By Dan Moran
NORTH CHICAGO â€” Standing in the nation's first facility that combines the medical services of the Navy and the Veterans Administration, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and his VA counterpart, Eric Shinseki, outlined their commitments Monday to both the ongoing military presence in Afghanistan and the care that will be required for those returning from the mission.
"I'm delighted to have the opportunity to join Secretary Shinseki on this visit to this very impressive facility that you have here," Panetta said to doctors, administrators and service personnel gathered in a lobby at the Capt. James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center.
"Over the past two days, as many of you know, world leaders have gathered in Chicago to affirm our commitment to finishing the job right in Afghanistan," Panetta said. "This afternoon, Secretary Shinseki and I are coming together to affirm what in many ways is an equally important commitment â€” a commitment to care for and honor those who have protected our nation by serving it in uniform."
Panetta added that "in order to meet our sacred responsibilities to this next greatest generation, we are going to have to fully leverage the capabilities and strengths of both of our departments, and we must break down the barriers between our departments that prevent us from pertaining to deliver the highest quality care to those who need it."
"Perhaps the biggest obstacle," he said, "is the lack of a shared health-care records system between our two departments." He outlined plans to have a single integrated health-record system in place by 2017 that can be accessed at any military or VA facility to serve active-duty personnel and veterans.
Asked why the goal for completion has been set for 2017, Shinseki said constructing a lifetime electronic record system is "a significant challenge" when dealing with "two large and robust health care systems â€” maybe the two largest in the world, certainly the largest in this country."
Shinseki added that "we'll go as fast as we can" to finish the project "without sacrificing quality or safety." At one point, he deployed a regional axiom to describe the process of putting the two departments together at a site like the Lovell Center.
"As they say in Texas, where I've spent a little bit of time, you can't wring your hands and roll your sleeves up at the same time. You've got to choose one or the other," he said. "Between the VA and the DOD, we've rolled our sleeves up."
Panetta and Shinseki drove up from the NATO summit in Chicago for a mid-afternoon tour of the Lovell facilities, a portion of the visit that was closed to media. During a brief question-and-answer session, Panetta was asked about one of the summit weekend's protests, in which veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars tossed aside their service medals.
"Eric Shinseki served in the military, I served in the military, millions of men and women have served this country in uniform," said Panetta, a former Army intelligence officer. "Many of them have fought and died for liberties and freedoms that we enjoy in this country, and one of those liberties and freedoms is the ability to demonstrate.
"I think, for me, especially in this job, the greatest satisfaction I have is that there are men and women who are willing every day to put their lives on the line in order to protect this country and protect our freedoms," he added, "That's what we ought to focus on."
In a lighter moment, Panetta called attention to a guest sitting unobtrusively at the front of the seating area for his remarks.
"By the way, James Lovell is here," Panetta said, nodding toward the retired naval officer and Apollo 13 hero. "It's kind of fun to meet somebody you watched movies about. It's great. It's a thrill to have him here."