The Army Medical Specialist Corps has a difficult mission, but Col. Nikki Powell Butler says it is up to the task.
"The times are challenging," acknowledged the 1984 graduate of Rogue River High School. "But we are really poised to help turn things around. The time is right for our corps."
Butler, 46, who ran track and cross country for the Chieftains, was appointed the 18th chief of the Corps in November.
The unit, which has more than 1,500 specialists scattered at Army bases around the globe working to ensure military readiness, provides highly trained clinicians to work as occupational therapists, physical therapists, dietitians and physician assistants. Established in 1947, the corps added physician assistants to its ranks in 1992.
Butler was the director of the rehabilitation and reintegration division at the Office of the Surgeon General in Falls Church, Va. She was deployed to Iraq in 2010, and has also served in the Sinai, Germany and various posts stateside, including Washington, D.C., Fort Campbell, Ky., Fort Drum, N.Y. and Fort Hood, Texas.
A 1989 graduate of the University of Oregon where she was a member of the ROTC, majoring in physical education with a minor in biology, she and her husband, retired Col. Kevin Greenwood, have a daughter and a son. The family lives in Brandenburg, Ky. along with her parents, Betty and Gordy Powell.
Noting that much of the unit's work is to prevent injuries through prevention and promoting wellness, Butler observed those goals can be difficult to obtain in times of conflict.
"We were in the single busiest clinic in Iraq," she said. "There was only two of us at that time doing therapy. A lot of guys who came in had been to the clinic multiple times for treatment. The problem was their injuries were never allowed to heal. They are in Iraq for a year, then a year later are back again."
While on duty in a war zone, soldiers pack a lot of gear, including wearing heavy armor, she said, adding the lion's share of ailments involve chronic pain from back problems.
During their down time, many of the soldiers work out in a gym, giving their bodies little time to heal, she said.
"Those types of injuries are much harder to treat," she added. "You do a lot of restorative therapy and preventative measures."
However, she was quick to observe that soldiers are excellent patients who are eager to work with the medical specialists.
The most common health issue in the service is not inflicted by an enemy, but rather by the military members themselves.
"The biggest challenge we have is the obesity issue," Butler said. "Our population as a whole is getting heavier and heavier and more unfit. We face the same problem in the military."
When in harm's way, a soldier often doesn't get enough sleep while working long hours and eating a lot of calories, she said.
"In those conditions, you have a propensity to gain weight," she said. "We need activity and the right nutrition. It's extremely challenging when you can't get those."
Another major concern are the traumatic brain injuries suffered by soldiers in both Afghanistan and Iraq, she said.
"The signature weapon of these wars are the IEDs (improvised explosive devices), which produce both the TBIs and amputations," she said.
The occurrences of brain injuries won't end with those wars, she cautioned.
"More than 80 percent of the TBIs we see happen in garrison," Butler said. "A majority of them happen when you are doing everyday stuff in the military."
That includes everything from jumping out of aircraft to playing sports and motor vehicle accidents, she said.
"We have been partnering with the NFL on researching brain injuries," she said. "The football commissioners have been very supportive. Concern about TBIs is why you see a lot of penalties being called now for any hits to the head.
"With football, you don't know if one hit is going to be a problem or if it takes three or five hits," she added. "The same goes for concussions anyone receives doing whatever it happens to be."
The Army has also been working with major medical schools, including those at John Hopkins and UCLA, to reduce the TBI injuries, she said.
The bottom line is that all brain injuries should be identified and treated as quickly as possible, she added.
Butler expects to lead the Medical Specialist Corps for three to four years before retiring from the Army.
"It has been my honor to serve," she said. "I work with some really fantastic people. It's a great job."
Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at email@example.com.