Bethesda's New Brain Trauma Facility Still Not Open

Recently, the Pentagon was called out by me and by others for failing to get its new brain trauma facility in Bethesda fully up and running. Now they've responded to our criticisms—with typical Byzantine bureaucracy and towering ineptitude.

You would think that the Pentagon brass would be expediting the full opening of a new brain trauma facility in Bethesda, Maryland. After all, there's been a stirring front page story in the Washington Post by Greg Jaffe about the innumerable sufferers, there have been entreaties from top commanders in the field, and there was my own Daily Beast blog echoing the plaintive “Where are they now?” question from the facility’s chief fundraiser, addressed to all those officials who had two years to ready this facility and did not get the job done.

Instead, the Byzantine Pentagon bureaucracy, in its infinite curiousness, directed a press person from Deloitte (how much is the Pentagon paying this contractor for this service?) to send me the following email:

“In the recent article, 'Vet Snub Shocks Families' by Leslie Gelb, there is an error as it relates to the National Intrepid Center of Excellence (NICoE) event on 24 June, 2010 in Bethesda. Please note that the event on the 24th was not an opening but rather a Ribbon Cutting Dedication Ceremony and also the official day that the NICoE was transferred to the Department of Defense.

The Pentagon will have to forgive me for not accepting their request for confidentiality.

Additionally, the Director of the NICoE is misidentified in the article…Please note that the Director referred to in the article is Colonel Robert Saum, Director of the Defense Centers of Excellence (DCoE). The Director of the NICoE is Dr. James Kelly and he is not scheduled to retire anytime soon.

Lastly, the NICoE will begin accepting a small cohort of patients this fall and will be fully operational next year. In the meantime, the NICoE is focusing its efforts on the integration of the subject matter experts, staffing, setting up the clinical processes and preparing for patients.” (The message concluded with a confidentiality statement, saying use of the material beyond the recipient was “prohibited,” which must be a joke since the message requests that I make these “clarifications” public. So, the Pentagon will have to forgive me for not accepting their request for confidentiality.)

First, the Pentagon correctly notes that the June 24 event described in my first blog was a dedication and transfer of the facility from private to government hands, not an actual operational opening. Sure, I called it an “opening” (and so did Don Imus in his radio show that morning), but the whole point of the piece to anyone who read beyond the word “opening” was that the facility was NOT OPEN. In other words, the Pentagon was more concerned with how the event was labeled than with the facility’s not being open for business.

Second, the Pentagon correctly notes that Dr. Kelly (whom I did not name in the blog) is the director of the new facility, and that contrary to what the blog says, he is not preparing to leave his post. Interestingly, the Pentagon email says that “he is not scheduled to retire anytime soon.” I wonder what that means. The email goes on to note, however, that Col. Saum, who is Dr. Kelly’s boss, is planning to leave within a year. Saum is primarily responsible for the management of all of the Pentagon’s psychological and trauma-related facilities, including Bethesda. He is the unnamed one I was referring to in the blog, and he is the one whose departure within a year will damage the full start-up date for the Bethesda operation.

Leslie H. Gelb: Vet Snub Shocks FamiliesThird, and most compellingly, the email notes that the Bethesda unit will “begin accepting a small cohort of patients this fall.” Now, isn’t that terrific? After more than two-years notice to do the necessary preparations, the Pentagon will be ready in the fall for “a small cohort.” It is this very attitude, this profound complacency, that finally moved Arnold Fisher – the chief fundraiser and builder of this and many other healthcare-related facilities for wounded soldiers, vets, and their families – to finally break his silence about the Bethesda foot-dragging.

Most disturbing is the email’s reference to the event as “a ribbon cutting” affair. Indeed, that’s the Pentagon’s line to reporters about this matter, that it was a mere “ribbon cutting” event. That characterization tells you more than we all need to know about the Pentagon’s and the administration’s failure to see the great symbolic importance of that June 24 inaugural and its failure to make the full operation of the Bethesda facility a top priority.

I’ve had communications from senior serving military officers praising Arnold Fisher and his fundraising group and their decades-long dedication to the cause of the wounded. They are quite happy to see the bureaucracy getting a kick in the pants on this one.

But Fisher himself has a prime right to speak on the subject.

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“My only interest in this is to have the facility up and running as quickly as possible,” he said in an interview. “The Pentagon has had two-years notice on when this facility would be ready to go, and still the Pentagon is not ready to go. I have worked with Pentagon and military officials for many years now, and I know when they focus and when they care, they know how to get the job done, as they have many times before. I know they care. They need to focus,” he added with emotion.

This tragic situation can be fixed and fixed quickly by one man: Defense Secretary Bob Gates. He is a formidable leader of the Pentagon, and he knows how focus and to get things done. He, the Obama administration, and the rest of us, owe at least that much to those waiting for help.

Leslie H. Gelb, a former New York Times columnist and senior government official, is author of Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy (HarperCollins 2009), a book that shows how to think about and use power in the 21st century. He is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.