The new director of the Defense Health Agency is a “wonder woman” and “the baddest woman in the Army,” said her former boss, the Army surgeon general.

During Lt. Gen. Telita Crosland’s promotion ceremony Jan. 20, Army Surgeon General Lt. Gen. R. Scott Dingle praised Crosland for her character and her accomplishments and praised her parents for their guidance and the values they instilled.

But for all the accomplishments of the graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, through her 30 years in the Army, Dingle said Crosland has made it clear her greatest achievement is being a mom.

During the ceremony in which Crosland was promoted to lieutenant general, Dingle praised Crosland’s work as deputy surgeon in recent years, coming through a challenging time for the Army, as well as her own personal challenges, including the death of her husband three years ago.

The service’s medical personnel dealt with COVID-19, health issues of Afghanistan evacuees and massive military reform of the military medical system. But the pandemic and the Afghanistan mission helped her clarify how the services can work together as a team, Crosland said, in a recent interview with Military Times and other media, shortly before her promotion ceremony.

Crosland, who most recently has served as the Army deputy surgeon general, said her work as an Army family physician, and her approach to life, will be evident in her work at the Defense Health Agency. She took command Jan. 3.

And she’s not sure whether her experience as a family physician will influence how she approaches DHA as much as the fact that she’s a family physician “because of who I am.”

“All of that together will influence how I lead DHA,” said Crosland.

“I think the way folks will see that come out as [DHA] director is that I’m very focused on the patient in the center, very focused on the human being…. not just the patient, but the person,” Crosland said.

In family medicine, that includes the home environment such as rugs that could be trip hazards, a patient’s nutrition needs and whether they are able to get enough food to improve their health, she said. The work also includes the other people in the patient’s life who influence their well-being.

Family medicine is about the holistic person, she said. “That will come out as I look at our health care system to make sure that ultimately that’s what we’re about…..improving the health of an individual, whether you wear a uniform, you wore a uniform, or you served side by side with someone who wore a uniform.

“We’re very much about the human being,” she said. And she loves the variety of patients she has cared for, from newborns to retired Vietnam and World War II veterans.

Crosland emphasized the importance of caring for all the 9.6 million beneficiaries in the Military Health System.

As the Defense Health Agency implements a new iteration of the $136 billion Tricare contracts scheduled to start in 2024, Crosland said she’ll focus on integrating the two systems — the direct care through the military treatment facilities, and the civilian care through Tricare, which includes a network of civilian health care professionals, institutions, pharmacies, and suppliers.

Crosland said that means she’ll work with the awardees of the Tricare contract “tightly to make sure that we can see the quality that’s going out in the community,” to see what the needs are of beneficiaries and make sure they’re taken care of.

“That’s who I’m talking to. Those we are privileged to serve,” said Crosland. “It’s about the human being in our health care system, everyone we care for including those who are not in our [military treatment facilities].”

‘A sporty three years’

For more than three years, while the world was dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic, Crosland served as the Army Deputy Surgeon General and Deputy Commanding General (Operations) of Army Medical Command. It was also a period where the medical structures of the Army and other branches of services were going through a major reform. Then the Afghanistan withdrawal happened in August 2021, and medical personnel in all the military branches were helping to take care of the health needs of the evacuees from Afghanistan.

“It was a sporty three years,” she said, describing the period of a number of challenges for all the service branches’ medical forces.

They were heavily involved in the national response to the COVID-19 pandemic, while maintaining a ready and protected military force. Then, as the Delta COVID-19 variant surged across the U.S., the services were providing medical personnel to take care of health care needs of evacuees from Afghanistan – including delivering babies on airplanes, but also bringing them into the United States and getting them vaccinated and working with a number of federal agencies to get the individuals assimilated into the United States.

At the same time, the congressionally mandated reform effort to transition more than 700 military medical, dental and veterinary facilities from the Army, Navy and Air Force to the DHA umbrella was in full swing. The goal is for DHA to directly manage all military hospitals and clinics and integrate military health care with the Tricare network of providers.

“The transition was tough. It was tough. First of all, it’s change, arguably the largest change in the Department of Defense since the Air Force moved from the Army,” Crosland said. “We’re talking about bringing all the military health care systems into one entity. Change is difficult.”

But the essence of the services’ military health care has never changed, she said.

And, she said, “the pandemic showed what we’re for. It didn’t change, and today it hasn’t changed. We’re still a military health care system that has to take care of the force, and the beneficiaries we’re privileged to serve.”

The pandemic helped clarify for her, she said, how the Defense Health Agency can work better with the services, consolidating what’s more common between them. “What’s different is our service culture,” she said, but those cultural differences are on the margins of what the military health system mission is, which is to improve health and build readiness.

Throughout the pandemic, and bringing the evacuees back from Afghanistan, medical personnel continued to take care of patients around the world, and continued other missions such as training residents, doctors, nurses and medics, she said.

“We did that as a team. If we focus on that, those are really good lessons on how we can move forward together to continue to make sure when the next crisis occurs, we’re as effective, if not better,” she said.

And she wants to get the word out that the reform is over.

“Now the agency is very much about executing its mission, to improve health and build readiness. Any time, anywhere, always,” she said.

While there are only so many hours in the day, she plans to reach out as much as possible to connect with those in the military community. “It’s important to make the effort, even though I know I won’t get to every place. It helps me stay current, and helps me stay relevant.” To do this, she’s using virtual tools as well as in-person meetings.

This family physician is also very family-centered. Her face lights up as talks about her 12-year-old son Jackson. “I’m blessed with a couple of things. First, he’s a good kid. He’s resilient, he’s happy. He’s not perfect, but he’s my perfect. He’s well-adjusted. That allows me to keep serving, because if he wasn’t, then I would likely make different decisions.”

Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.

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