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Referring to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (WRNMMC) as "a place where miracles happen," Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta presented more than 300 WRNMMC staff members with his official coin on Tuesday, thanking them for the service to the nation.

"You are the miracle workers," Panetta said to the WRNMMC staff. "We are extremely proud and extremely fortunate to welcome our troops and their families back from war into your caring arms."

Panetta's visit was not only to thank staff, but also to observe the one-year anniversary of the medical center's dedication as WRNMMC, the Department of Defense's largest health-care facility resulting from the integration of the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center and former National Naval Medical Center.

"Secretary Panetta, just over a year ago, you hosted the dedication ceremony for what was then the new Walter Reed National Military Medical Center," said Rear Adm. Alton L. Stocks, WRNMMC commander. "Your words touched many of us that day because you pointed out it's the people who make the biggest difference in the start of the new medical center. Many of those people are here today [and] we stand before you as [one] team." The admiral then presented the secretary of defense with a coin depicting the joint military service health-care facility he calls "the Nation's Medical Center."

"I commend all of you for your willingness to work together as a team and to make this a success," Panetta said. "What you have here is a world-class center for healing, for compassion and for empowerment.

"This is a season of renewal, a season of joy, of peace and of looking to the future and being thankful for the past, and all of that is encompassed in this great medical center," Panetta continued. "That's what it is all about -- giving people that second chance at life, and that's what you do."

As secretary of defense, Panetta said the toughest part of his job is writing notes to the families of those who have lost loved ones in war. "It's tough because as the father of three sons, recognizing the pain that the family must feel at the lost of a loved one is something that leaves a deep impact on me." He called those who sacrificed their lives in service to their country, and "for all they loved, American heroes forever."

He added the most memorable moments of his job are coming to Walter Reed Bethesda and visiting wounded warriors, "because the opportunity to be able to look into their eyes and see a spirit of wanting to fight on, and wanting to get back into the battle and wanting to be whole again and knowing if they fight hard enough, they'll make that work." The secretary said these wounded warriors have an "undying spirit of renewal" which represents the spirit of America.

"We as a nation owe them an incredible debt of gratitude for their service and for their sacrifice -- men and women who are willing to put their lives on the line for this country, who are willing to fight and die for the United States of America, that represents the great strength of our country," Panetta said. "[They] are the heart and soul of what makes us the strongest country in the world."

The secretary said when those who put so much on the line for their country are injured, "we owe them the finest medical care the nation can provide. That's why I'm so grateful we have the greatest medical health care system in the world.

"The strength of our system lies in you, and people like you -- thousands of dedicated professionals who are committed to caring for our sick and for our injured," Panetta told the WRNMMC staff. "Today I want to thank you, along with the entire military medical community, for the exceptional care and exceptional support that you provide for our service members, the men and women in uniform, for their families,[and] for our military retirees. You give them a second chance at life."

There continues to be challenges faced by WRNMMC and the military medical community as the nation continues at war, which has lasted more than a decade -- "the longest sustained period of war in the history of the United States, [and there has been] a non-stop flow of casualties," the defense secretary said.

"Our military medical community has risen to the challenge, time and time and time again," Panetta added. "You provided thorough and effective care for over 50,000 wounded warriors, and you've helped ensure that millions of our men and women in uniform are healthy and able to perform their vital missions."

He added 98 percent of the wounded who reach combat support hospitals survive their injuries, "the highest rate of survival this country has ever achieved. You make this happen by standing side-by-side as one time, as one joint facility. You have become one of the best medical teams in the world," the secretary added.

Panetta said DoD must continue to be ready to meet troops returning from war, physical health, emotional well-being, and successful transition back into society. "We [have] to be ready to meet those challenges," he said. "Since 2001, nearly 250,000 men and women of the armed services have suffered traumatic brain injuries, and many more remain undiagnosed." He cited a number of initiatives undertaken to care and diagnosed wounded warriors with TBI, including the building of concussion restoration centers in combat theaters, and the development of TBI centers at many military bases around the world including at WRNMMC.

Suicide also remains a challenge for DoD, just as it has for society as a whole, Panetta said. "The greatest challenge is identifying those who need our help," said the secretary, urging service members to look out for one another. He added in the past year, the Veterans Affairs Department and DoD have committed an additional $150 million to support mental health awareness, diagnosis and treatment.

"We're working to increase the number of mental health professionals, improve access to suicide hotlines [and] emphasize family counseling," Panetta said. "We've got to continue this fight on every front. We've got to make people in the chain of command, people that serve next to each other in a squad, have a sense for looking out for one another, of spotting those conditions, of understanding that there may be trouble.

"You are, as I said, miracle workers, the absolute best at what you do, and we owe it to you to make sure that you have the full support you need in order to do your job. Your skill, your dedication -- that tender compassionate care that you provide those who serve in uniform, those qualities are second to none," Panetta concluded.