Recovering at Walter Reed

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Dana Priest and Anne V. Hull
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, February 20, 2007; 12:00 PM

On Tuesday, Feb. 20 at noon ET, reporters Dana Priest and Anne V. Hull discussed their stories describing the care and conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center for recovering Iraq war veterans.

Army Fixing Patients' Housing (Feb. 20, 2007)

Hospital Investigates Former Aid Chief (Feb. 20, 2007)

The Hotel Aftermath (Feb. 19, 2007)

Soldiers Face Neglect, Frustration At Army's Top Medical Facility (Feb. 18, 2007)

The transcript follows:

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Dana Priest and Anne Hull: Greetings all, Dana and Anne here. Thanks for joining and let's get started.

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Anonymous: First, your work has already yielded important responses from the Army. Well done.

Second, how can those of us interested in serving as patient advocates become involved? I am a retired Army officer with the background and interest in helping these vets deal with the medical bureaucracy you highlighted - obtaining benefits, finding resources for them, and getting them to appointments on time etc.

Fred

Dana Priest and Anne Hull: We've been swamped with people wanting to know how they can help, from those with experience in Army systems to others wanting to donate golf carts to shuttle the wounded around the Walter Reed campus. Walter Reed has also been besieged with people wanting to help. Stay tuned. Call your congressman.

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Bethesda, Md.: Congratulations on another great investigative piece. It sounds like you really lit a fire under the brass. I know it's early days yet, but does it seem to you like they are intending to respond adequately or are they just doing some cosmetic brushing up?

Dana Priest and Anne Hull: We'll see. They have started looking at Building 18 but the building in just one problem, and frankly symbolic of the larger issues. The system is huge and not very flexible, more funds are needed to care for the physical and psych needs of the wounded, etc.

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Anonymous: Is the facility being correctly repaired within established building & fire codes and ordinances for permanent upgrade, or given the usual "band-aid treatment" of spit-and-gum, cosmetic window-dressing until The Washington Post "goes away?" This would include widened doorways and ramps for ease of wheelchair users; raised braille lettering on all signage; easily understood evacuation plan maps in each room depicting where the occupant(s) is/are in relation to the fire exits; and better than "manageable" vector and vermin control plan and procedures?

Dana Priest and Anne Hull: This remains to be seen. This morning the ice and snow were gone and the elevator is working and rooms are being inspected. As to the larger issues - keeping the wounded in a building that's not every secure and requires moving across busy Georgia Avenue traffic still need to be addressed.

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Poolesville, Md.: What happens after Walter Reed closes?

Why is the nation sending men and women to war and then not taking proper care of the injured? (A question for DOD's Dr. Winkenwerder, who seems to want to ever cut medical benefits, higher levels in the Administration, and responsible members of Congress.)

Dana Priest and Anne Hull: The Naval hospital in Bethesda is being expanded and more soldiers have begun to receive care there. Other outpatients facilities are being set up and three are in the DC region.

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Alexandria, Va.: My brother was seriously wounded in January 2005 and was treated at Bethesda before transferring to Brooke AMC - sounds like he made the right choice there.

Although I appreciate your investigative reporting and the changes it already seems to be bringing to WRAMC, I have to question the flippant way the writing seemed to treat soldiers on medication. Are "gronked out" and "snowed out" part of the Post's style handbook? The use of this language seemed to trivialize their condition.

Thanks for the good work.

Dana Priest and Anne Hull: Didn't mean to offend with the language. Wish we could have used the soldiers' actual language, but we couldn't print it. We tried to stay in the spirit of those doing the talking.

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Alexandria, Va.: How was it possible that the Hospital commander was so unaware of the conditions you found? I just can't believe that it wasn't obvious to anyone who takes a walk around the site.

Dana Priest and Anne Hull: It's not fair to say the command was unaware of these problems. We have piles of folks who have told us in the last couple of days that they brought their complains - often documented - to leaders of the facility and were always assured that measures were being taken to fix things.

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Chevy Chase, D.C.: Heartbreaking story. Can you please tell us a little about the new rehab facility that just opened in San Antonio? Does it have no impact on the situation at Walter Reed?

