Feb 21, 2007

The other face of Walter Reed Hospital

I read this article with so many emotions running through my body: frustration, despair, sorrow, agony and worst of all fear. I fear that my niece will end up there if she is injured in Afghanistan, but I digress. Two WaPo reporters spent four months visiting the ‘other’ Walter Reed Hospital, the one for outpatients from the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

First some facts about outpatients at W.R.; The average stay is 10 months, but some have been stuck there for as long as two years. They outnumber hospital patients at Walter Reed 17 to 1. They suffer from brain injuries, severed arms and legs, organ and back damage, and various degrees of post-traumatic stress. Almost 700 of them -- the majority soldiers, with some Marines -- have been released from hospital beds but still need treatment or are awaiting bureaucratic decisions before being discharged or returned to active duty.

George Bush’s war in Iraq has overloaded the outpatient section of W.R. past the breaking point. Five years of injured soldiers and Marines has caused the outpatient population to explode on the 113-acre site. Families and injured soldiers are being put up in roach and mice infested housing, and nearby hotels are being used to take up the slack. With modern medicine now able to save more soldiers than ever, the over 21,000 soldiers who have needed some level of medical or psychological services have overwhelmed the military medical system. W.R. is the shining star in the military medical galaxy, yet the outpatients are living in filth and moldy conditions in buildings like the one written about in the WaPo article, Bldg. 18. Almost 1 of every 4 injured soldiers has been treated at some point at W.R. For a look into the bureaucracy that these injured soldiers have to deal with on top of their living conditions and their injuries, read this section from the WaPo article:

“Life beyond the hospital bed is a frustrating mountain of paperwork. The typical soldier is required to file 22 documents with eight different commands -- most of them off-post -- to enter and exit the medical processing world, according to government investigators. Sixteen different information systems are used to process the forms, but few of them can communicate with one another. The Army's three personnel databases cannot read each other's files and can't interact with the separate pay system or the medical recordkeeping databases.”-These are men and women who have lost limbs, had half their face blown off, serious brain injuries or just suffer from a top-level case of PTSD. These soldiers are just trying to cope with being alive and making it through the day..yet our bonehead officials in the bureaucracy have not attempted to make anything easier for these proud servicemen and women. When you add to this their living conditions..its unconscionable my dear reader. It’s fucking felonious in my opinion.

Platoon sergeants attempt to meet the needs of these injured soldiers and keep track of them as they work their way through the system. They themselves are patients. Patients get tired of the bs and just leave. No one follows up on these soldiers or attempts to find out where they are or where they are going but the platoon sergeants. Soldiers are dying in their rooms as witnessed by this story from the WaPo article:

The soldier, 19 year old Cpl. Jeremy Harper, returned from Iraq with PTSD after seeing three buddies die. He kept his room dark, refused his combat medals and always seemed heavily medicated, said people who knew him. According to his mother, Harper was drunkenly wandering the lobby of the Mologne House on New Year's Eve 2004, looking for a ride home to West Virginia. The next morning he was found dead in his room. An autopsy showed alcohol poisoning, she said.”

The Army posthumously awarded Harper a Bronze Star for his actions in Iraq. That doesn’t ease his mother’s pain of losing a child. Losing him not in the war, but at home, in one of the best hospitals in America, Walter Reed Army Hospital.

The public is volunteering in huge numbers to help these wounded soldiers. Business’s are offering tickets to sporting events, movies and free steak dinners..but that won’t help the mounting problems these wounded soldiers face trying to deal with a government that hasn’t a clue about what is going on and how it affects these soldiers ability to recuperate. Living in a room with mold on the walls and being able to view the bathtub in the room above you isn’t what these kids signed up for. Employees who have seen the horrible conditions and can no longer ignore them have tried to work their way through the maze of government paperwork. Take the story of Wilson;

“Wilson, the clinical social worker at Walter Reed, was part of a staff team that recognized Building 18's toll on the wounded. He mapped out a plan and, in September, was given a $30,000 grant from the Commander's Initiative Account for improvements. He ordered some equipment, including a pool table and air hockey table, which have not yet arrived. A Psychiatry Department functionary held up the rest of the money because she feared that buying a lot of recreational equipment close to Christmas would trigger an audit, Wilson said. In January, Wilson was told that the funds were no longer available and that he would have to submit a new request. "It's absurd," he said. "Seven months of work down the drain. I have nothing to show for this project. It's a great example of what we're up against. A pool table and two flat-screen TVs were eventually donated from elsewhere.

But Wilson had had enough. Three weeks ago he turned in his resignation. "It's too difficult to get anything done with this broken-down bureaucracy," he said."

As a result of the WaPo story, the government is now scrambling to fix Bldg.18, and all the other problems associated with the hundreds of outpatients at W.R. The people in charge of Walter Reed and Army officials have been "meeting continuously for three days" since the articles began appearing. A large roundtable meeting with Army and Defense Department officials will take place at the Pentagon early Monday morning to continue talks about improvements in the outpatient system. Social workers will now be stationed around the clock at Mologne House, the 200-room hotel on the post where many of the outpatients live. Plans are being developed to better train other staff members who deal with outpatient needs.

That’s fine and dandy...but its pathetic that it took two women 4 months of hard, journalistic work to bring these atrocities to the public’s attention, to get anything done by our government who has known that these problems were getting worse by the month and as each year passed.

No matter how you feel about the war in Iraq, this type of treatment should never be allowed to happen to our injured soldiers, yet its been going on for almost 5 years and has gotten progressively worse. The problem will get worse before it gets better since we are sending more troops into Iraq. During the Republican’s reign in the halls of congress, many of the problems and shortcomings of dealing with our wounded soldiers were raised...only to fall on deaf ears. The reality is that more will be put in this position as the fighting heats up in Iraq and soon, Afghanistan.

This government has no excuse for cutting corners and subjecting our servicemen and women to any hardship that only increases their inability to deal with a shattered life and body. This isn’t a partisan issue my dear reader. As far as I am concerned the terrorists are walking the halls of government, until every single soldier is cared for compassionately and correctly as befitting their service to our country.

Cross-posted at The Blue Republic

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