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Walter Reed: Beyond the Apologies

Q U I C K S C A N

Problems Across the Street
Problems Throughout the Country
Apologies Are Not Enough

It all began with one sentence: “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.”

That sentence appeared in the February 18 article by Dana Priest and Anne Hull in the Washington Post. It set off an ongoing investigation into the treatment of wounded Iraq and Afghanistan veterans once they were released from the Walter Reed Medical Center.

In the fallout, the Secretary of the Army resigned, and the commanding officer and others at Walter Reed were removed. A bipartisan Commission on Care for America’s Returning Wounded Warriors was formed by the president, headed by former Senator Bob Dole and former U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala.

President George W. Bush visited Walter Reed on March 30 where he said, “I apologize for what they went through, and we’re going to fix this problem.”

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Problems Across the Street

No one is questioning the quality of medical care these soldiers are receiving while at the hospital. It’s what happens when they are relocated to outpatient housing that is raising flags.

Building 18 is one of the culprits. Built in the 1930s, it’s where soldiers are released for ongoing care when they’re ready to leave the hospital. The conditions are less than acceptable for a number of reasons, many of them laid out in the Post report—mold, cockroaches, long treks across the complex for treatment and appointments. And the list goes on.

Another independent commission, appointed by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and headed by two former secretaries of the Army, issued a report in April of this year calling for the closure of Walter Reed as soon as possible.

The panel cited a “perfect storm” of failed leadership, flawed policies and overwhelming casualties that resulted in the current situation. (Walter Reed has been scheduled by the Defense Base Realignment and Closure Commission to be closed and its functions relocated to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, by 2011.)

Problems Throughout the Country

But the problems at Walter Reed extend well beyond that 1,300-acre complex to the entire network of Veterans’ Administration hospitals throughout the United States.

And that’s quite a network. According the Web site of the Department of Veterans Affairs, “VA’s health care system now includes 154 medical centers, with at least one in each state, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia. VA operates more than 1,300 sites of care, including 875 ambulatory care and community-based outpatient clinics, 136 nursing homes, 43 residential rehabilitation treatment programs, 206 veterans centers and 88 comprehensive home-care programs.”

In early March, a review of 1,400 VA hospitals and other Veterans Affairs facilities by the Department of Veterans Affairs showed “1,000 reports of substandard conditions—from leaky roofs and peeling paint to bug and bat infestations—as well as a smaller number of potential threats to patient safety, such as suicide risks in psychiatric wards,” reported the Washington Post as part of its ongoing investigation.

And while the report found that 90 percent of the issues were routine, there’s still that other 10 percent, which were considered serious problems.

Since the Washington Post story broke, the issue of veteran care is finding its way onto the nightly news, special reports and magazine and newspaper covers. In short, there is no hiding from this issue.

Apologies Are Not Enough

Since this story broke, we have heard plenty of apologies. And they certainly are merited. But the thing about apologies is that, while it’s important to acknowledge that a wrong was done, it’s equally important to make amends. That’s where we are now.

The soldiers and all of America have heard the apologies. Now we want—and must demand—to know what happens next. Apologies won’t erase the bureaucracy so many veterans face in getting treatment and benefits. “We’re sorry’s” won’t provide them with ongoing treatment for long-term injuries any faster.

And while it’s important to take a long, hard look at what went wrong at Walter Reed, we shouldn’t get bogged down in the business of finger-pointing and reports. The government can form all the commissions it wants, but if it doesn’t come up with some answers, it’s still failing our soldiers. They deserve better. They have earned the right—and sacrificed in ways most of us can only imagine—to receive proper treatment in a timely and efficient manner.

Former Secretary of Veterans Affairs Togo West put it this way: “These are our sons and daughters and sister, uncle and aunt, maybe even a grandparent or two....Their families are our families. We are their neighbors. Their anguish is ours. We can and must do better.”

As the daughter of a Korean War veteran, I couldn’t agree more.

Building 18 is scheduled to be demolished. Unfortunately, for many, the damage has already been done. The bigger question now is, where do we go from here? There are still a lot of soldiers—from this war and wars past—counting on us to find viable solutions on the federal, state and local levels. For all that they’ve sacrificed, we owe them that much—and more.—S.H.B.


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