A medical headquarters built at Joint Base Lewis-McChord during years of heavy fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan could close as the Army continues a postwar drawdown, according to documents obtained by The News Tribune.
The proposal to close the Western Regional Medical Command, which employs about 200 people at JBLM, is intended to give the Army fewer medical headquarters, according to sources familiar with the plan.
It could happen as soon as 2016, they said.
It follows the Defense Department’s plan to shrink the size of the active-duty Army from its recent peak of 562,000 soldiers in 2011 to a force of fewer than 450,000. JBLM has already lost about 5,000 soldiers to that drawdown.
The JBLM medical headquarters oversees 11 hospitals in 20 Western states, including at other large Army posts, such as Fort Carson in Colorado. It’s located at Madigan Army Medical Center.
In 2009, the Army expanded the Western Regional Medical Command to its present size as it sought to improve oversight of hospitals caring for troops returning from war.
It would be replaced by a different medical command in Hawaii that would manage Army medicine along the Pacific Rim at posts including JBLM, Fort Wainwright in Alaska and Fort Shafter in Hawaii. JBLM could receive a one-star medical officer to act as deputy commander or rear detachment commander for the new medical headquarters.
The Western Regional Medical Command is one of five large Army regional medical commands around the world. It normally is led by a two-star general. Its current commander, Brig. Gen. John Cho, has been suspended from his normal duties during a Defense Department Inspector General investigation into his leadership.
The Army Surgeon General’s office wants to reduce the number of regional medical headquarters to four, according to a summary of the proposal emailed to Madigan Army Medical Center employees last week.
If approved, the plan would build two-star medical headquarters in the following locations (in addition to the one in Hawaii):
• Fort Belvoir, Va., to manage Army medicine for East Coast Army posts that fall under the command of the XVIII Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg, N.C. That includes the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, N.Y. and the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Ky.
• Joint Base San Antonio, Texas, to oversee Army medicine at Rocky Mountain and Midwest posts that report to the III Corps at Fort Hood, Texas. That footprint includes posts such as Fort Bliss in Texas and Fort Carson, Colorado.
• A European medical command to manage Army hospitals in Germany and Italy.
The proposal has not yet been approved by the Department of the Army, according to the summary that was emailed by Madigan Army Medical Center Chief of Staff Lt. Col. Craig Fisher.
U.S. Rep. Denny Heck, D-Olympia, said he’s troubled by the proposal to eliminate the JBLM command. His district includes the base.
“I have misgivings about the proposed plan to realign the Army’s medical commands. We must make sure any change does not impact access to quality care for our troops. I have been in contact with the Office of the Surgeon General to find out the reasoning behind this suggestion and understand the path forward for the Pacific region,” he said.
The Madigan staff email said the Army wants to align medical commands with the Army’s three-star corps headquarters.
JBLM is one of three stateside bases with a corps headquarters, but the medical command proposal appears to favor the Army’s growing Pacific Command in Hawaii over the I Corps command here.
The Army in 2013 elevated Pacific Command from a three-star headquarters to a four-star position as a signal of its intent to focus more resources on South and East Asia. The Army Pacific commander now oversees all troops in Alaska, Hawaii and Washington.
JBLM’s I Corps, in turn, manages the 7th Infantry Division here and the 25th Infantry Division in Hawaii and Alaska. I Corps is a three-star headquarters.