Walter Reed's Cold Shoulder

Sunday, July 22, 2007

"Support the troops."

I hear it all the time -- politicians, bumper stickers, talk shows, you name it. An easy slogan and a worthy goal. Yet actually doing something to support the troops is far harder.

I live quite near Walter Reed Army Medical Center. As the wife and sister of veterans and as someone with broad experience as a volunteer, I have long thought that I might be able to help the families and soldiers at Walter Reed in some way.

Undeterred by neighbors who warned me that they had been rebuffed when offering assistance, I first consulted the Walter Reed Web site under "volunteering." It sends potential volunteers (as opposed to those who want to give money or blood) to the Red Cross office at Walter Reed. So I walked over there, past the infamous Building 18, and asked the young man at the Red Cross desk about the possibility of volunteering. He immediately warned me that only clerical or administrative work opportunities were offered. I was not to think I would have any contact with patients or their families. Absolutely not. When I still wanted information, he took my name and phone number for the volunteer coordinator to call me. He cautioned me that she came in only one day per week and was extremely busy. It's been two months and I have not received a call. I've also received no reply from Disabled American Veterans and the Yellow Ribbon Fund -- not even the courtesy of a turndown. I cannot get anyone to call me back, much less reject me.

Others in the neighborhood have offered home-cooked meals, transportation to shopping, free art classes, or anything else the soldiers or their families might need. But Walter Reed is a closed world -- except to celebrities and politicians, apparently. A group of my neighbors tried a while ago to offer help, but they were rebuffed. They were told by a high-ranking officer at Walter Reed that there was a "cultural" gap between them and the soldiers. "This is the NASCAR crowd," he said. Odd, since this is such a diverse neighborhood, culturally, racially and economically. Still others speak of being given a "cold shoulder" when offering assistance. At the same time, when individuals in the neighborhood do somehow meet young spouses, families or service members there, they are clearly in need and grateful for even the most basic assistance.

So I don't want to hear about shortages of staff and resources at Walter Reed. My heart goes out to the wounded soldiers and their families. But I can't get close enough to support them.

-- Tamara Belden


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