By Sandra Basu
WASHINGTON — When Eric Schoomaker, MD, was named Army surgeon general in 2007, military medicine was facing an administrative and public relations nightmare.
Widespread allegations of substandard living conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center rocked the Army, altering the careers of several high-ranking officials. The medical center’s then-commander, Maj. Gen. George W. Weightman, was fired, and both Secretary of the Army Francis J. Harvey and then-Army Surgeon General Lt. Gen. Kevin C. Kiley resigned.
Schoomaker was serving as the commanding general of the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command at Fort Detrick, MD, when he was tapped to take over Weightman’s job at Walter Reed in 2007. By December of 2007, Schoomaker had become Army surgeon general, a position from which he retired after four years of service.
“The military in general has this way of getting you right to the point where you think, ‘Well I probably have done as much as I can,’ and then they give you another more challenging opportunity,” Lt. Gen. Schoomaker said in a recent interview with U.S. Medicine.
The path to becoming Army surgeon general in 2007, he said, came through “a series of assignments and great mentors,” as well as “some unfortunate events, such as the implosion of Walter Reed.”
It was not an easy situation to step into, he recounted.
Then-Army Surgeon General Lt. Gen. Eric Schoomaker explained during a press conference April 17, 2008, how many medical researchers are growing a new ear for a badly burned Marine using stem cells from his own body. – DoD Photo by R.D. Ward
“On a personal level, I felt terrible for what had happened to both some great friends and leaders and what had happened to the entire Army medical family,” he recalled. “I felt the pressure of working hard to restore confidence and trust that I think the Army, the military, the American people, the Congress should have in us. I felt a tremendous obligation to do well by people who had given a great deal of themselves and, in some respects, had paid dearly for the enormous problems we were facing as a system in responding to the complexity of both domestic and operational healthcare requirements.
“I think having done a variety of leadership and staff jobs and assignments and having spent so much of my private and professional life around the Army and Army medicine, I felt a great responsibility to do everything within my power to lead us out of this.”
Looking back, Schoomaker said he believes the military stepped up to respond to the problems highlighted by the Walter Reed situation with “agility” and in “an innovative way.”
One response he cited was creation of Warrior Transition Units (WTUs) to provide support for wounded soldiers who require at least six months of rehabilitative care and complex medical management. These units are able to help injured troops coordinate their nonclinical and clinical care as they transition to the next phase of life.
Schoomaker said the effort to reform the system came not only from the medical establishment but also from the larger military establishment, which expended some “precious resources and leaders and soldiers” to help build the WTUs and the command.
“I have seen the Army and DoD stepping into a role that says, essentially, that the health and welfare of the Force and the family transcends the medical community.”
It may have been family tradition that attracted Schoomaker to Army medicine in the first place — his father was a colonel in the Army, and his brother Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker served as the 35th chief of staff of the Army — but it was that spirit that persuaded him to stay and make a career in the military, Schoomaker said.
“When I got into uniform, I was impressed by the uniformity of the quality of people I was working with,” he said. “Many of our people do not know how good they are. They are very humble and self-effacing with their talents and their capabilities. That, to me, was also both intriguing and attractive. I was working with a group of folks who were just in every sense of the word very selfless in their service.”
Schoomaker also commented on a variety of topics regarding his career and military medicine:
On the accomplishments of Army Medicine:
“We have been extraordinarily agile and adaptive to a changing environment of threats to the health to the Force and their family, whether it be epidemic disease, countering and preparing for things like pandemic flu or improving the protection of the Force at large and the Army military family,” he told U.S. Medicine.
Improving continuity of care between VA and DoD, as well as responding to battlefield injury, also are areas where military medicine has made great strides, he said.
“We have applied good information, data-driven decisions that have changed everything from how we train our medics to how we equip them, where we place them on the battlefield, how our surgeons and others are used in an operational environment and the use of the medical evacuation system.”
All of that has been done in real-time, according to Schoomaker, who added, “We have not waited for hostilities to end. We have not waited for the conflict to be completed. We have not waited to stand up commissions and study groups. We have done this as problems have arisen in the most rational and comprehensive way we can.”