Sunday, February 18, 2007

Spitting on the Vets, Bleeding the Troops

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This is disgraceful beyond words:

Behind the door of Army Spec. Jeremy Duncan's room, part of the wall is torn and hangs in the air, weighted down with black mold. When the wounded combat engineer stands in his shower and looks up, he can see the bathtub on the floor above through a rotted hole. The entire building, constructed between the world wars, often smells like greasy carry-out. Signs of neglect are everywhere: mouse droppings, belly-up cockroaches, stained carpets, cheap mattresses.

This is the world of Building 18, not the kind of place where Duncan expected to recover when he was evacuated to Walter Reed Army Medical Center from Iraq last February with a broken neck and a shredded left ear, nearly dead from blood loss. But the old lodge, just outside the gates of the hospital and five miles up the road from the White House, has housed hundreds of maimed soldiers recuperating from injuries suffered in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This is why we need investigative journalists [my emphasis]:

The common perception of Walter Reed is of a surgical hospital that shines as the crown jewel of military medicine. But 5 1/2 years of sustained combat have transformed the venerable 113-acre institution into something else entirely -- a holding ground for physically and psychologically damaged outpatients. 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.

They suffer from brain injuries, severed arms and legs, organ and back damage, and various degrees of post-traumatic stress. Their legions have grown so exponentially -- they outnumber hospital patients at Walter Reed 17 to 1 -- that they take up every available bed on post and spill into dozens of nearby hotels and apartments leased by the Army. The average stay is 10 months, but some have been stuck there for as long as two years.

Not all of the quarters are as bleak as Duncan's, but the despair of Building 18 symbolizes a larger problem in Walter Reed's treatment of the wounded, according to dozens of soldiers, family members, veterans aid groups, and current and former Walter Reed staff members interviewed by two Washington Post reporters, who spent more than four months visiting the outpatient world without the knowledge or permission of Walter Reed officials. Many agreed to be quoted by name; others said they feared Army retribution if they complained publicly.

Because you certainly are not going to hear a peep out of the "support-the-troops" crowd about this kind of support:

Staff Sgt. John Daniel Shannon, 43, came in on one of those buses in November 2004 and spent several weeks on the fifth floor of Walter Reed's hospital. His eye and skull were shattered by an AK-47 round. His odyssey in the Other Walter Reed has lasted more than two years, but it began when someone handed him a map of the grounds and told him to find his room across post.

A reconnaissance and land-navigation expert, Shannon was so disoriented that he couldn't even find north. Holding the map, he stumbled around outside the hospital, sliding against walls and trying to keep himself upright, he said. He asked anyone he found for directions.

Shannon had led the 2nd Infantry Division's Ghost Recon Platoon until he was felled in a gun battle in Ramadi. He liked the solitary work of a sniper; "Lone Wolf" was his call name. But he did not expect to be left alone by the Army after such serious surgery and a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. He had appointments during his first two weeks as an outpatient, then nothing.

"I thought, 'Shouldn't they contact me?' " he said. "I didn't understand the paperwork. I'd start calling phone numbers, asking if I had appointments. I finally ran across someone who said: 'I'm your case manager. Where have you been?'

"Well, I've been here! Jeez Louise, people, I'm your hospital patient!"

Like Shannon, many soldiers with impaired memory from brain injuries sat for weeks with no appointments and no help from the staff to arrange them. Many disappeared even longer. Some simply left for home.

One outpatient, a 57-year-old staff sergeant who had a heart attack in Afghanistan, was given 200 rooms to supervise at the end of 2005. He quickly discovered that some outpatients had left the post months earlier and would check in by phone. "We called them 'call-in patients,' " said Staff Sgt. Mike McCauley, whose dormant PTSD from Vietnam was triggered by what he saw on the job: so many young and wounded, and three bodies being carried from the hospital.
Shannon, who wears an eye patch and a visible skull implant, said he had to prove he had served in Iraq when he tried to get a free uniform to replace the bloody one left behind on a medic's stretcher. When he finally tracked down the supply clerk, he discovered the problem: His name was mistakenly left off the "GWOT list" -- the list of "Global War on Terrorism" patients with priority funding from the Defense Department.

