'Frustratingly Slow'

Sunday, October 21, 2007

ALL IT took was an article on The Post's front page for the family of a damaged veteran of the Iraqi war to get some desperately needed help. Federal officials, embarrassed by yet another story detailing the nation's callous treatment of its wounded, cut through the red tape. Troy and Michelle Turner of West Virginia are glad for the help, but we join them in wondering, "What about the others?" Thousands of men and women are losing out on needed care and benefits; that cries out for urgent action in overhauling the military's outdated system of treating its injured.

Days after The Post's Anne Hull and Dana Priest detailed the struggles of the former Army scout disabled by post-traumatic stress disorder, there were calls and visits from Washington, D.C. Mr. Turner's disability rating is being upped to 100 percent, care closer to home will be found and help is available to guide them through the labyrinth of regulations. Sadly, the Turners are not unique in the shabby way the country treats its military casualties. It's been eight months since The Post's investigation of Walter Reed Army Medical Center focused attention on the crisis in care facing those returning with physical and mental wounds from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Despite promises for reform, the fixes have been, as one congressman observed, "frustratingly slow" in coming. A recent report by the Government Accountability Office pointed to staff shortages as well as uncertainty in how to tackle some of the thornier issues. Last week, President Bush sent to Congress a proposal that would overhaul the military disability system. The product of a bipartisan commission led by former Senate majority leader Robert J. Dole and former health and human services secretary Donna E. Shalala, the proposal would end the duplication -- some would say duel -- between the Defense Department and the Department of Veterans Affairs in judging disability and determining the level of benefits and care.

The prospects for streamlining the system are uncertain. Already, some veteran groups are wary of change, especially if, as proposed, it affects only veterans who entered the military after October 2001. In testimony last week before the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, Mr. Dole told the story of his own injuries in World War II as powerful evidence of the different needs of different generations. "We should always try to improve on what has gone before. This may mean that some of the more recent wounded warriors get benefits that I don't, and that's okay."

Mr. Bush should press Congress for quick action. He can set the example by moving to implement the recommendations from the Dole-Shalala commission that don't require legislation. The courageous men and women who didn't hesitate in serving their country should wait no longer.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company