Dana Priest and Anne Hull: It's apparently state of the art and privately funded. Lots of sophisticated proesthetics stuff and sports/rec rehab, in a fanstastic setting. Just opened.

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Lewes, Del.: The articles were great as far as they went. Do you plan to follow up an in-depth analysis of the military disability evaluation and compensation system? The Army Times had an article highlighting some of the problems on 2-20-07.

Dana Priest and Anne Hull: Coming soon, in the Washington Post. Stay tuned.

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Bethesda, Md.: About a year ago, after an article in the Post about how lonely some of the recovering vets at Walter Reed were, I called to volunteer as a visitor. I was told 'thanks but no thanks'- that they had more than enough volunteers. So I'm still wondering- how can we volunteer to help out at Walter Reed?

Dana Priest and Anne Hull: Many good volunteer organizations are doing work at WR.

CAUSE

Yellow Ribbon Fund

Wounded Warrior Project

VFW post in Arlington

Operation First Response

many others

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Great Falls, Va.: Is there anything being done to create a handbook for these soldiers and their families? That would help them navigate the system when they can't get help with a patient advocate.

Dana Priest and Anne Hull: There are actually a couple of handbooks already out there, one put together by Army spouses. The problem is, who thinks about a handbook at 3 in the morning when the call comes in that your soldier has been wounded and is due at Walter Reed in 3 days, and you arrive in Washington to WR a midnight, and you are in grief and disoriented? The Army doesn't often take into consideration the emotional state of someone showing up in the middle of the night to greet their wounded. All the spouses/mothers/fathers we spoke with describe the first few days as incomprehensibly difficult.

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Alexandria, Va.: How did you originally find out about the conditions at Walter Reed? Did someone give you a tip?

Dana Priest and Anne Hull: All good stories begin when someone sees something broken or injust, and takes a risk to bring this to light.

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Washington, D.C.: Great story, but I'm wondering how much of this is just a DC thing. Half the apartment buildings in the city are infested with rats and cockroaches. I guess you can't exactly tear the place down and start over, but that might be the only solution to some of these problems.

Dana Priest and Anne Hull: Yes rats are a problem in our city. But shouldnt' extreme measures be taken to keep rats and mice out of a building where inhabitants are bandaged and wounded? There are also rats/mice at Mologne House, the nice hotel on the grounds of WR.

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Portland, Ore.: What was it like working together on such a large piece? What was the writing process? The voice really is very cohesive throughout and doesn't sound like two different people wrote it (which is amazing).

Dana Priest and Anne Hull: Thank our editor, David Maraniss.

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Santa Barbara, Calif.: Just wanted to say "thank you" for the excellent series of articles. It's especially gratifying to see that this has lit a fire under the powers-that-be at Walter Reed and above. This kind of reporting, I think, is journalism at its best--exposing inequity and injustice in our system and being an impetus for a change for better.

Just out of curiosity, has there been any negative reaction to your articles? Hard to see how anyone can put a partisan bias or spin to articles like this, though.

Dana Priest and Anne Hull: Most of the emails say "thank you," and most come from vets and families of wounded.

Some emails say we overlooked all the good things done at WR, and the hard work and round-the-clock caring that so many of the staff provide. This is all true, which is why we've written about the valor of WR for the last four years. I had the chance to spend two weeks on the amputee ward four years ago when the war first started - or should I say ended - and the care of the staff and docs was remarkable.

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Somerville, Mass.: Thank you for this important series. I hope it helps those most in need. From the sounds of it, we should expect to see homeless veterans of this war fairly soon. Although the topic of homeless vets was beyond the scope of your series, did you get a sense of how likely such a terrible scenario could be? Thank you.

Dana Priest and Anne Hull: Not sure of the homeless vet population that could arise but financial woes are very real problems, especially among the older wounded Guard members.

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Fort Drum, N.Y.: Thank you for these excellent articles. I am the spouse of an OIF veteran who has received outpatient treatment at WRAMC. Your depiction of the bureaucracy at Walter Reed (ie callous, incompetent, and just plain mean) rings true.

