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A Deathbed Stance in Defense of Walter Reed

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.

In the days before he died, Riddle grew agitated at the reports of problems at Walter Reed. "He grabbed my arm and said, 'I want to tell my story,' " recalled a close friend, Col. Daniel Baggio, chief of the Army's media relations division.

Riddle was particularly irritated when family members and friends expressed alarm that he was at the hospital. "They'd say, 'That's not a good place for him to be,' " Samson said. "We'd have to explain, 'Look, Walter Reed is a good hospital.' "

Riddle fought to stay alive, hoping to attend a family wedding at which his 7-year-old daughter, Paula, would be a flower girl. "He very much wanted to see that, because he knew it would be the only time he saw her walk down the aisle," Samson said.

When the wedding day arrived, he was too sick to go, though his daughter walked down the aisle. Two days later, on March 19, Riddle died.

Last week, more than 100 friends, family members and colleagues attended his funeral at St. Bernadette Catholic Church in Springfield and the subsequent interment of his ashes at Arlington National Cemetery. Doctors and caseworkers from Walter Reed were among the mourners at the April 11 service.

Dudley Riddle delivered a remembrance saluting those who had cared for his brother.

"Rob received outstanding care -- some of the best medical care in the world -- but that wasn't all he received," Riddle said. "He received their compassion and their friendship. I'm here to tell you there's a different part of Walter Reed, a part that's wonderful."

Soldier's Passion Honored

On March 29, 1973, the last U.S. troops filed onto a C-130 at the Saigon airport, departing under the terms of a peace agreement with North Vietnam. Max Beilke, then an Army master sergeant, was the final one to board the plane, and he earned a piece of history as the last combat soldier out of Vietnam.

On Sept. 11, 2001, Beilke was among 184 people killed when a hijacked airplane was flown into the Pentagon.

At a gathering last month to dedicate the Max J. Beilke Human Resources Center at Fort Meade in Anne Arundel County, Beilke was remembered for what he accomplished between those two events. After retiring from duty, Beilke worked on veterans issues and became the deputy chief for Army retirement services. He was an advocate for soldiers' rights and pushed for legislation that allows retirees to keep military health-care benefits past the age of 65. Beilke was still working on those causes when he died at the Pentagon at age 69.

"Retired, still serving. Max Beilke represented that to the ultimate," said retired Army Lt. Gen. John Dubia.

Beilke's wife, Lisa, a resident of Laurel, said veterans' care was a personal passion for her husband. "As Max came back from Vietnam and saw how soldiers got treated by the country, it really got to him," she said at the ceremony. "That's why he really took it to heart that our soldiers should never be treated that way again."

Look for the Military Matters column on the first and third Thursdays of each month. Steve Vogel can be contacted atvogels@washpost.comor at 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

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