When Salon, the online magazine, reported on mistreatment of veterans at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center two years ago, officials simply denied that there were any problems. And they initially tried to brush off last month's expose in The Washington Post. But this time, with President Bush's approval at 29 percent, Democrats in control of Congress, and Donald Rumsfeld no longer defense secretary — Robert Gates, his successor, appears genuinely distressed at the situation — the whitewash didn't stick.
Yet even now it's not clear whether the public will be told the full story, which is that the horrors of Walter Reed's outpatient unit are no aberration. For all its cries of "support the troops," the Bush administration has treated veterans' medical care the same way it treats everything else: nickel-and-diming the needy, protecting the incompetent, and privatizing everything it can.
Annette McLeod, wife of injured U.S. soldier Cpl. Wendell McLoud, wipes her tears Monday as she talks about the treatment her husband recieved at Walter Reed Medical Center after he was injured in Iraq, during testimony before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee's national security panel. Looking on are Spc. Jeremy Duncan of the U.S. Army, right, and Staff Sgt. John Daniel Shannon. Both were injured in Iraq and testified before the committee.
What makes this a particular shame is that in the Clinton years, veterans' health care — like the Federal Emergency Management Agency — became a shining example of how good leadership can revitalize a troubled government program. By the early years of this decade, the Veterans Health Administration was, by many measures, providing the highest-quality health care in America. (It probably still is: Walter Reed is a military facility, not run by the VHA.)
But as with FEMA, the Bush administration has done all it can to undermine that achievement. And the Walter Reed scandal is another Hurricane Katrina: the moment when the administration's misgovernment became obvious to everyone.
The problem starts with money. The administration uses carefully cooked numbers to pretend that it has been generous to veterans, but the historical data contained in its own budget for fiscal 2008 tell the true story. The quagmire in Iraq has vastly increased the demands on the Veterans Administration, yet since 2001 federal outlays for veterans' medical care have actually lagged behind overall national health spending.
To save money, the administration has been charging veterans for many formerly free services. For example, in 2005, Salon reported that some Walter Reed patients were forced to pay hundreds of dollars each month for their meals.
More important, the administration has broken longstanding promises of lifetime health care to those who defend our nation. Two months before the invasion of Iraq, the VHA, which previously offered care to all veterans, introduced severe new restrictions on who is entitled to enroll in its health care system. As the agency's Web site helpfully explains, veterans whose income exceeds as little as $27,790 a year, and who lack "special eligibilities such as a compensable service connected condition or recent combat service," will be turned away.
So when you hear stories of veterans who spend months or years fighting to get the care they deserve, trying to prove that their injuries are service-related, remember this: all this red tape was created not by the inherent inefficiency of government bureaucracy, but by the Bush administration's penny-pinching.
But money is only part of the problem...
A Time magazine op-ed elaborates:
We used to get chocolate milk delivered to our beds. The amputees of Walter Reed Army Medical Center grew accustomed to first-class service. "The Ritz-Carlton is where you want to go, not Motel 6," the head nurse of Ward 57 told her staff after the Iraq war began in 2003. "That's how I want all my patients treated."
It was the kind of courtesy that was apparently reserved for such overnight guests. A recent Washington Post exposé revealed that some wounded soldiers were placed in outpatient facilities plagued by mice, mildew and mismanagement. It's a shocking account, and not only for ordinary Americans who know Walter Reed by its spit-shine, high-tech image. An embedded TIME reporter who lost a hand in a grenade attack, I was treated at the hospital as a patient from Dec. 16, 2003, to Jan. 8, 2004. From my home in Washington, I returned regularly as an outpatient over the next 18 months for therapy and prosthesis training...
...We expect the best for our wounded. They occupy a special place in the national consciousness. No matter what most Americans think of President Bush's policies, we agree to put the interests of injured soldiers first. It wasn't that way for Vietnam vets, who were scorned and warehoused in decrepit VA hospitals--a mistake Americans don't want repeated. Some of us may feel guilty now for cheering on the invasion only to later lose faith in the war, leaving the troops to deal with the calamitous aftermath. Others of us no doubt feel indebted to a generation of warriors who have volunteered to serve, sparing the rest of us from duty.
