Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Gambling with Soldiers' Lives To Avoid Facing the Truth

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Thanks to Dana Priest and Anne Hull, change is coming to Walter Reed Hospital:

The White House and congressional leaders called yesterday for swift investigation and repair of the problems plaguing outpatient care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, as veterans groups and members of Congress in both parties expressed outrage over substandard housing and the slow, dysfunctional bureaucracy there.

Top Army officials yesterday visited Building 18, the decrepit former hotel housing more than 80 recovering soldiers, outside the gates of the medical center. Army Secretary Francis Harvey and Vice Chief of Staff Richard Cody toured the building and spoke to soldiers as workers in protective masks stripped mold from the walls and tore up soiled carpets.

At the White House, press secretary Tony Snow said that he spoke with President Bush yesterday about Walter Reed and that the president told him: "Find out what the problem is and fix it."

Snow said Bush "first learned of the troubling allegations regarding Walter Reed from the stories this weekend in The Washington Post. He is deeply concerned and wants any problems identified and fixed." The spokesman said he did not know why the president, who has visited the facility many times in the past five years, had not heard about these problems before.

Should it have taken a newspaper article to get this kind of action? Of course not. That, my friends, is the power of journalism, and it's why we should all cherish our free press and do everything we can to protect it from people who have an interest in stifling it.

Will Bunch at Attytood tells us that this scandal is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to shoddy treatment of our veterans:

On Monday night, they announced the winners of the George Polk Awards for Journalism, honoring the best news reports and articles that appeared over the course of 2006. For those of you unfamiliar with the Polk Awards, run by Long Island University, they are arguably the second-most prestigious journalism prizes, sort of like the Golden Globes to the Oscars of the Pulitizer Prizes awarded in April.

And three out of the 12 winners. amazingly, were for stories that chronicled mistreatment or abuse or unnecessary risk to Americans fighting in Iraq -- along the lines of the Walter Reed story, yet arguably worse in some cases, because in these instances young men and women actually died. Read through these award-winning stories, and you'll be as baffled as I am over how a great nation can neglect or mistreat its own soldiers in this fashion.

NBC Nightly News investigative reporter Lisa Myers and producer Adam Ciralsky won the Polk Award for two articles about the Pentagon giving Raytheon a contract to develop a system to combat rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) when Israel had already developed an effective anti-RPG system, which could have saved American lives if it had been put in place immediately.

A second award went to Lisa Chedekel and Matthew Kauffman of the Hartford Courant for a lengthy series of articles about psychologically troubled soldiers whose symptoms were not taken seriously, even in cases where official evaluations had confirmed problems. Many of these soldiers ended up killing themselves.

The third Polk was given to Baltimore Sun reporter Robert Little, for his three-part series about a very powerful, experimental blood coagulant called Factor VII, which has been credited with saving soldiers' lives on the battlefield but in many cases ends up causing lethal blood clots.

Are stories like this proof that the Bush administration doesn't give a damn about U.S. troops? Will Bunch thinks it's more complicated than that:

If these stories don't get your blood boiling, nothing will. And it's easy to whip yourself into a frenzy, to ask things like "Why do they hate our troops," etc. On one hand, it's not that simplistic. I don't think that anyone in the Pentagon or the White House is sitting around actively "hating our troops," seeking ways for our men and women in uniform to suffer, or in some cases die, like these stories have shown.

On the other hand, I don't see these as all randomly unconnected stories, either. What they do show is this, that the war in Iraq is a huge mistake, an incredible black hole, and our leaders in Washington have a habit of condoning increasingly foolish or risky behaviors -- rather than directly confront these inconvenient truths. It's a lot like the thousand little lies that an alcoholic or a compulsive gambler might tell others and himself to avoid confronting the real issue at hand.

And so rather than build modern new facilities at Walter Reed -- a tacit, public admission that many more people have been severely wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan than anyone ever projected beforehand -- they would rather let soldiers languish in squalor. Because there aren't enough troops to fight the stronger than expected insurgency, they send suicidal soldiers into battle, and they are so desperate to keep the casualty number down that they will roll the dice on a high-risk, experimental medical treatment. And they're also reluctant to drop their plan to make a contractor buddy like Raytheon rich in 2011, because they would have to admit how bad things are in 2007.

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