field disease identification systems are allowing Airmen to return from deployments healthier than ever.

Air Force Surgeon General Lt. Gen. (Dr.) George Peach Taylor Jr. answers questions on Capitol Hill about disease prevention efforts at overseas locations. Dr. Taylor spoke April 28 during a hearing of the Senate Appropriations Committee defense subsommittee. U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Jim Varhegyi.

"Our people are coming back in better health because of individual disease-prevention efforts, but also because of the incredible deployment health-surveillance program that we have fielded," Dr. Taylor said. "From our preventive aerospace medicine teams to our biological augmentation teams, we are helping to protect the area of responsibility from biological and environmental threats."

Dr. Taylor told senators the Air Force is using equipment that can identify disease-causing pathogens in about two hours. In coming years, he said, Air Force officials hope to use even better equipment to identify disease before it can cause serious illness.

"We hope to reduce the time even further, through new, more advanced -- indeed, break-through -- genome-based technologies," he said.

The senate panel asked about shortages of doctors, nurses and dentists within the reserve components of the services. Dr. Taylor said the shortage may be due in part to the difficulty of running a medical practice coupled with the potential of being deployed more than a quarter of a year at a time.

"It is difficult in today's medical practice," Dr. Taylor said. "Many of the providers operate close to the margin. Taking them out for long periods of time can often destroy a practice. We are trying to work ways where we can bring them on deck for short periods of time through a volunteer system so they can work perhaps 30 days every couple of years. Certainly pay and environment of care is an aspect."

Senators also asked about the increase in eye and limb injuries seen coming off the battlefield. The increase is, in part, because of the improvement of protective gear -- body armor -- for the chest and abdomen, said Army Surgeon General Lt. Gen. (Dr.) James B. Peake.

While the gear goes a long way to improve the chance a wounded servicemember will survive what in the past might have been a fatal injury, it does not protect the limbs and eyes. A person who, in the past may not have lived through an injury, can live today -- but finds he or she is without sight or limbs, he said.

All three service surgeons general said that developing better protection for the head, eyes and limbs is critical, and they are actively working with body armor-designers to address the physical requirements.