Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Spring Fund Drive: Keep CounterPunch Afloat
CounterPunch is a lifeboat of sanity in today’s turbulent political seas. Please make a tax-deductible donation and help us continue to fight Trump and his enablers on both sides of the aisle. Every dollar counts!
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Sins of Walter Reed

The U.S. military lives by the rule: “Leave no soldier behind.” The Walter Reed Army Medical Center (WRAMC) seems to have operated according to a different principle: “Out of sight, out of mind.”

It is unconscionable for a government to send soldiers to fight, die, and suffer life-changing wounds without assuring them first-class medical care and rehabilitation should they require it because of their service. Government should also provide injured soldiers with the financial resources for a decent standard of living, consistent with the severity of wounds suffered. The recent media revelations of the medical care at Walter Reed, particularly for returning soldiers billeted in outlying buildings, demonstrate that the U.S. government has broken this social compact.

This is not a question of malice aforethought, either by the government or the hospital. The sins of Walter Reed were those of omission, not commission. But sins they remain, and the U.S. government must do more than just fire a few people and rehab a few buildings.
Lack of Care

The description of the squalor in which some wounded veterans lived ­ notably in the now infamous Building 18 ­ was a surefire journalistic hook to draw the reader into the full story. This is not a criticism but an observation about the power of solid reporting of indisputable facts. The Washington Post reporters exposed not only the living conditions ­ easy to fix if the responsible authorities put their minds to it ­ but also the more serious implications for the physical and mental recovery of those who become part of the WRAMC “family.”

The medical side of the care provided in the main hospital is not in question. But other parts of the total patient experience failed. Patients not in the main hospital building simply fell out of the administrative loop.

When a soldier is in the multi-story main hospital building as an in-patient, most of the medical and medical-support actions are either automatically done or readily accessible to patients. Doctors come onto wards; nursing staff is available and checking on patients around the clock; chaplains make daily rounds; a mobile library can be encountered in the hallways moving from room to room; physical therapists administer post-injury rehabilitation; and volunteers visit those unable to get out of bed.

What seems to have happened to those not in the main building is as understandable as it is inexcusable. This in-patient support structure ­ or at least some critical parts of it ­ didn’t exist or was wholly inadequate. It didn’t provide services for those in the disconnected housing facilities on the WRAMC grounds or ­ as in the case of Building 18 ­ in the facilities outside the gates and across a multi-lane transportation artery running into downtown Washington.

The situation worsened as the number of casualties from Iraq and Afghanistan mounted. And this number increased much faster in these wars because improved medical procedures meant that more troops survived their wounds. In addition, because of the privatization of many positions, the number of federal employees fell from 600 to 60. As a result, a certain triage took place in which patients in the main building were treated as “in-patients” while everyone else, including those in different WRAMC buildings and those living outside of Washington, became “out-patients.” Once soldiers entered this latter population, they received less monitoring and less care.

From that point on, it was all down hill for the wounded troops. Down hill, that is, until the conditions were exposed to the public and the Congress.
Public Outcry

But then, inexplicably, the Army goes and shoots itself in the foot. Commanders exhibit inexcusable indifference or blame shifting, troops reportedly are muzzled and threatened with reprisals. Then it becomes apparent that senior noncommissioned officers, officers, and even commanding generals had known about the shortcomings in staffing, in the level of services provided to the patients assigned to their care, and in the conditions in which some of the wounded lived and functioned.

At this point, for whatever combination of reasons, it was evident that the chain-of-command had failed its fundamental challenge: leadership. Accountability dictated that heads would roll. To date, one Secretary of the Army is gone; one general officer ­ ironically the only senior army official to apologize publicly ­ has been relieved; one company grade officer has also lost his position; a sergeant-major and a number of platoon sergeants have been “moved”; and a 120-person medical support unit has been assigned to Walter Reed to straighten out the place.

Unfortunately, many returned wounded veterans are struggling with the same conditions in under-funded and under-staffed army and veterans’ hospitals elsewhere in the country.

The “bricks and mortar” side will be repaired first because it is the easiest to do. Unfortunately, as the most visible, it is also potentially the most deceptive measurement of progress made in rectifying the shortcomings not only at WRAMC but in all Defense Department hospitals and clinics.

Moreover, Congress must look at the Veterans Administration (VA) health care system. This system is under tremendous strain as it tries to cope with the 5.5 million veterans seeking medical attention every year in one of the 1,050 VA hospitals, medical centers, and clinics. It is true that the VA budget has increased significantly under President Bush, but those increases are projected to end after 2008, falling back in 2009 and 2010, and then holding steady ­ precisely when its resources will be in greatest demand by returning service members.
The Bush Legacy

Already, more than 1.5 million men and women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and more will go. But they will not be this administration’s problem. President Bush has already told the public that when he leaves office in January 2009, he fully expects to bequeath his successor two ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He will also dump on his successor and future generations of Americans the long and costly obligation to care for and help heal lives destroyed by these wars.

