By Hal Bernton
JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD — By the time Staff Sgt. Spencer Milo arrived for treatment outside of Washington, D.C., he had suffered two traumatic brain injuries in two different wars and was taking more than a dozen different medications.
The National Intrepid Center of Excellence offered one month of intensive care back in 2011 that Milo marks as a turning point in a long battle to heal. And it is the model for a smaller, $11 million Intrepid Spirit facility that broke ground Thursday at JBLM.
“It’s completely changed my life for the better,” Milo said. “I remember walking in the doors, and I didn’t even think I was in a doctor’s office. I thought I was in a resort. It’s a beautiful building, and I think that really set the tone right there.”
The national center — and nine others either built, under construction or planned — gather patients and health-care providers in one building to tackle the challenges of traumatic-brain injuries. Along with traditional medicine, they offer alternative therapies such as meditation and acupuncture.
The centers are the result of a public-private partnership, with donations to the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund financing construction, and the Defense Department taking on staffing and management.
“As a nonprofit organization, we can do it faster — and we can probably do it less expensive than the government. All of our projects have been on time and on budget,” said David Winters, president of the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund.
At Joint Base Lewis McChord, the building is expected to be completed in 18 months to two years. It will be part of Madigan Army Medical Center, where the 22 staff positions now involved in traumatic-brain-injury care are expected to more than double once the new facility opens.
The centers represent a significant new commitment at Madigan and other bases to one of the signature wounds of the post 9/11 wars — traumatic-brain injuries from improvised explosive devices, suicide bombers and vehicle crashes and other hazards during years of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Some soldiers who suffered war-related injuries years ago still require treatment, while the Army also has plenty of new patients to care for.
“We have the legacy injuries, and when they (soldiers) aren’t fighting, they’re training, and they can hurt themselves as badly or worse,” said Col. Beverly Scott, medical director for Madigan’s traumatic-brain-injury program.
If there is enough capacity, Winters said he hopes some Intrepid centers might also offer care to veterans.
At these centers, injured soldiers are drawn away from their daily routines to focus on healing in programs lasting from four to six weeks. Up to 90 percent of patients who have gone though the centers are able to return to active duty, according to Winters.
Milo, who grew up in Seattle and was based at Fort Bragg in California, went through six months of care on that base before he was offered the option of treatment at the national center at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.
On his first day in the program, Milo was pleasantly surprised to be met by a large group of health-care providers who jointly questioned him. That meant he didn’t have to tell and retell the harrowing story of the injuries he suffered in an Humvee crash in Iraq and a blast of a young suicide bomber in Afghanistan.
Milo said his medical team offered a more detailed diagnosis of his health problems, and develop a detailed treatment plan that included lots of family involvement and helped shift him away from so many medications.
After the program was over, Milo said he had learned a lot of tools that helped him continue to improve as he returned to active duty. He later medically retired after seven years of Army service.
“I think that TBI (traumatic-brain injury) is something that lot of people deal with for the rest of their lives — but this gives you a path so you’re not just aimlessly wandering in the woods,” Milo said.