Almost Home, but Facing More Delays at Walter Reed

(Photos By Michel Du Cille -- The Washington Post)
By Dana Priest and Anne Hull
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, September 15, 2007

After nearly three years as an outpatient at Walter Reed Medical Center, Staff Sgt. John Daniel Shannon had begun the wrenching process of turning himself into a civilian.

He no longer wore the uniform he loved so much. He sported a short beard and traded his black beret for a baseball cap. Granted a 30-day leave to prepare for retirement as his disability case finally made it through the system, he moved his family to Suffolk, Va., and began to babysit his two kids, clean the house and grow vegetables. Given what had happened to him in Iraq -- the traumatic brain injury from an AK-47 round that shattered one eye and half his skull -- and the chronic post-traumatic stress disorder that followed, that was about all he could handle.

Last week, Shannon, 43, was back at Walter Reed, but not to say goodbye. The doctors' signatures on two time-sensitive forms in his disability file had expired. He would have to be reexamined by his doctors, he was told, and his medical summaries would have to be written all over again. Unfortunately, the sergeant in charge of his disability paperwork had not stayed on top of his case.

"There was a failure of paying attention to the currency of his paperwork," a Walter Reed spokesman, Charles Dasey, said last night.

The bottom line: No one could tell Shannon when he might go back to his family, transfer into the Veterans Affairs medical system and move on with his life.

After a Washington Post story in February described the conditions that Shannon and other wounded soldiers at Walter Reed endured after returning from Iraq, Shannon became something of a spokesman for his fellow patients.

He testified before a congressional hearing about the Army's obligation to care for its wounded. Members of Congress and generals shook Shannon's hand and thanked him for his courage, while President Bush and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates promised swift changes. Three panels were set up to study not only Walter Reed's failures, but the entire overburdened military medical-care system for returning soldiers and Marines five years into war.

But none of that kept Shannon from getting caught up again in military bureaucracy.

"It's like being kicked in the teeth by a horse," Shannon said this week in a phone interview, alone in his room at Walter Reed. "I've been sitting here for three years. I don't even know what 'going on with my life' means. I want to scream at the top of my lungs. I'm at the end of my rope."

While Shannon, a senior sniper in Iraq, began speaking at public events and counseling other soldiers about the cumbersome Army disability process, he was quietly fighting his own battles.

The case manager assigned to shepherd him through the system was hard to reach. He couldn't get straight answers about his future. Appointments were still difficult to make. Finally, as his discharge seemed imminent, a cascading set of errors and inattention ensured the delay of his release. "It's been 33 months," he said. "What kind of beer are they drinking?"

After The Post's stories in February, the Army moved swiftly to fix the outpatient system. It created a new brigade structure to oversee the wounded and brought in combat infantry officers to run it. More platoon sergeants and case managers were added to give more individual service. Building 18, the moldy and mouse-ridden barracks for wounded outpatients, was closed, and soldiers moved into new living quarters with flat-panel TVs and computers.

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