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By ANN McFEATTERS
A day at Walter Reed Army Medical Center is an eye-opener — about our soldiers, our government generally and the Bush administration.
I visited the renowned hospital complex after The Washington Post ran a series of articles exposing serious problems at the center, where as many as one-fourth of our injured soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan are treated. The halls are swarming with the wounded and their families. Residential facilities for recuperating soldiers and their spouses have a long waiting list.
The Post reported that soldiers are housed in deteriorated conditions of mold, mice infestations, disrepair and inadequate facilities for amputees. Depression and post-traumatic stress syndrome are often overlooked. Nightmarish paperwork stymies even the most aggressive.
What I saw was not a lack of caring or quality medical care. But I found a soldier without his legs sent in four different directions for four forms over the course of a day. His exhausted wife, near tears, was pushing him in a wheelchair through ice.
I talked with a woman whose husband has been in and out of Walter Reed for nearly two years after losing his face in war. He sat calmly waiting for yet another surgery attempting to craft features such as a nose and a lip. His wife had nothing but praise for his plastic surgeons. But she said Walter Reed’s bureaucratic morass is unbelievable.
I saw the family of a soldier whose helicopter crashed in Afghanistan. He has badly broken legs, a cracked pelvis, a broken jaw, a collapsed lung and a punctured eardrum. Six of his teammates hovered near him, caring for his family, who had flown across the country, including his wheelchair-bound father.
His fellow soldiers said he described the pain as “intolerable” after his first surgery, but that he was more concerned about the fate of his friends. Eight did not survive. Eager to help, one of his comrades went looking for a video-game console to give him something to do. “At least his hands are OK,” he said.
There are many volunteers at Walter Reed. From Operation First Response to the Wounded Warrior Project, hundreds of people care. I saw one man wheeling a cart of new CD players and DVD players around the hospital. Volunteers say most soldiers and spouses are resilient, brave, cheerful, patriotic and optimistic.
In recent days, the commander at Walter Reed, Maj. Gen. George Weightman, and the Army’s surgeon general, Lt. Gen. Kevin Kiley, have been all over TV, saying the problems at the facility are being fixed and that they are “extremely proud” of the work their staffs are doing.
But the point is that crumbling infrastructure, inhumane bureaucracy and inadequate treatment for mental disorders have been known about for years and have been permitted to continue.
The month before The Post’s series ran, a conference on “quality of life” problems faced by soldiers, their families and civilian staff at Walter Reed found a long list of “issues.” They included: inadequate convalescent-leave paperwork, resulting in soldiers not getting benefits to travel as scheduled; lack of direction for emergency family care; unequal benefits based on the locale where a soldier is injured and not on the extent of injuries; and no overall plan to help wounded warriors through their convalescence.
Other problems involved the lack of childcare, uniforms, military housing, parking, laundry facilities, recreational activities and cleanliness.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., defender of President Bush’s strategy in Iraq, nonetheless has called former defense chief Donald Rumsfeld “one of the worst secretaries of defense in history.” When Rumsfeld visited Walter Reed, did he never seek to find out what was really going on there? On Bush’s trips there to shake hands with a few soldiers, wasn’t he ever curious? When Rumsfeld and Bush were planning the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, did they never think to determine how the wounded would be helped?
Did they not know that today’s injured soldiers are dealing with far more horrific injuries than in the past because battlefield medicine keeps more of them alive?
Walter Reed is supposed to be shut down in 2011. But facilities to handle its patients have not been built, renovated or expanded. Funds may not be scarce for cool new weapons on the design board — even “Star Wars” missile-defense technology — but they are exceedingly scarce for real soldiers.
If the Army is broken, as many believe, Rumsfeld and Bush broke it. And fixing it is proving more difficult than fixing the courageous soldiers the administration sent to war and who returned home broken.
(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail amcfeatters(at)hotmail.com. For more stories visit scrippsnews.com.)