A Powerful Story at Walter Reed

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, March 4, 2007

"The Other Walter Reed" series broke news -- and readers' hearts as well. The reporting of the dreadful conditions suffered by wounded Iraq war veterans brought a stream of praise -- even from the paper's frequent critics.

Important stories often come from strangers who have seen injustice up close but do not know what to do about it. That's what started The Post's investigation. A person who knew the concerns of soldiers and family members was horrified at how they were living and being treated.

That person cold-called reporter Dana Priest, and they quickly met. Priest said she was "shocked" at what she heard. "I left the meeting and thought, 'Could this be so?' It is so different from the image we all have" of Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

National enterprise reporter Anne Hull came aboard right away. Priest and Hull are powerfully good reporters -- Priest on national security and Hull as a renowned feature writer. Priest did tough reporting on a story about secret CIA prisons that was part of Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage -- and that also led to her being called a traitor to her country. She is used to reporting the intricacies of intelligence on deep background but not stories deep in human emotion. "I didn't worry or ask about people's feelings," she said of the intelligence stories.

Telling human stories was Hull's stock in trade long before she came to The Post. She disappears into a story and writes it with beauty and selflessness.

The two set out, mostly separately and never undercover, and did the kind of plain old gumshoe on-the-record reporting that often goes unrecognized in this high-tech age. They started calling family members -- names they got from the tipster. They went over to Walter Reed to see outpatient treatment for themselves. They quietly observed and did interviews that brought more tips. "No one was really paying attention," Priest said of Army officials, which allowed them to stay "below the radar for as long as we did."

They found "a platter of problems," Priest said, from unsanitary conditions to a seeming disregard for the problems the soldiers had brought back from Iraq. Each time she left the hospital, Priest said, "I went through stages of outrage and sadness that were very motivating. These soldiers loved the military and were so angry" at their treatment.

Hull felt the same way: "Their stories made me furious." Hull and Priest were conscious of the need not to bring official retribution on soldiers, many of whom were waiting for disability discharges and feared what would happen if they complained.

They also did not go to veterans' or advocacy groups. "We didn't want to set off alarms," Priest said. She and Hull talked to dozens of soldiers and their families, wanting to make sure that there weren't just a few aberrant cases, Priest said. "We had to make sure it was true."

"It was Reporting 101," said Hull, who is known for her ability to sink into the scene (she spent a night on the floor of the room of one soldier and his wife), observe it and quietly ask questions. "You spend a lot of time to gain trust" with the people being interviewed, she said.

"No one was listening to them. We were willing to listen," Hull said. The power of listening is a quality that the best reporters have in spades.

Hull worries that the injured soldiers, especially the older National Guardsmen, will not be able to perform their old jobs back home and will be jobless and dependent. Doing this story was "putting the burner on high" for the Army to do something, she said. "This is why we do what we do."

After reporting for four months, the two reporters drew up a list of more than 30 questions for the Walter Reed brass several days before the series was scheduled to run Feb. 23. The two never considered going through Army public relations officials for fear that their access would be cut off. Army officials criticized their reports as "one-sided" but brought up no factual inaccuracies.

Priest said the project has been one of the most satisfying she has ever done because of the "overwhelming response." It was immediate. Within 24 hours, the military was painting rooms, killing roaches and mice, removing mold -- and paying attention to the bureaucratic problems that wounded soldiers faced. Members of Congress called for special investigations, and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates named a panel of experts to make recommendations. He also fired Gen. George W. Weightman, commander of Walter Reed, on Thursday, the same day Priest and Hull had a Page 1 story saying top Walter Reed officials had been hearing these complaints for more than three years. On Friday, President Bush ordered a comprehensive review of care, and Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey resigned.

A thousand blogs have linked to the story; it prompted record comments to washingtonpost.com and hundreds of letters to the editor.

Cynthia Farrell Johnson of Silver Spring wrote: "Bravissima! Thank you so much for the series on . . . Walter Reed Army Medical Center outpatients and their families. . . . [It] is a perfect example of how the fourth estate can help ensure good governance. These articles . . . were about shining the light on something in our government that needs fixing, calling people to account, and discussing how best to remedy the situation. Finally, this is a timely reminder of why we need a free and unfettered press. Good journalism is sometimes about giving voice to those who on their own would be unable to make themselves heard."

Couldn't have said it better myself.

Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or atombudsman@washpost.com.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company