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Spotlight on awful conditions at Walter Reed
Military's neglect of soldiers exposed

March 9, 2007 | Page 16

ERIC RUDER reports on the scandalous conditions that wounded soldiers endure at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

MEDIA REVELATIONS of decrepit living conditions and bureaucratic indifference at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., have prodded the political establishment into long overdue action.

Within days of the publication of a series of articles in the Washington Post documenting moldy and mice-infested quarters for amputees and soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, two top military officials--Army Secretary Francis Harvey and Major Gen. George Weightman, the commanding officer at Walter Reed--were forced out.

Congressional subcommittees scheduled hearings, George Bush used his weekly radio address to promise swift action, and Sens. Barack Obama, John Kerry and Claire McCaskill announced they would propose legislation to increase staffing levels and streamline the paperwork process for recovering soldiers.

The disregard for soldiers who suffered traumatic injuries in Washington's wars is shocking. "Disengaged clerks, unqualified platoon sergeants and overworked case managers fumble with simple needs: feeding soldiers' families who are close to poverty, replacing a uniform ripped off by medics in the desert sand, or helping a brain-damaged soldier remember his next appointment," the Washington Post reported.

Some of the wounded spend 18 months or longer at Walter Reed, struggling with paperwork, waiting to get doctor's appointments and haggling with medical evaluation boards over disability ratings.

Cpl. Dell McLeod suffered a brain injury when a steel door on an 18-wheeler smashed into his head. Now Dell uses a cane to walk, can't count the change he's handed by cashiers in the cafeteria and takes painkillers to get through the day. But Army doctors claimed that Dell was "slow" in high school as an explanation for his cognitive problems--and eventually settled on a 50 percent disability rating for him.

Dell is just one of thousands of injured troops who feel betrayed by the military and frustrated by the fact that repeated attempts to have their grievances heard went nowhere. Fully 75 percent of troops polled by Walter Reed last March described their experience as "stressful." Suicide attempts and binge drinking, sometimes to the point of death, are a fact of life at the hospital.

And at Walter Reed's now notorious Building 18, the miserable living conditions--moldy and cracked walls, infestations of roaches and mice--have driven wounded soldiers into deeper despair.

"I hate it," said Spc. George Romero. "There are cockroaches. The elevator doesn't work. The garage door doesn't work. Sometimes there's no heat, no water. I told my platoon sergeant I want to leave...My platoon sergeant said, 'Suck it up.'"

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THE SCANDAL has exposed the shocking neglect of wounded soldiers at Walter Reed, but the truth is that this is standard operating procedure at military and veteran hospitals across the U.S.

The Naval Medical Center in San Diego discharged Sandy Karen's son a few months ago and told him to report to the barracks for outpatients. Sandy was shocked to find the room buzzing with fruit flies, an overflowing trash can and a syringe lying on the table.

"The staff sergeant says, 'Here are your linens,' to my son, who can't even stand up," explained Sandy. "This kid has an open wound, and I'm going to put him in a room with fruit flies?" Sandy took her son to a hotel instead.

"It's definitely a problem with the institution itself," said Garett Reppenhagen, chair of Iraq Veterans Against the War, in an interview. "Most of it has to do with the fact that the military is less concerned with soldiers' and veterans' care than it is with saving money."

Garett is relieved that the issue of inadequate care for veterans is finally getting some attention and sees it as an opportunity to get these problems fixed. But he worries that changes may be only cosmetic.

"I have a huge fear that this is mostly just lip service," said Garett. "The government gets by on the assumption that we take are of our veterans. So if there's all of a sudden a black eye, they say we'll fix it. But there's no oversight, and everyone assumes it will be done. I worry that all they're going to do is give a paint job to a few rooms in Building 18."

The military's appointment of Lt. Gen. Kevin Kiley to replace Weightman as commander of Walter Reed confirms that Garett's concerns are well-founded.

Kiley, currently the Army's Surgeon General, was head of Walter Reed until 2004. The state of neglect and bureaucratic inertia had already settled in during his watch, and as Army Surgeon General, Walter Reed continues to be one of his chief responsibilities.

Speaking with reporters, Kiley repeatedly downplayed the bad conditions at Building 18, saying, "I do not consider Building 18 to be substandard," and that the problems "weren't serious, and there weren't a lot of them."

He has yet to acknowledge any problem with the red tape, long waits and lost paperwork that plague wounded soldiers as they seek medical treatment and disability benefits. "We're not letting soldiers languish," was Kiley's curt reply to reporters' questions about the mismanagement.

Kiley's arrogance is no surprise to some in the military establishment, however. "His last concern was his concern for the patient," said retired Col. Robert Tabachnikoff, who worked under Kiley in Germany during the 1990s. "He was more concerned for meeting requirements and advancing his own career...At last, it's catching up with him. His leadership style is being exposed."

The feigned surprise at--or outright denial of--the problems facing wounded veterans is shameful. Veterans' organizations and newspapers like Socialist Worker have made these problems known before.

Vietnam veterans had to organize to get their conditions recognized at all. It took years for the military to acknowledge the very idea of post-traumatic stress disorder, or to admit that exposure to Agent Orange caused diabetes, skin diseases and a number of aggressive cancers.

The glare of public scrutiny is welcome, if long overdue. But the struggle to get justice for wounded and returning veterans is just beginning.

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