Benefits of the Doubt
AFTER A WEEK of terrible publicity, the Defense Department seems to be responding quickly to many of the problems The Post found in a four-month investigation at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. But so far, the most disturbing problem uncovered in The Post's series is getting the least public acknowledgment from generals and journalists alike.
Over the past week, follow-up reports, news releases and news conferences have focused on Army and Navy efforts to improve the physical conditions at Walter Reed and other military facilities serving outpatients. Generals and their press attaches assure reporters that moldy walls will be replaced, holes patched and snow shoveled. The quick pace of repairs, while late, is encouraging. But it is only a start.
The upsetting state of Walter Reed's Building 18 is only part of a larger administrative problem. Post reporters found that confusing bureaucratic rigmarole and interminable waits caused by misplaced paperwork and poor advising were endemic. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates named an independent review panel yesterday and reassuringly promised that it will examine administrative procedures as well as the physical state of outpatient facilities. "They battled our foreign enemies; they should not have to battle American bureaucracy," Mr. Gates said.
However, Post reporters found that the stresses on outpatients at Walter Reed included not only their physical recovery, dank rooms or long waits but also the difficulty they have in getting fair disability compensation. Army review boards searched for reasons to deny maimed soldiers disability funds, often blaming "preexisting conditions," not wartime service, for physical and mental disorders. In one instance, a review board claimed that a middle-aged soldier's poorly healed broken foot was the result of "late-life atrophy," not a severe car wreck in Iraq. There's no excuse for the Army to try so hard to deny disability compensation to wounded soldiers. After sacrificing their health, they should get the benefit of the doubt in such decisions. After all, improperly denying compensation can bankrupt soldiers and their families for years.
After we asked, a Defense Department spokesman told us in an e-mail that the Disability Evaluation System will be improved "across the board" and that the Pentagon will ensure that it is a "full and fair due process with regard to disability evaluation and compensation." Even if the Defense Department weren't so committed, it might soon have little choice in the matter. Sens. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) plan to introduce legislation next week that would require the secretary of defense to review the Disability Evaluation System as well as address some of the other problems The Post uncovered. Either way, veterans too seriously wounded to return to active duty should get the benefits they deserve without having to beg for them.