FIG1The day dawned cloudy with
threatening rain, but on May 9, Loree Sutton, M.D., was, as that famous pop
song goes, "walking on sunshine."
Heading up the Defense Center of Excellence for Psychological Health and
Traumatic Brain Injury "is the best thing that could ever come up for me
at this point in my career," said Brig. Gen. Loree Sutton.
Credit: Defense Department
In early March she was promoted from U.S. Army colonel to brigadier
general, making her the highest-ranking military psychiatrist not only in the
Army but also in the Department of Defense (DoD), the largest employer in the
country. President Bush had nominated her the previous May when she was
commander of the Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center at Fort Hood, Texas. The
Senate confirmed her appointment a few weeks later.
Now a year later, she was finally carving out a day from her tight schedule
to celebrate her promotion in the Terrace Theater at the John F. Kennedy
Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.(see Ceremony, Praise
Accompany Promotion). In the audience of a couple of hundred people were
former APA President Carolyn Robinowitz, M.D., and APA Medical Director James
H. Scully Jr., M.D.
"I first met Doctor/General Sutton at APA working with the late Jay
Cutler," Robinowitz told Psychiatric News, referring to the
person who had headed APA's government relations efforts for many years."
Even that early in her career, she clearly was outstanding, and it was
easy to see that she would become a leader," Robinowitz said.
Sutton now serves as the director of the newly established Defense Center
of Excellence (DCoE) for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury
"She heads up not only the Army ... but also the DoD initiatives on
posttraumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury and other
psychological consequences of war for military members and their
families," one of her mentors, Robert Ursano, M.D., chair of the
Department of Psychiatry at the Uniformed Services University of the Health
Sciences in Bethesda, Md., told Psychiatric News.
The one-star general is to bring together under one umbrella the DoD's
scattered and complex mental health care system to benefit all the branches of
service; to seek ways to increase the system's manpower; and to establish
quality standards for research, clinical care, education, training, prevention
programs, and outreach to patients, families, and communities.
"She has been asked to do that in one year of time," noted
Ursano. "To successfully accomplish that takes a tremendous sense of
vision, organization, knowledge, and commitment of one's time and energy and
life, and she meets all those characteristics."
Sutton stepped up to this assignment around the time when DoD was being
pummeled by news media and Congressional inquiries that suggested that perhaps
the military health system was unprepared and ill equipped to care for
military members who were coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan with TBI or
symptoms of PTSD.
A 2007 DoD "Task Force on Mental Health" report stated"
Our involvement in the Global War on Terrorism has created unforeseen
demands not only on individual military service members and their families,
but also on the Department of Defense itself, which must expand its
capabilities to support the psychological health of its service members and
"It's a tremendous challenge to keep our arms around them,"
Sutton said of these war casualties in an interview with Psychiatric
News in her office not far from the Pentagon. "We are committed to
absolutely providing the best tools and resources—in clinical care,
education and training, research, outreach"—to assist them.
It's about the three "Rs," she says: providing care and support
that encourages resiliency, recovery, and the healthy reintegration of
military members back into the lives of their families, communities, and
society at large.
Sutton, who was born and raised in Loma Linda, Calif., was no stranger to
medicine when she chose it as a vocation. Her mother was a cardiac-care nurse,
and she fondly recalls occasionally carrying the medical satchel of her
physician grandfather—"an old time country doctor [who] looked
liked he walked out of a Norman Rockwell painting"—as he made
After graduating from Pacific Union College, she entered medical school at
Loma Linda University and completed her psychiatry residency at Letterman Army
Medical Center at the Presidio of San Francisco.
Why psychiatry? "I loved everything I did in medical school. I loved
all my rotations," Sutton said. But then she met psychology professor
Blake Keasey, Ph.D. "He was so passionate—passionate about his
patients, passionate about the intersection of what we were learning about the
brain and all of the science and technology and imaging.... I just followed my
heart from there."
Following her residency, Sutton was on the move. After serving as a mental
health officer in the Sinai, Egypt, she was promoted to a division
psychiatrist and deployed to operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Among
the postings that followed were as chief of inpatient psychiatry at William
Beaumont Medical Center in Texas, commander at DeWitt Army Community
Hospital/Health Care Network in Virginia, and command surgeon, U.S. Army
Forces Command, in Fort McPherson, Ga. Her two-year Fort Hood command
Last winter, with basically a phone and a skeleton staff of maybe six,
Sutton officially opened up the Defense Center of Excellence for Psychological
Health and Traumatic Brain Injury. She said it is now a far-flung workforce of
more than 150 military and civilian mental health care professionals and their
"We are now a center of centers," Sutton said, referring to six
existing organizations that until now had operated independently of one
One of the centers is DCoE's global headquarters, Sutton's hub of
operations, or as she refers to it, the "dugout." Among the other
centers are the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center (DVBIC) and the
Deployment Health Clinical Center (DHCC), both located at Walter Reed Army
Medical Center in Washington, D.C.; the Center for Deployment Psychology; and
the Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress located at the Uniformed Services
University of the Health Sciences. The DVBIC and DHCC will ultimately relocate
with Walter Reed Army Medical Center to its new Bethesda, Md., campus. Also on
the campus and now under construction adjacent to the new Walter Reed Military
Medical Center will be center number seven: the National Intrepid Center for
NICoE will serve as the hub of the global collaborative network of public
and private partners working together to ensure the most advanced care for
military member in need and their families. At NICoE they will receive
intensive outpatient evaluation, advanced diagnostics, treatment
plans/modalities, and long-term follow-up, said Sutton, who took part in the
June 5 groundbreaking.
At DCoE no day is the same. One day Sutton is responding to a
time-sensitive inquiry from Congress; another day she is attending a promotion
of "Talk, Listen, Connect," a Sesame (Street) Workshop-produced
multimedia, support kit for children that addresses the feelings they have
about a parent or loved one who's been sent off to war.
Most recently Sutton has been hosting "summits" around the
country to build what she views as DCoE's larger supporting team—a world
network of experts, military and civilian, to help develop the best treatment
standards for mental illness and outreach practices for returning members of
DCoE "is the best thing that could ever come up for me at this point
in my career," she reflected. "We can fool ourselves by thinking
that perhaps our own personal skills, attributes, and abilities are what
matter most. But I tell you, there's nothing like standing up something from
nothing to both humble one and to be reminded that without a team nothing
Information about the Defense Center of Excellence and Sutton's
vision for it is posted at<www.dcoe.health.mil/about.htm>.▪