Military Matters by Steve Vogel

A Deathbed Stance in Defense of Walter Reed

Col. Daniel Baggio, a friend of the family's, comforts Riddle's wife, Col. Becky Samson, outside Riddle's room at Walter Reed Army Medical Center a few days before he died. Riddle praised Walter Reed for
Col. Daniel Baggio, a friend of the family's, comforts Riddle's wife, Col. Becky Samson, outside Riddle's room at Walter Reed Army Medical Center a few days before he died. Riddle praised Walter Reed for "the best care I got anywhere." (Photos By Michel Du Cille -- The Washington Post)

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By Steve Vogel
Thursday, April 19, 2007

Three nights before he died, Robert W. Riddle lay in a bed at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, struggling to talk.

Melanoma had ravaged his body, leaving the once-energetic 44-year-old father of two weak and debilitated. His wife, Army Col. Becky Samson, spoon-fed him a drink, trying to quench his thirst. Riddle, attached to tubes and on pain medication, faded in and out of consciousness.

But Riddle had a message to deliver about the care he had received at Walter Reed. When he spoke, it was barely a whisper.

"Top-notch," he said. "Best care I got anywhere."

Riddle felt passionately that revelations that had filled the newspapers and airwaves in recent weeks about failures in the care of veterans were only part of the story of Walter Reed.

Samson, a Gulf War veteran assigned to Army logistics headquarters at the Pentagon, said she and her husband were disappointed by the breakdowns in outpatient care for wounded veterans and shoddy conditions in some buildings at the hospital. The problems were disclosed in articles in The Washington Post and affirmed last week by an independent review panel appointed by the Pentagon.

"There's no excuse," said Samson, 47. "A lot of our veterans weren't treated properly. That's coming to light. But there is another side to Walter Reed. There are unsung heroes. In this case, that would be the people that treated Robert."

Riddle's melanoma was diagnosed last April, and the Springfield resident soon began a course of aggressive treatment at Walter Reed, including radiation and chemotherapy. He went to Walter Reed because his wife's military status entitles her family to health care.

The cancer quickly proved aggressive, but Riddle pushed back.

"He was the kind of guy for whom each failure was converted to a new challenge to meet," said Col. Thomas Reid, chief of hematology and oncology at Walter Reed. "He'd always ask me, 'What's next, Doc?' "

The options dwindled. The cancer spread to his brain, and fluid filled his stomach. He tired easily but kept coaching his 12-year-old son Brandon's basketball team, exhorting the boys from his wheelchair.

On March 11, Riddle reported to Walter Reed for the last time and was soon checked into a new hospice suite for terminally ill patients. "Anything he needed, he got," said Samson. "They supported him tooth and nail." When an attendant was not available, a doctor fetched ice chips to keep Riddle's mouth moist.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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