Journalism in the Public Interest

Pentagon Shifts Its Story About Departure of Leader of Brain Injury Center

The Pentagon now says that a general who led the military’s effort to handle brain injuries was asked to step down. A spokeswoman for the general had earlier said that the reassignment was routine.


Brig. Gen. Loree K. Sutton, the now-former director of the Defense Centers of Excellence, addresses the audience during the Department of Defense/Department of Veterans Affairs Mental Health Summit in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 26, 2009. (DoD Photo by Cherie Cullen/Released)

The Pentagon has pledged in recent days to improve its care for soldiers with mild traumatic brain injury -- and one place that might need some attention is communications at the top.

Earlier this month, we reported that the military was routinely failing to diagnose such injuries, which are the most common head wounds sustained by soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. We also found that soldiers had trouble getting adequate treatment at one of America's largest military bases, Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas.

Since then, Congress and the military have taken a number of steps to redress the issues we raised. The Senate Armed Services, for instance, grilled military leaders on the topic at hearing. Rep. Harry Teague, D-N.M., wrote a letter demanding answers on the care at Fort Bliss.

We also reported last week that the leader of the Pentagon's premier research center into brain injury had unexpectedly stepped down just days before the June 24 dedication of a new, cutting-edge medical center for head traumas, post-traumatic stress disorder and other so-called invisible wounds of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Then things got strange. Our story quoted a spokeswoman for Brig. Gen. Loree Sutton who said Sutton was stepping down from the Defense Centers of Excellence because she had turned down a post in the military's European medical command, a decision that meant she would retire. The spokeswoman, Cathy Haight, described it as part of a normal process of command rotation.

Two days later, we got a message from Sutton's boss, Charles Rice, the assistant secretary of defense for health affairs. A Pentagon spokeswoman, Eileen Lainez, said that Haight "misspoke." Sutton stepped down after Rice decided "that a change in leadership was necessary to continue moving the organization forward," Lainez said.

This struck us as odd. Was Rice going out of his way to tell us that he had fired Sutton? If so, why? And why did he decide to ask Sutton to step down only days before the dedication of the National Intrepid Center of Excellence?

Lainez had no further comment. "I'm just providing clarification on the reassignment," she said.

Then it got weirder still. As part of the original story, which ran the day before the dedication, we reported that Sutton had canceled her appearance at the ceremony, citing this press release from the center: "BG Loree K. Sutton will no longer be in attendance."

Afterward, another spokeswoman for the general contacted us to say that Sutton had never canceled. She said the press release issued by the center was wrong. Sutton had attended the ceremony and several related events.

"Clearly, there was some confusion and I understand how this mistake could occur in the final hours of preparation of the event," Judith Evans wrote. Sutton, she said, "was seated in a VIP section ... and acknowledged by speakers during remarks at the ceremony."

Evans declined to answer any follow-up questions on Sutton, who also did not respond to requests for clarification. The Defense Centers of Excellence still has not announced her departure publicly. Sutton now works in the office of Army Surgeon General Eric Schoomaker.

The new center, which is in Bethesda, Md., apologized for the error: "We understood the information about Gen. Sutton's attendance at the NICoE dedication ceremony to be correct at the time and regret any miscommunication," said Jody Fisher, a spokesman for Rubenstein Communications, the firm that handled PR for the event. "We were very pleased that she was able to attend the event."

Sutton had both fans and enemies, as we reported. Congress found fault with her management skills, but some veterans' advocates praised her tireless devotion to soldiers and their families.

Critics of the military's health system have noted a power vacuum at the top of the military medical structure. Four people in just over three years have rotated through the Pentagon's top health position, the assistant secretary of defense for health affairs.

One figure reportedly upset by the way the new $65 million brain-injury center debuted was Arnold Fisher, a New York real estate magnate and philanthropist who led the fundraising to build it.

Fisher, according to The Washington Post, said it was "unacceptable" to ignore the needs of wounded veterans. He criticized the White House for not sending any representatives to the ceremony.

"These are the very people who decide your fate," Fisher told the Post. "We are all here, but where are they?"

