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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.

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?"

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