Was it difficult to find soldiers/family members to speak on the record? Did anyone receive retribution or punitive action for speaking to you?

Dana Priest and Anne Hull: Those who spoke publicly for the article understood the risk they were taking, but they cared about the dire sitation and took the chance. Others did not want to be quoted directly. We interviewed dozens and dozens who did not want their names used but shared their experiences.

Retribution for those who did speak was a real concern.

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Anonymous: My fiance was at Walter Reed and stayed at Mologne House for 16 months. I think that you concentrated on the 2% of people that are not doing well in the system compared to the 98% that are recovering and living at Walter Reed just fine. My fiance received great treatment at the hospital. Yes the VA has problems with paperwork but that's not a fault of the hospital. I think if you told Walter Reed about the story you were doing you would have had access to all types of patients...just not the kind that you preyed upon.

Dana Priest and Anne Hull: The Post has done a story on Mologne House. So have lots of others. The civilian-run hotel actually does a great job with its complex guests. It's the aftermath of war and the Army organization that creates the very difficult conditions.

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Washington, D.C.: This was an extremely illuminating series of articles, but don't the problems you found just scratch the surface? In the long term, what about when these soldiers are no longer active military and they are bogged down in a Veterans Affairs system with a shrinking budget?

Dana Priest and Anne Hull: The very real woes of Iraq war vets who have already begun moving through the VA system are clear.

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Washington, D.C.: One more question, with military (and VA) hospitals all around the country, why must all of these folks be managed out of Walter Reed? Why not have 3-4 hospitals specialize in processing these cases and spread out the caseload? Unfortunately, it doesn't seem like the number of cases is going to decrease any time soon. (likely not till 2009)

Dana Priest and Anne Hull: they've actually decentralized a bit over the last couple of years so more people are living elsewhere than before. that said, WR sees about 25 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan. My sense is they will be trying to see if they can move more people out of WR into less crowded places.

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Bethesda, Md.: Your articles were first rate and heart wrenching. Great work.

When Walter Reed is closed and Bethesda Naval expanded , will on-site housing for outpatients be included ?

Also, any idea how much the costs will be for years to come for the treatment and follow-up care these men and women will require?

Dana Priest and Anne Hull: Yes, the housing will be expanded. I don't think anyone right now has a handle on costs. One reason for that is that the budget for health care is scattered in different places and it's in the supplemental budget rather than the regular one.

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Great Falls, Va.: It is so infuriating to hear these tragic situations developing when there are so many in this community that could help if the Army would let us. This is an organization that is overwhelmed and with proper training and coordination the public could eliminate some of the grief and disorientation these families go through.

Dana Priest and Anne Hull: That's for sure. There isn't any lack of willingness on the public's part to help out. The problem really is that the Army and Walter Reed are not effective in funneling the public's good will to soldiers. This is ongoing and it's one of the reasons we don't have a good answer to the questions so many people are asking, which is: how can I help?

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Stafford, Va.: My concern is that no doubt many of our troops will suffer from the pain of PTSD. However, popular media, like the Post, have really latched onto PTSD as the mental health "poster child" of this war. Clearly depression, which can exist without PTSD (war or no war) is more lethal and common in the military, yet because it has no clear "cause and effect", no one seems to want to touch it as a news story. Do you think the media's attention on PTSD unintentionally discourages troops to seek help for their less sensational, yet painful, depression?

Dana Priest and Anne Hull: Actually, I think it's tough for soldiers with any kind of mental issue to seek help. It's taboo in the culture still and it's an issue the Army knows little about, clinically speaking. Nor do they employ enough qualified people to handle the problem.

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Alexandria, Va.: Not to pile on, but I found the tone of your piece somewhat disrespectful too. Massive figure? Yawning hulk? Aaargh! Such descriptions seem inconsistent w/ the goal of showing that the Army is not respecting these soldiers. More respectful vocabulary might help to emphasize the need for them to be treated with dignity while, of course, addressing their medical, financial, and other problems as well.

