Rotten Homecoming

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

IF YOU LISTEN to the PR operation at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the U.S. military's gleaming flagship hospital offers veterans the best treatment available. What doesn't get mentioned is the bureaucratic contempt and physical squalor that too often await badly injured outpatient soldiers on the Walter Reed campus, the subject of a four-month Post investigation detailed in articles published Sunday and Monday.

Reporters Dana Priest and Anne Hull and researcher Julie Tate spent hundreds of hours inspecting conditions and interviewing injured troops and their loved ones at the Walter Reed outpatient facilities. Their findings: Veterans' rooms are rank; bureaucratic hassles and paper-pushing make the process of repairing buildings, redressing patient grievances and providing veterans with basic goods depressingly inept; administrators' neglect of patients' mental and physical health borders on the criminal; and, most distressing, many veterans leave Walter Reed without the compensation they clearly deserve for their sacrifices.

The walls of one soldier's room were covered with black mold, and the ceiling of his shower had a large hole. Soldiers who lost their uniforms while undergoing emergency treatment on the battlefield have had to present their purple hearts to get replacement clothes. Amputees and patients on taxing drug regimens are required to report for formation early in the morning, even if it means trudging over accumulated ice and snow. Lost paperwork, which in one case resulted in an obviously impaired veteran getting an order to report to Germany, is a constant problem, sometimes forcing soldiers and their relatives to live at Walter Reed for 18 months or longer as their cases are processed.

Most infuriating are reports of official efforts to deny disability benefits to discharged fighters. The Army tried to deny disability compensation to Cpl. Dell McLeod, who suffered a head injury that left him aimless and unable even to count change at the cafeteria. Army officials' argument: Because he had done poorly in high school, his current mental state might not have been caused by the steel door that smashed his skull in Iraq. If the Army determined that he was mentally fit to serve in the first place, it cannot now abscond from its responsibility for the consequences of his service overseas. Cpl. McLeod ended up getting a settlement from the command at Walter Reed -- despite base staffers' best efforts -- only after his wife got a congressional staffer involved.

Walter Reed's commander, Maj. Gen. George W. Weightman, says that conditions on the post will improve rapidly. His response is commendable, and it should not be forgotten that thousands of professionals and volunteers, civilian and military, are working hard to help veterans heal and adjust. But it also should not have taken newspaper articles to bring change to outpatient conditions at Walter Reed. And while filthy conditions at Building 18 are a temporary problem for these veterans, lowball settlements may leave soldiers and their families impoverished for life.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company