'It Is Just Not Walter Reed'
Monday, March 5, 2007
Ray Oliva went into the spare bedroom in his home in Kelseyville, Calif., to wrestle with his feelings. He didn't know a single soldier at Walter Reed, but he felt he knew them all. He worried about the wounded who were entering the world of military health care, which he knew all too well. His own VA hospital in Livermore was a mess. The gown he wore was torn. The wheelchairs were old and broken.
"It is just not Walter Reed," Oliva slowly tapped out on his keyboard at 4:23 in the afternoon on Friday. "The VA hospitals are not good either except for the staff who work so hard. It brings tears to my eyes when I see my brothers and sisters having to deal with these conditions. I am 70 years old, some say older than dirt but when I am with my brothers and sisters we become one and are made whole again."
Oliva is but one quaking voice in a vast outpouring of accounts filled with emotion and anger about the mistreatment of wounded outpatients at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Stories of neglect and substandard care have flooded in from soldiers, their family members, veterans, doctors and nurses working inside the system. They describe depressing living conditions for outpatients at other military bases around the country, from Fort Lewis in Washington state to Fort Dix in New Jersey. They tell stories -- their own versions, not verified -- of callous responses to combat stress and a system ill equipped to handle another generation of psychologically scarred vets.
The official reaction to the revelations at Walter Reed has been swift, and it has exposed the potential political costs of ignoring Oliva's 24.3 million comrades -- America's veterans -- many of whom are among the last standing supporters of the Iraq war. In just two weeks, the Army secretary has been fired, a two-star general relieved of command and two special commissions appointed; congressional subcommittees are lining up for hearings, the first today at Walter Reed; and the president, in his weekly radio address, redoubled promises to do right by the all-volunteer force, 1.5 million of whom have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But much deeper has been the reaction outside Washington, including from many of the 600,000 new veterans who left the service after Iraq and Afghanistan. Wrenching questions have dominated blogs, talk shows, editorial cartoons, VFW spaghetti suppers and the solitary late nights of soldiers and former soldiers who fire off e-mails to reporters, members of Congress and the White House -- looking, finally, for attention and solutions.
Several forces converged to create this intense reaction. A new Democratic majority in Congress is willing to criticize the administration. Senior retired officers pounded the Pentagon with sharp questions about what was going on. Up to 40 percent of the troops fighting in Iraq are National Guard members and reservists -- "our neighbors," said Ron Glasser, a physician and author of a book about the wounded. "It all adds up and reaches a kind of tipping point," he said. On top of all that, America had believed the government's assurances that the wounded were being taken care of. "The country is embarrassed" to know otherwise, Glasser said.
The scandal has reverberated through generations of veterans. "It's been a potent reminder of past indignities and past traumas," said Thomas A. Mellman, a professor of psychiatry at Howard University who specializes in post-traumatic stress and has worked in Veterans Affairs hospitals. "The fact that it's been responded to so quickly has created mixed feelings -- gratification, but obvious regret and anger that such attention wasn't given before, especially for Vietnam veterans."
Across the country, some military quarters for wounded outpatients are in bad shape, according to interviews, Government Accountability Office reports and transcripts of congressional testimony. The mold, mice and rot of Walter Reed's Building 18 compose a familiar scenario for many soldiers back from Iraq or Afghanistan who were shipped to their home posts for treatment. Nearly 4,000 outpatients are currently in the military's Medical Holding or Medical Holdover companies, which oversee the wounded. Soldiers and veterans report bureaucratic disarray similar to Walter Reed's: indifferent, untrained staff; lost paperwork; medical appointments that drop from the computers; and long waits for consultations.
Sandy Karen was horrified when her 21-year-old son was discharged from the Naval Medical Center in San Diego a few months ago and told to report to the outpatient barracks, only to find the room swarming with fruit flies, trash overflowing and a syringe on the table. "The staff sergeant says, 'Here are your linens' to my son, who can't even stand up," said Karen, of Brookeville, Md. "This kid has an open wound, and I'm going to put him in a room with fruit flies?" She took her son to a hotel instead.
"My concern is for the others, who don't have a parent or someone to fight for them," Karen said. "These are just kids. Who would have ever looked in on my son?"
Capt. Leslie Haines was sent to Fort Knox in Kentucky for treatment in 2004 after being flown out of Iraq. "The living conditions were the worst I'd ever seen for soldiers," he said. "Paint peeling, mold, windows that didn't work. I went to the hospital chaplain to get them to issue blankets and linens. There were no nurses. You had wounded and injured leading the troops."
Hundreds of soldiers contacted The Washington Post through telephone calls and e-mails, many of them describing their bleak existence in Medhold.