And Americans believed Walter Reed helped make good on their IOU. My fellow amputees on Ward 57 knew that if you had to lose a limb, you were in the right place, a citadel of excellence where President Eisenhower and generals from Pershing to MacArthur went to die. Even during this war, the hospital seemed to symbolize the one thing going right for the Army--dramatically improved odds of surviving serious injury and of restoring function among the survivors. Today's soldiers may not be able to stop roadside bombs from blowing off their limbs, but they'll walk out of Walter Reed with bionic arms and legs.
Now we know that problems arose when they walked into the outpatient world. The buddies I made left for Mologne House, on Walter Reed's grounds, which is run like a fine hotel. But as the number of casualties grew in 2005, so did the number released from inpatient wards to other barracks on the 113-acre campus....
as does another op-ed at WaPo
The government is investigating. It investigated the systematic atrocities at Abu Ghraib, too, and the only soldiers prosecuted were enlisted. Early on in the Walter Reed scandal, Army Secretary Francis Harvey blamed negligence on the enlisted, saying: "We had some NCOs who weren't doing their job, period." So it's hard for a lot of veterans to expect that an investigation will ask about the possibility that a simple truth came into play: Officers running the hospital may have ignored the squalor their troops were living in because they believed from long experience that they could.
It turns out that this is one of the rare times they couldn't.
They've stirred up outrage so huge that Harvey and the commanding general of Walter Reed have been fired. Not prosecuted, but fired.
I've always justified the privileges given to officers on the grounds of their greater education, leadership responsibility, management skills and executive potential. I also know the dangers of fraternization -- it's hard for officers to be taken seriously if they drink, play cards and shower with people who must instantly obey their orders whether they like them or not.
Hence the careful separation of various levels of rank, both enlisted and officer. This calibrated meting out of privilege also serves to remind all ranks of their status in the military hierarchy. It keeps you in your place. Segregation is everywhere: bathrooms, dining rooms, social clubs, sleeping quarters.
When you're enlisted, you accept these inequities. They make sense. You also have no choice. But you can't ignore the ugly, feudal arrogance that they foster. Power does tend to corrupt.
It's like what Sheriff Bat Masterson is quoted as saying about the rich and the poor: Everybody gets the same amount of ice -- the rich get theirs in the summer and the poor get theirs in the winter. As an enlisted Marine in the Vietnam era, I heard a second lieutenant in his early 20s bark "C'mere, boy" at a sergeant major in his 40s, a man who had served in two wars. I saw an officer solve a shipboard plumbing problem by ordering enlisted men to pick up human feces with their bare hands...
and another at Meadville Tribune:
While making sure his buddies in the top income brackets got their tax cuts (one-third of President Bush's tax cuts have gone to people with the top 1 percent of income), Bush made up for the income loss by shafting veterans..
...Bush’s last VA health care budget request sought $765 million coming directly from veterans in the form of enrollment fees and prescription drug co-pay increases. The VA is now charging new veterans applying for health care a yearly fee of $250. In another cost cutting measure in 2003, 360,000 veterans (including me) were made ineligible for VA health services.
The GAO estimated that 20 percent of Army Reserve and National Guard personnel have no health insurance. Bush has opposed all attempts to extend full VA services to them, but doesn’t hesitate to send them to Iraq and Afghanistan to face possible death and severe injuries.
Returning soldiers are being denied information dealing with their deserved benefits. Disabled American Veterans (DAV) has been helping U.S. combat casualties since 1920 learn about these benefits and how to apply for them.
DAV Washington Headquarters Executive Director David W. Gorman said the Pentagon is now severely limiting his organization’s contact with hospitalized soldiers.
"The American public would be outraged if these restrictions became public knowledge," he warned in a letter to the Secretary of Defense.
