Beth Gorham / Canadian Press – 2007-03-07 23:18:02
WASHINGTON (March 7, 2007) — Some call it the Katrina of 2007, the latest shocking evidence of Americans in desperate need who’ve been failed by the government.
But this time it’s not hurricane victims, it’s soldiers wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. And the dismal outpatient care and bureaucratic nightmares they’ve faced at home are stirring fresh debate about a war most Americans already oppose.
It’s not just the terrible tales of shoddy conditions at Walter Reed army centre in the US capital, though it’s hard to fathom how it occurred at one of the most prestigious medical facilities in the country.
In a series last month, the Washington Post newspaper documented a mouldy overflow building filled with cockroaches and mice, housing more than 80 recovering soldiers.
But the Post also painted a larger troubled picture of bureaucratic indifference to wounded soldiers that’s impeding their recovery.
“Obviously, it’s a tragedy,” said former US senator Bob Dole, tabbed by President George W. Bush to co-chair a blue-ribbon commission on the entire system of military and veterans’ hospitals. “Obviously, someone dropped the ball.” Co-chair Donna Shalala, a former US health secretary, described it as an “embarrassment to the country.”
For Democrats, it’s a chance to further attack a White House already under siege by equating the lack of resources for veterans with spotty war plans and inadequate troop levels.
The situation at Walter Reed is a direct reflection of the Bush administration’s fumbled strategy for the entire war, said Tammy Duckworth, an Iraq vet who lost both her legs and was treated there.
Duckworth, who lost a congressional race last fall, credits the centre with saving her life and says the staff is excellent but overwhelmed by more casualties than expected.
“There was a complete lack of planning on how to take care of this many wounded warriors,” she told CNN on Wednesday. “They didn’t even plan to be at war this long.”
Bush, already suffering from low approval ratings largely based on anger about Iraq, is hoping the commission will restore confidence in the system for injured soldiers.
“Anything other than excellent care is unacceptable,” said Bush, who also convened a task force of seven cabinet secretaries to determine immediate steps for improving care.
“Any report of medical neglect will be taken seriously by this administration.”
Defence Secretary Robert Gates also acted quickly, firing the army’s civilian secretary a day after the hospital head was forced out, while chiding other army officials for being too defensive and not working harder to solve the problems.
But it appears there’s a lot more trouble ahead.
Lt.-Gen. Kevin Kiley, the surgeon general of the army who’s job could also be in jeopardy, said this week concerns aren’t isolated to Walter Reed.
“What’s going on (there) in terms of the frustration of the staffs and the patients is probably mirrored to some extent in most of our other facilities, as I hear commanders talk to us about these issues.”
And Virginia US Representative Tom Davis told a congressional hearing this week he fears the hospital may be just “the tip of the iceberg.”
In emotional testimony on Capital Hill, veterans and their relatives gave painful accounts of neglect. Staff Sgt. John Shannon, wearing a patch over his left eye, said he just wants to leave Walter Reed’s outpatient system.
Annette McLeod, wife of a wounded soldier, cried as she told legislators her husband’s first case manager at the centre treated him “like a dog” and the system is set up to protect the army. “We need to turn it around. We need to fight for the soldier.”
Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said he was surprised and upset by the disclosures.
Pace said he never checked housing for outpatients on frequent trips to the facility but would start doing so. But it’s become clear many, including some legislators, were well aware of gaps in care.
Florida US Representative Bill Young, who often visited Walter Reed and other military facilities, told a hearing Wednesday he and his wife tried to solve some of the difficulties.
“We found soldiers doing rehab in the bloody boots they wore when they were injured, so we bought them proper shoes,” he said. “We found kids in housing whose parents were feeding them crackers and peanut butter because they had to save money since the army’s per-diem money had not arrived. So we bought them food, provided money for their long-term needs.”
Young didn’t go public with his concerns, he said, because he didn’t want to “undermine the confidence of the patients and their families and give the army a black eye while fighting a war.”
“We worked person to person, directly with civilian and military leaders, to solve the individual problems without casting blame on the many good functions at Walter Reed.”
But Young, a member of the House appropriations subcommittee on defence, blasted Kiley for continually telling legislators he had everything he needed. “All you had to do was ask for help and not rebuff us when we tried to offer help.”
“My impression,” said committee chairman John Murtha, “is that the military was constrained, even intimidated, from telling me and other congressional members about the real problems and the real needs.”
“And I have to wonder: is the administration’s policy not to inform Congress?”
Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicolson, who will lead the government task force on imporving care, said the department is hiring 100 new patient advocates to help guide returning troops through the bureaucracy.
“If there is a case where a veteran gets lost in the system, or suffers anxiety, or their family does, as a result of something we’re not doing, that is unacceptable.”
© The Canadian Press, 2007
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