Unless there is something here related to policy or program differences why is this newsworthy?

Though I hesitate to argue with other commenters as I know some of my postings may look hasty - Bob: what in this story or this particular update isn’t newsworthy? The fact that the military in an endlessly agonizing conflict, where the most prevalent and devastating injuries are traumatic head injuries, has wasted so much negative energy in denying the injured suitable treatment or even, occasionally, denying such injuries exist, horrifies me. Every part of this is news: that some brain-injured soldiers have been shunted aside as having “preexisting conditions”!!! This doesn’t strike everybody as so bad you have to laugh? Thanks, ProPublica.

BG Sutton is one of the best- if not The Best - effective and dedicated Army Medical Command Leaders.  It is newsworthy because the Army Medical Command will be losing one of it’s finest during a time when leaders like Sutton are needed the most. (modestly put)

Centers of Excellence
Defence Centers of Excellence
National Intrepid Center of Excellence

It’s easy to give something a name but quite a bit harder to demonstrate that its output is excellent.

This is the work of academics and politicians.

SNAFU lives.

Marcie Hascall Clark

July 2, 2010, 9:31 a.m.

Somebody needs to note the shifting propaganda that comes out of military medical.

Karl R,. Wood

July 4, 2010, 7:37 p.m.

Who cares about the politics of whose in charge or not and why?- give those injured vets all the best treatment that is available-if the military cant or wont do it properly because the vets are volunteers who believe in the US mission and the ‘carers’ do not,get NEW ‘carers’ to do the job.Bring in contractors if necessary.Wake up USA,politics is just bullshit.

gunste got it right.  Anyone with any experience in the military can see the SNAFU.  Such communication errors at that level are usually the result of some unresolved conflicts that may linger at that high of a staff level.  Then the PIO tried to straighten it out and failed to talk to all involved before opening its communication device.  It reminds me of an old cartoon called “Major Hoople”  wherein nothing was as it appeared to the public. I suspect this tempest in a teapot is just that.  a nothing occurrence that can be interpreted many ways..

Why is this news?  Anyone who has ever worked in a clinical position can answer this.  Is the person “stepping down” being forced out for patient and staff advocacy considered either conflicting with or simply impolitic with the “corporate” goals of making all appear well and good and smooth?  Is the person who will be the replacement a clinical person, an advocate, willing to speak up and out—or is a bean counter deemed more necessary, or, even worse, a dreaded MBA or PR type administrator—someone with little to no clinical experience, or one who has forgotten that clinical reasons are the ultimate and foremost responsibility of leadership.  A generation of young people with damaged brains will impact our country in every way.  Aside from the fact that our veterans must have people who care, who want to learn how we can cope with and treat this very real health problem, our veterans will also be our civilians one day, as are their families, neighbors, caregivers.  I think this will emerge as a public health issue.  So all of us eventually, and all soldier/patients immediately, need this news.  The article simply needs to be a bit more explanatory.

Rebecca Sanford

July 7, 2010, 9:42 p.m.

Anytime discrepancies in Military processes are brought to light via the Public Media, the first step is to “appease the minions” by providing the appearance of getting to the root of the matter.  This usually involves “heads rolling”.  In the Military arena this usually involves eliminating (read: reassigning) someone who has touched a “nerve” and needs to be squelched, or shuffling off (read: reassigning) a person who has been the SOURCE of the “nerve”.  Either way it causes a further disruption in the system because now someone new will be put in the position.  Most networking gains with the previous Party, if any will be disrupted.  Sometimes this is good.  Sometimes this is not productive at all.

I believe the most appropriate acronym is FUBAR

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
Brain Wars

Brain Wars: How the Military Is Failing Its Wounded

The military has failed to diagnose brain injuries in thousands of soldiers returning from overseas.

The Story So Far

Traumatic brain injury is considered the “signature wound” of soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Official military statistics show that more than 115,000 soldiers have suffered mild traumatic brain injuries since the wars began. Shock waves from roadside bombs can ripple through soldiers’ brains, causing damage that sometimes leaves no visible scars but may cause lasting mental and physical harm.

More »

Get Updates

Our Hottest Stories