(Originally published March 8, 2007)
The U.S. Senate began hearings this week regarding the deplorable situation at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC, about two weeks after the Washington Post published a series of Pulitzer Prize-worthy articles revealing the decrepit conditions and callous outpatient treatment for wounded GIs at the facility that once had a reputation for the best care anywhere for veterans.
Over a four-month period, diligent Post reporters Dana Priest and Anne Hull — in the tradition of their Watergate expose´ predecessors Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein — pinpointed a single dilapidated building, with moldy walls, cockroaches and mouse droppings, as well as other dreadful circumstances at the 28-acre medical facility. They followed up with additional details about how at least two officials at the Walter Reed and the surgeon general were aware of complaints for several years but failed to act.
Shortly after the first article appeared Secretary of the Army Francis Harvey foolishly admitted he wasn’t aware of the situation then pointed the finger of blame at non-commissioned officers explaining, “They weren’t doing their jobs.”
Additionally, Lt. Gen. Kevin Kiley, who was appointed surgeon general six months ago, tactlessly blamed the infestation of rats and roaches on soldiers who didn’t clean up after themselves.
Damage control responses like those are known in the military as CYA – covering you’re ass. But those turkeys did it so indelicately!
The only Bush administration official who exhibited urgent concern was newly appointed Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who, after touring the facility, vowed to quickly improve outpatient conditions at Walter Reed. He also said that senior officials responsible for the inexcusable circumstances would be held accountable.
Last Thursday, Gates lived up to his pledge and relieved Maj. Gen. George Weightman, the officer in charge at Walter Reed, of his command, in what hopefully will be the first of many changes at the medical facility. Weightman had only been assigned there since last August, so the problems likely existed when he arrived, though he obviously did little to improve the situation in his brief tenure. Incidentally, his predecessor, under whose watch the problems likely exacerbated, was none other than Surgeon General Kiley, who the Post reporters alleged was aware of the situation, but ignored it!
Prior to the Gen. Weightman’s dismissal, the Army, attempting to seem like they were doing something, took disciplinary action against several lower-level soldiers assigned to Walter Reed, but details of the discipline were not made public.
A day after the Walter Reed commander was relieved, Army Secretary Harvey was forced to resign over his management of the medical center mess, just hours after President Bush called for a bipartisan investigation.
On Tuesday, the president appointed former Senate majority leader Bob Dole and Donna Shalala, a member of President Clinton’s cabinet, to head the investigation of “unacceptable” treatment of wounded veterans.
In addition to the Post and last week’s Newsweek cover story, other damning reports about domestic military hospitals continued to surface. Fuel was added to that ire in an extraordinary — at times gut-wrenching — ABC-TV special, “To Iraq and Back,” that focused primarily on Bob Woodruff, the network’s correspondent and former anchor, who sustained a severe brain injury caused by a roadside bomb in Iraq over a year ago. The special also reviewed the plight of several brain-injured veterans receiving inadequate long-term care and rehabilitation.
In one segment, Woodruff interviewed Jim Nicholson, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, who feebly sidestepped questions about treatment for outpatient veterans and the discrepancy about the actual number of injured soldiers since the war in Iraq began. Nicholson even had the audacity to imply that a good deal of the treatments sought by Iraqi veterans was for dental work, which no doubt raised the ire of many viewers.
Nicholson is an example of established cronyism (does FEMA director and Bush buddy Michael Brown ring a bell?) in politics. Despite being a veteran, he is also a former GOP big shot, which was feasibly the primary reason he was appointed.
In the wake of the problems at Walter Reed, the Pentagon, in an obvious effort to conceal additional troubles, has instituted a policy that, if nothing else, violates the first amendment by tightening press coverage at all U.S. military medical facilities and has reportedly ordered GI outpatients not to speak with reporters.
Moreover, anyone who sat idly by as conditions deteriorated to the current deplorable state should be dismissed or reprimanded, if not punished for dereliction of duty.
In the last few years, the White House and Congress have devoted a great deal of time — and money — on the war in Iraq, but it is obvious that resources for those who deserve the finest care have been grossly under- funded. (This crisis parallels the dilemma for thousands of emergency responders, who worked at Ground Zero weeks and months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and, until recently, were unable to obtain government-funded medical care.)
Stateside military medical care for soldiers injured in Iraq and Afghanistan is likely to multiply as our participation persists, not to mention the assortment of mental problems — such as post traumatic stress syndrome — that are surely to occur and linger for the walking wounded.
The hearings and investigations must be quickly conducted and concluded, to avoid further delays in improving outpatient care, rather than spend too much time determining who’s to blame. Congress, the Defense Department and the Veterans Administration must make personnel changes, including the dismissal of the surgeon general and the Veterans Affairs secretary, up and down the chain of command and take immediate steps to insure the military medical system meet the needs of the growing number of seriously wounded soldiers.
This latest disgrace is yet another illustration of the hypocrisy and deceit that has embodied the Bush administration since it was handed the presidency by the Supreme Court more than six years ago. The White House habitually flaunts supporting our troops and questions opponents about their loyalty to our soldiers, yet throughout the war in Iraq it has consistently failed to adequately equip GIs, while it condemns those who suggest reduced funding is a rebuff to our soldiers.
You’d think by now a nation that has been involved in numerous conflicts throughout its history, where new technology usually results in more severe injuries, would have anticipated and prepared for the needs of wounded veterans. But, instead, we’re witnessing abysmal treatment for them from a government more concerned with waging war than caring for its wounded warriors.