Would have been interesting, actually, for you to include a line re the impossibility of printing the language the soldiers actually use.

Still, great work. Certainly gives the lie to the idea that the Mainstream Media have become irrelevant--not that I believed that anyway.

Dana Priest and Anne Hull: Hi, it's you again. No disrespect to Dell or his size. He didnt' have a problem with the description nor did his wife, Annette.

As for real soldier langauge, check out a Myspace page.

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Waldorf, Md.: When was the contact you had with the injured soldiers you highlighted? Hopefully, they are doing well? Your story painted such a bleak picture of their future.

Dana Priest and Anne Hull: We are keeping track on each and every one on a daily basis.

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Alexandria, Va.: You mentioned separate facilities for Active Duty and Guard Soldiers. The preponderence of those mentioned in your articles were also from Guard units. Do you mean to imply unequal treatment for our National Guard Soldiers?

Dana Priest and Anne Hull: Active duty and Guard live together, they are just in different companies. Active duty is MedHold and Guard and Reservists in MedHold Over.

We spoke with some Guard members who complained that they were give second-class citizen treatment by some staff at WR but we did not find this to be true across the board.

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South Carolina: I want to commend you for your articles. I am one of the people in article and I applaud you for your efforts and your wisdom on how to set the article in motion. Good Work

Dana Priest and Anne Hull: Hello South Carolina and thank you.

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Fredericksburg, Va.: Is any action being taken to address the unfair treatment of people like Cpl. Dell McLeod who was wounded and then retired without compensation because of a judgement of "prexisting condition"?

Dana Priest and Anne Hull: Del actually did okay on his disability rating. (Mostly because his wife did so much battling on his behalf, and was definitely a squeeky wheel.) The Army did not rate Dell on Traumatic Brain Injury but gave him 30 percent for anxiety. Dell has to get re-evaluated in a year, and all this could change.

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Corona, Calif.: Terrific series and one everyone should read. Many of the conditions you report on here exist in other military and VA facilities. What is especially troubling is knowing that budgets to provide promised and needed medical services are underfunded every year. Is your series going to be syndicated so that others around the country can begin to take a look at the state of their community's VA facilities?

Dana Priest and Anne Hull: The story is being picked up here and there by other news organizations, vet groups and mental health advocacy groups.

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Austin, Tex.: While Rumsfeld, Franks, et al did include a few PowerPoint slides in their pre-war slides concerning Phase 4, did anyone plan for Phase 5, caring for the troops, after the anticipated success?

Dana Priest and Anne Hull: This question was asked by lots of soldiers and health care providers at WR during our reporting.

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Bethesda, Md.: Just for the record....the war was never officially announced as being ended...get your facts straight especially in responding to a question concerning partisan bias.....shame on you!

Dana Priest and Anne Hull: you know what i meant.

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Arlington, Va.: How long did you do the research for these articles and why didn't you bring these conditions -- or at least what you were finding -- to the attention of the Commander of Walter Reed? Shouldn't this have been something you would want to immediately identify to be fixed?

Dana Priest and Anne Hull: We weren't the first to bring these issues to the attention of the WR command. The last in a long line, in fact. That's why we were contacted. Apparently no or little action was taken when others stepped forward.

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Springfield, Va.: Noted that your research was done early last year, over four months. Just out of curiousity why did you wait a year to publish these concerns? Is it politically timed and motivated?

Dana Priest and Anne Hull: We spent almost four months reporting the story and then wrote it as fast as we could and it went into the paper!

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Stony Brook, N.Y.: How has TSGLI, the lump sum disability rider to SGLI effected the economic circumstances of the Reed outpatients?

Dana Priest and Anne Hull: Many of the folks we interviewed are dealing with this issue - especially traumatic brain injury. We did not explore in our pieces.

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Waldorf, Md.: What is the timeline for Walter Reed to shutdown? It appears the administration has attempted to save money by foregoing maintenance. Great story!

Dana Priest and Anne Hull: 2011 scheduled to close

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Dana Priest and Anne Hull: Thanks for joining. So long.

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