Caste Out At Walter Reed

By Henry Allen
Friday, March 9, 2007

I'd guess that most veterans were as angry as I was on learning that combat-maimed soldiers have been warehoused and forgotten among roaches, rodents and mold at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

I'd also guess they weren't entirely surprised. That's because most veterans are enlisted. So was every one of the maltreated Building 18 soldiers and Marines quoted in The Post's revelations of the Walter Reed mess. When you're enlisted you get used to being treated certain ways by certain officers. Every outfit has them.

A little more than 80 percent of the military is enlisted. The enlisted are the privates, corporals, specialists, airmen, seamen and sergeants who have to salute and say "sir" to an elite called officers: lieutenants, commanders, captains, majors, colonels, generals and admirals. The officers wear the white collars, the enlisted wear blue. The two classes live on different sides of the tracks.

So a lot of veterans may well have accepted the neglect of their fellow enlisted at Walter Reed. They may even have shrugged off news that one patient had to show a Purple Heart to prove that he had served in Iraq when he asked for a uniform to replace the one he left behind on a bloody stretcher. They might not be surprised to learn of superiors chewing out Purple Heart recipients for showing up at their medal presentations in gym clothes after the military failed to provide them with uniforms. As veterans know, officers and even some senior enlisted will yell at you for things like that.

The government is investigating. It investigated the systematic atrocities at Abu Ghraib, too, and the only soldiers prosecuted were enlisted. Early on in the Walter Reed scandal, Army Secretary Francis Harvey blamed negligence on the enlisted, saying: "We had some NCOs who weren't doing their job, period." So it's hard for a lot of veterans to expect that an investigation will ask about the possibility that a simple truth came into play: Officers running the hospital may have ignored the squalor their troops were living in because they believed from long experience that they could.

It turns out that this is one of the rare times they couldn't.

They've stirred up outrage so huge that Harvey and the commanding general of Walter Reed have been fired. Not prosecuted, but fired.

I've always justified the privileges given to officers on the grounds of their greater education, leadership responsibility, management skills and executive potential. I also know the dangers of fraternization -- it's hard for officers to be taken seriously if they drink, play cards and shower with people who must instantly obey their orders whether they like them or not.

Hence the careful separation of various levels of rank, both enlisted and officer. This calibrated meting out of privilege also serves to remind all ranks of their status in the military hierarchy. It keeps you in your place. Segregation is everywhere: bathrooms, dining rooms, social clubs, sleeping quarters.

When you're enlisted, you accept these inequities. They make sense. You also have no choice. But you can't ignore the ugly, feudal arrogance that they foster. Power does tend to corrupt.

It's like what Sheriff Bat Masterson is quoted as saying about the rich and the poor: Everybody gets the same amount of ice -- the rich get theirs in the summer and the poor get theirs in the winter. As an enlisted Marine in the Vietnam era, I heard a second lieutenant in his early 20s bark "C'mere, boy" at a sergeant major in his 40s, a man who had served in two wars. I saw an officer solve a shipboard plumbing problem by ordering enlisted men to pick up human feces with their bare hands.

What the command structure at Walter Reed may have forgotten is that an enlisted soldier with his legs blown off is no less or more privileged than any other human being with his legs blown off. Isn't this obvious? The enlisted warriors feel no less pain and despair than the officers. They deserve no less in the way of clean quarters, opportunities for recuperation and prompt processing of their orders.

Is it possible that officers, too, were living with roaches and mold somewhere else at Walter Reed before newspaper stories prompted a sudden splashing of fresh paint on the enlisted's Building 18? That they, too, were stuck in endless bureaucratic limbos? More than a week after the story broke, I have seen three officer victims mentioned from around the country. I suspect there are more.

I'm sorry. Why would this former enlisted man wish such suffering on anyone, even an officer? But why would any officer permit such suffering to happen to anyone, even an enlisted man?

Henry Allen is a writer and editor for The Post's Style section.

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