By Kevin Sieff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 25, 2010; B07
Staff Sgt. Robert Carras was pushing a shopping cart through a Wal-Mart when, he said, he felt something creeping up behind him. He looked over his shoulder, ready to face down familiar threats: gunmen, insurgents, improvised explosive devices.
He took a deep breath. "You're in Wal-Mart," he told himself. "Not Iraq."
That was three years ago. Carras, who received a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder in 2008, has since struggled to treat what he calls his "invisible wounds" -- painful vestiges of his tours in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Sitting in the living room of a gleaming new medical center in Bethesda, Carras, a native of Puerto Rico, said the facility gives him reason to be hopeful.
The $65 million medical center, which opened Thursday, is devoted exclusively to helping members of the military who suffer from traumatic brain injuries, PTSD and other psychological issues.
Its opening comes on the heels of a flurry of congressional criticism and reports claiming that soldiers with traumatic brain injuries often do not have their conditions diagnosed and are forced to wade through the vast bureaucracy of the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Help and Traumatic Brain Injury, which is charged with their treatment. According to military records, about 115,000 troops have suffered mild traumatic brain injury since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began.
The Defense Centers of Excellence has "made some serious management missteps that call into question its ability to properly administer such a large and important function," Rep. Susan A. Davis (D-Calif.) told the House Armed Services Committee in April.
Even during Thursday's ribbon-cutting at the Bethesda facility, called the National Intrepid Center of Excellence, the Pentagon's alleged negligence was brought up. That morning, Loree Sutton, director of the Defense Centers of Excellence, had unexpectedly stepped down.
Sutton's resignation and the criticism levied against the program have emboldened the Intrepid Center's directors, who built the facility -- called a cooperative effort between private and public sectors -- with contributions from 125,000 donors.
"It's not acceptable to sweep these wounded veterans under the rug," said Arnold Fisher, chairman of the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund, which the raised money for the facility. He criticized the lack of White House representation at the ceremony.
"These are the very people who decide your fate. . . . We are all here, but where are they?"
The National Intrepid Center, a 72,000-square-foot facility on the grounds of the National Naval Medical Center, offers a variety of services, including advanced digital imaging technology and a serene "naturalistic center" called Central Park.
The center's opening marks an important step toward the government's goal of closing Walter Reed Army Medical Center by 2011. All medical operations will be transferred to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda and an Army hospital at Fort Belvoir in southern Fairfax County.
"It's a step in the right direction," said William J. Lynn, deputy undersecretary of Defense. "But we still face challenges in treating these wounds."
Carras said he lives that challenge every day.
"It's hard enough to seek treatment to fight off the perception that you're weak," Carras said. "And then finding the right treatment is another struggle."