Editor’s note: The following is an opinion piece. The writer is not employed by Military Times and the views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of Military Times or its editorial staff.
Field tents in a parking lot. That is what one VA outpatient clinic is operating out of in Puerto Rico, half a year after Hurricane Maria wreaked havoc on the island.
Debris remains piled up on the side of the road, like snow after a blizzard. Trees are down. Blue tarps are tacked down where roofs used to be. Approximately 10 percent of the island’s residents still don’t have power.
Driving down the winding roads in the more rural areas of the island and witnessing the destruction that is still evident, I couldn’t help but marvel at how quickly the media has moved on from what is considered by some to be the most logistically challenging natural disaster in modern U.S. history. There is still so much work to do.
I was joining Rep. Dr. Phil Roe, who chairs the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, and Rep. Jenniffer González-Colón, of Puerto Rico, for a field hearing on how to best maximize VA resources in Puerto Rico moving forward. It was the first VA congressional hearing ever held on the island, which is home to over 100,000 American veterans.
The VA plays a major role here: Approximately 72 percent of veterans on the island who are eligible for care from the VA in Puerto Rico are using it. That’s almost double the rate on the U.S. mainland.
During our trip, we also spent time at several VA clinics and sat down with representatives from local veterans service organizations. From all accounts, it sounds like the VA responded exactly how they should have in the aftermath of the storm, providing immediate aid and assistance with courage and professionalism.
We also heard story after story of veterans who went out among the devastation of their own accord to check on how fellow vets fared in the hurricanes. I was encouraged but not surprised — that’s just what our veterans do. They put others before themselves. They serve.
But it is clear that conditions are still grim, even six months after the storm.
A shortage of doctors has impeded the recovery effort and care. Due to the island’s economic challenges, many doctors move away to seek better-paying opportunities. The storm has only exacerbated that problem.
This doctor shortage affects our veterans’ care both in the VA and out, since the only Level I Trauma Center in both Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands is at the public hospital.
Here, I believe this obstacle could prove to be an opportunity. The island could provide a practical training opportunity for our advanced military health care providers, active duty and reservist alike, who need to sharpen their trauma-level medical skills and provide meaningful medical care for the people of Puerto Rico. Only trauma centers see wounds similar to those experienced on the battlefield, and if our doctors do not practice surgery repetitions in battlefield similar environments, they cannot be adequately prepared to deploy.
As a colonel in the Army Reserve and a combat surgeon who spent one year in Iraq, I know firsthand how valuable hands-on experience in challenging environments can be for the combat readiness of our military’s medical personnel.
We must continue to look for innovative and resourceful solutions to provide care for the Americans and veterans who call the island home. While the media may have moved on, we must not. We must work together to ensure those who have been hit the hardest by hurricanes Irma and Maria have access to the care and support that they need.
Our men and women in uniform can help. It’s a win-win.
Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, has served in the Army Reserve since 1998 and earned a Bronze Star Medal for his work as a combat surgeon in Iraq in 2005-06. Elected to Congress in 2012, he serves on the House Armed Services Committee, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and the House Veterans Affairs Committee as the chairman of its health subcommittee.