Bush’s proposed budget in 2006 called for the elimination of a program that provides long-term care for veterans and cuts about 5,000 nursing home beds administered by the VA. It would also result in the loss of 3,000 nurses and other medical personnel.
In a 2005 interview with The Wall Street Journal, a Bush flunky with the Pentagon, David Chu, said of the cost of benefits for veterans, “The amounts have gotten to the point where they are hurtful. They are taking away from the nation's ability to defend itself.”
So it’s now unAmerican for veterans to expect help from a once grateful nation?...
A writer at Family Security Matters takes a longer view:
The facts are that succeeding administrations and Congresses, Republican and Democrat, consistently have been cutting health care and other quality-of-life support to military members and their families for at least 30 years. So, forgive me if it escapes me why Congress is acting so surprised. Congress got exactly what they always get: just what they paid for.
Since the end of the Viet Nam War, the sections of the military budgets that pay for things like service member and family health care, military family housing, after-service and in-service education assistance, and even military retirement, have been cut and cut. I can’t count the number of military hospitals that have been closed over the past 20 years forcing more and more military families to go off-base for medical support and concentrate what was left into a few impersonal “mega” military health centers.
The military hospitals cut from the inventory are the very same ones that, during a time of war, were to care for the combat wounded. The bottom line is that the government eliminated the military health care system’s ability to flex for war. Congresses and administrations were betting on-the-come that big war with big casualty counts weren’t in our future. Worse than that, military health care, among other direct service member and family-related support, was sold out to pay for outmoded, overpriced military hardware that has been of dubious utility in the current fight...
Bob Herbert editorializes, in sum:
...Have we already forgotten that soldier from the Tennessee National Guard who dared to ask Donald Rumsfeld why the troops had to go scrounging in landfills for “hillbilly armor” — scrap metal — to protect their vehicles from roadside bombs?
Fellow soldiers cheered when the question was raised, and others asked why they were being sent into combat with antiquated equipment.
The defense secretary was not amused. “You go to war with the Army you have,” he callously replied, “not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time.”
Have we forgotten that while most Americans have sacrificed zilch for this war, the mostly uncomplaining soldiers and marines are being sent into the combat zones for two, three and four tours?
Multiple combat tours are an unconscionable form of Russian roulette that heightens the chances of a warrior being killed or maimed.
In the old days, these troops would have been referred to as cannon fodder. However you want to characterize them now, their casually unfair treatment is an expression of the belief that they are expendable.
The Washington Post has performed an important public service by shining a spotlight on the contemptible treatment that some soldiers received as outpatients at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
The series has already prompted Congressional hearings, and the president climbed off his bicycle long enough to appoint the requisite commission. The question is whether Congress and the public can be roused to take action on behalf of the troops.
It’s not just the indifference and incompetence of the administration that are causing the troops so much unnecessary suffering.
The simple truth is that the Bush crowd, busy trying to hide the costs of the president’s $2 trillion tragedy in Iraq, can’t find the money to pay for all the care that’s needed by the legions of wounded and mentally disabled troops who are coming home.
The outpatient fiasco at Walter Reed is just one aspect of a vast superstructure of suffering.
The military is overextended and falling apart. Equipment worn out or destroyed by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has to be replaced.
The perennial, all-consuming appetite of the military-industrial complex has to be satisfied. And now, here comes that endless line of wounded men and women, some of them disabled for life.
How is all of this to be paid for?
The administration has tried its best to keep the reality of the war away from the public at large, to keep as much of the carnage as possible behind the scenes. No pictures of the coffins coming home. Limited media access to Walter Reed.
That protective curtain needs to be stripped away, exposing the enormity of this catastrophe for all to see.
I remember walking the quiet, manicured grounds of Walter Reed on an unauthorized visit and seeing the young men and women moving about in wheelchairs or on crutches. Some were missing two and three limbs. All had suffered grievously.
There is something profoundly evil about a country encouraging young men and women to go off and fight its wars and then shortchanging them on medical care and other forms of assistance when they come back with wounds that will haunt them forever.
Btw, I share Victoria's take on this wedding.