He brought his Purple Heart to the clerk to prove he was in Iraq.
The lack of accountability weighed on Shannon. He hated the isolation of the younger troops. The Army's failure to account for them each day wore on him. When a 19-year-old soldier down the hall died, Shannon knew he had to take action.

The soldier, 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.

"I can't understand how they could have let kids under the age of 21 have liquor," said Victoria Harper, crying. "He was supposed to be right there at Walter Reed hospital. . . . I feel that they didn't take care of him or watch him as close as they should have."

The Army posthumously awarded Harper a Bronze Star for his actions in Iraq.

Shannon viewed Harper's death as symptomatic of a larger tragedy -- the Army had broken its covenant with its troops. "Somebody didn't take care of him," he would later say. "It makes me want to cry."

Priest and Hull hint at the larger problem when they write, "...5 1/2 years of sustained combat have transformed the venerable 113-acre institution into something else entirely -- a holding ground for physically and psychologically damaged outpatients." It's that "P" word again:

Honestly, this should rightly be regarded as yet another planning failure. The architects of this war thought it was going to be a cakewalk; they didn't in their wildest dreams consider the war would last this long, and thusly failed utterly to prepare contingency plans, as has been acknowledged even by the administration. The military healthcare system isn't designed to manage a constant influx of wounded soldiers, and I would bet that not a modicum of thought was given to readying it for that possibility. The war was going to last six weeks, remember? But instead, the war became "a long hard slog," as Donald Rumsfeld described it in November 2003, and now "Three times a week, school buses painted white and fitted with stretchers and blackened windows stream down Georgia Avenue. Sirens blaring, they deliver soldiers groggy from a pain-relief cocktail at the end of their long trip from Iraq via Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany and Andrews Air Force Base." The Pentagon numbers the wounded from Iraq and Afghanistan at 23,000, as of January.

Our wounded veterans, 96% of whom received their injuries after "Mission Accomplished," were first casualties of the utter lack of competent post-war planning for the war theater, and are now casualties of the utter lack of competent post-war planning at home. They're pratically stacked on top of each other in a rotting building, all but abandoned to circumstances unfit for a dog, no less a veteran.

Hey, over there, McCain and Lieberman! Does THIS send the wrong message to our troops?

For the last few years, Republicans have given lip service to supporting the troops while cutting funding for their armor, their equipment, and their medical care. American citizens have been slapping ribbon magnets made in China on their SUVs and saying it's how they show their support. And when our troops are wounded, they come home and are put into a facility that is more like the weird hospital scenes in the film Jacob's Ladder than like the kind of state-of-the-art recuperative facility these young men and women deserve.

And it's going to get worse (h/t Liz at BlondeSense):

Despite proposed increases, the President's Fiscal Year 2008 budget for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) does not provide adequate funding for the services and benefits our veterans have earned, nor does it address pressing management and operational challenges undermining VA efficiency and accessibility. The President's budget once again calls on veterans to pay more out of their own pockets for health care, underestimates the needs of service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, and under funds key research, training, and management programs necessary to provide efficient and quality service to veterans.

It is our fundamental obligation to ensure that the VA is able to meet the needs of returning service members, keep pace with growing operational costs and satisfy rising needs while also ensuring quality service. The Bush Administration often talks about its support for our troops yet it continues to fall short of its commitment to caring for our service members when they return home.

The President's proposed funding level for VA medical care is not sufficient to meet the needs of veterans and would attempt to levy unjust health care fees on many veterans, in an effort to help balance the budget. While the requested medical care budget is $2 billion above Fiscal Year 2007 levels, after factoring in health care inflation and increased patient utilization rates, it amounts to a mere .14 percent increase over last year's allocation. This minimal and inadequate increase raises real concerns about whether the proposed budget will be able to meet the demands of new enrollees or allow for vital new initiatives, including enhancements to mental health services for OIF/OEF veterans.

Via Pam Spaulding, Pastor Dan finds relevance in something Walt Whitman wrote:

Walt Whitman famously nursed wounded soldiers in Washington during the Civil War. One of his notebooks from the time contains this all-too-appropriate thought: "The expression of American personality through this war is not to be looked for in the great campaign, & the battle-fights. It is to be looked for . . . in the hospitals, among the wounded."

Phillip Carter has more on the "atrophied" VA budget. He also points us to a real Abraham Lincoln quote.

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