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Originally published April 18, 2013 at 9:58 PM | Page modified April 20, 2013 at 12:50 PM

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Corrected version

Army panel shut down over ‘toxic’ training methods

An investigation concluded that leaders of the national program, based at Madigan Army Medical Center in Western Washington, sometimes used “bullying tactics” and created “a wolf pack mentality” when training its staff.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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A high-profile Army Medical Command task force charged with improving the health care atmosphere among patients and staff was shut down late last year after an investigation found that it created a “toxic and intimidating working environment” in its own ranks.

The investigation concluded that leaders of the national program, based at Madigan Army Medical Center in Western Washington, sometimes used “bullying tactics” and created “a wolf pack mentality” when training its staff.

The investigative report also noted the use of questionable “Wiccan practices” in training, such as using stones and crystal bowls for “energy readiness.”

The Army Medical Command said Thursday the task force, which spent more than $3 million, was shut down because “it failed to execute its assigned mission and was promoting an internal hostile work environment.”

The 721-page report of the investigation, first obtained by KUOW Public Radio under the federal Freedom of Information Act, criticized the leadership of Claudette Elliott, director of the task force, who was identified by title but with her name redacted in the document.

Elliott, who describes herself as an “organizational development consultant,” led a 26-person task force that was charged with conducting training sessions at medical centers across the county. The training was intended to help build trust with patients, family members and staff.

Task-force staff at Madigan complained to the Army, which led to the investigation.

In one such session, according to the documents, a task-force employee being trained was made to relive combat-related trauma, “an experience that resulted in a PTSD diagnosis, where one had never been diagnosed.”

Elliott, 56, of Auburn, previously had Washington licenses as a registered counselor and as a hypnotherapist in the early to mid-2000s, when she was president of The Healing Tree, an “alternative wellness center.”

Elliott, who used the titles “Dr.” and “Ph.D.,” has a 2006 doctorate of philosophy and psychology from Warren National University, formerly Kennedy-Western University, an unaccredited school that the U.S. Government Accountability Office included in a 2004 report entitled “Diploma Mills.”

The Army investigator’s memo, which was heavily redacted, noted Elliott’s unaccredited degree and recommended that Elliott “immediately cease” using “Ph.D.” in all Defense Department actions.

Elliott, reached Thursday, said she had not yet seen the report. But she said the report’s findings, as summarized by a reporter, contained inaccuracies and represented just one side of the story.

Elliott said she had received lots of positive feedback from officers who had been helped by the training and also from trainers in the task force. She said that a doctorate was not necessary for her position and that her superiors knew where her diploma came from and encouraged her to use the title of doctor. She declined further comment until she could talk with her attorney.

The “Culture of Trust” task force was launched in September 2010 by then-Army Surgeon General Lt. Gen. Eric Schoomaker.

During Schoomaker’s tenure, the Army Medical Command was trying to rebuild trust after a series of searing investigative reports in The Washington Post in 2007 that detailed shoddy outpatient care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Madigan also had problems. In the spring of 2010, Oregon National Guard members complained to their congressional delegation that they were treated as second-class soldiers as they returned from a tour of duty in Iraq and sought care at Madigan. One embarrassing Power Point presentation, developed by a Madigan employee, depicted National Guard soldiers as “weekend warriors.”

Schoomaker said he was “appalled by the insensitivity” of the Madigan officer who developed the controversial Power Point presentation.

The “Culture of Trust” task force was intended to create an environment where medical professionals would thrive and patients would receive the best care, according to an Army public-affairs article.

“Every year, millions of dollars are lost from employee disengagement, which impacts mission accomplishment,” Elliott was quoted in the article. “We are creating an ambience of excellence within Army medicine.”

Another public-affairs article described a task-force training exercise conducted for 1,400 employees at Irwin Army Community Hospital in Kansas.

“It was very inspiring and the training broke through a lot of barriers with employees,” said Laura Dukes, a medical technician.

Yet within the task force, the Army’s investigator wrote in the 2012 report, employees endured a “strongest survive environment” and only “negative feedback was encouraged during team-building exercises.”

“It felt a lot like a gang of animals who would gang up on the most vulnerable individual,” said a task-force member who was interviewed by the investigator.

The Army investigation also criticized task-force spending, noting that members accumulated many hours of overtime, and “potentially excessive” temporary duty expenses.

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com. KUOW reporter Patricia Murphy contributed to this report.

In an earlier version of this story, the last name of then-Army Surgeon General Lt. Gen. Eric Schoomaker was misspelled as Schoonmaker.

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