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Panel calls for better care, protections for wounded troops

The Recovering Warrior Task Force, a panel appointed by Congress in 2010, issued an annual report (PDF) Thursday outlining how the Department of Defense can improve medical treatment and retirement for wounded service members.

The panel made 35 recommendations to DOD, among them ensuring that all behavioral health care providers are trained in evidence-based treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder; extending military medical coverage from six months to a year for reservists when they return home; and making it easier for families of the injured to receive counseling and logistical support.


It also suggested creating a bill of rights for recovering service members that would address the "adversarial dynamic" that can sometimes occur between the wounded and their chain of command.

 

Seven civilians and seven members of the military serve as task force members. DOD is required to provide Congress an assessment of the recommendations within three months and a plan for implementation at five months.

Related: Red tape entangles injured service members who can no longer deploy

Suzanne Crockett-Jones, co-chair of the task force whose husband was severely injured in 2004 in Iraq, told NBC News that the improvements made to the care and retirement of wounded service members have been significant in the past decade.

"When my husband was injured, there were no resources for families — that was not even on the map," she said. Now, there are systems in place to ensure that care is being closely monitored and that family members are included in the process.

Still, there have been 49,000 Iraq and Afghanistan casualties to test the quality of care, and as of late July, more than 26,000 service members in the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps were being processed in the disability evaluation system, which determines whether or not an injury is service-connected and meets the threshold for full military benefits upon retirement. In the Army, which accounts for two-thirds of the caseload, service members wait the longest at an average of 427 days; the goal set by the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs is to process active-duty cases in 295 days.

The task force offered a number of recommendations to improve efficiency and streamline the Integrated Disability Evaluation System, including creating electronic records for those cases and increasing staffing for liaisons who guide service members through the process.  

In focus groups, some service members and their families complained that the chain of command and support staff did not always support the recovery process. At times, service members said they felt "disrespected and inappropriately penalized" and that athletic reconditioning or formations were prioritized over getting medical or transition services. They were also concerned about violations of medical confidentiality as some staff members had discussed service members' cases in inappropriate settings.

Lt. Gen. Charles B. Green, surgeon general of the Air Force and co-chair of the task force, told NBC News that a bill of rights could help set expectations for commanders who may not have experience managing injured or ill service members likely to retire from the military.

Green said the task force wanted to see consistency in the respectful treatment of the wounded between the services and from one installation to the next. 

"A lot of people have done wonderful things for their country, and may not go back to active duty, and we want to treat them exceptionally well."

Rebecca Ruiz is a reporter at NBC News. Follow her on Twitter here.

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