Reading between the lines of recent Pentagon testimony before Congress on future budgets seems to confirm what the “old hands” have alleged for years: that there never was any serious thought given to a Plan B for Iraq in case Plan A failed. Well, it is also now very apparent that the administration never had a Plan A ­ let alone a Plan B ­ for the medical systems of either the Defense Department or the VA.

Thus, a medical care system established to treat and care for those who return from war physically or mentally injured by the experience is under-staffed, under-trained, under-resourced, and unprepared. In fact, the military-veterans medical treatment system, highly bureaucratic in its origin, has become so convoluted that patients get lost in the system, especially when an individual moves from active to veteran status. Why? Because the VA and DOD computers with individual medical records are unable to routinely access medical treatment histories or transfer data from the other department’s computers.

War is hell, no doubt. As the Walter Read case reveals, however, the aftermath of war also has its own horrors. And many of these horrors last a lifetime.

Col. DAN SMITH is a military affairs analyst for Foreign Policy In Focus , a retired U.S. Army colonel, and a senior fellow on military affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation. Email at dan@fcnl.org.

 

More articles by:
May 24, 2018
Jeff Warner – Victor Rothman
Why the Emerging Apartheid State in Israel-Palestine is Not Sustainable
Kenn Orphan
Life, the Sea and Big Oil
James Luchte
Europe Stares Into the Abys, Confronting the American Occupant in the Room
Richard Hardigan
Palestinians’ Great March of Return: What You Need to Know
Howard Lisnoff
So Far: Fascism Lite
Matthew Vernon Whalan
Norman Finkelstein on Bernie Sanders, Gaza, and the Mainstream Treatment
Daniel Warner
J’accuse All Baby Boomers
Alfred W. McCoy
Beyond Golden Shower Diplomacy
Jonah Raskin
Rachel Kushner, Foe of Prisons, and Her New Novel, “The Mars Room”
George Wuerthner
Myths About Wildfires, Logging and Forests
Binoy Kampmark
Tom Wolfe the Parajournalist
Dean Baker
The Marx Ratio: Not Clear Karl Would be Happy
May 23, 2018
Nick Pemberton
Maduro’s Win: A Bright Spot in Dark Times
Ben Debney
A Faustian Bargain with the Climate Crisis
Deepak Tripathi
A Bloody Hot Summer in Gaza: Parallels With Sharpeville, Soweto and Jallianwala Bagh
Josh White
Strange Recollections of Old Labour
Farhang Jahanpour
Pompeo’s Outrageous Speech on Iran
CJ Hopkins
The Simulation of Democracy
Lawrence Davidson
In Our Age of State Crimes
Dave Lindorff
The Trump White House is a Chaotic Clown Car Filled with Bozos Who Think They’re Brilliant
Russell Mokhiber
The Corporate Domination of West Virginia
Ty Salandy
The British Royal Wedding, Empire and Colonialism
Laura Flanders
Life or Death to the FCC?
Gary Leupp
Dawn of an Era of Mutual Indignation?
Katalina Khoury
The Notion of Patriarchal White Supremacy Vs. Womanhood
Nicole Rosmarino
The Grassroots Environmental Activist of the Year: Christine Canaly
Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin
“Michael Inside:” The Prison System in Ireland 
May 22, 2018
Stanley L. Cohen
Broken Dreams and Lost Lives: Israel, Gaza and the Hamas Card
Kathy Kelly
Scourging Yemen
Andrew Levine
November’s “Revolution” Will Not Be Televised
Ted Rall
#MeToo is a Cultural Workaround to a Legal Failure
Gary Leupp
Question for Discussion: Is Russia an Adversary Nation?
Binoy Kampmark
Unsettling the Summits: John Bolton’s Libya Solution
Doug Johnson
As Andrea Horwath Surges, Undecided Voters Threaten to Upend Doug Ford’s Hopes in Canada’s Most Populated Province
Kenneth Surin
Malaysia’s Surprising Election Results
Dana Cook
Canada’s ‘Superwoman’: Margot Kidder
Dean Baker
The Trade Deficit With China: Up Sharply, for Those Who Care
John Feffer
Playing Trump for Peace How the Korean Peninsula Could Become a Bright Spot in a World Gone Mad
Peter Gelderloos
Decades in Prison for Protesting Trump?
Thomas Knapp
Yes, Virginia, There is a Deep State
Andrew Stewart
What the Providence Teachers’ Union Needs for a Win
Jimmy Centeno
Mexico’s First Presidential Debate: All against One
May 21, 2018
Ron Jacobs
Gina Haspell: She’s Certainly Qualified for the Job
Uri Avnery
The Day of Shame
Amitai Ben-Abba
Israel’s New Ideology of Genocide
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail