The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Treatment of wounded soldiers:
“If Iraq don’t kill you, Walter Reed will.”

Mar 5, 2007

On February 18 and 20, three articles appeared in the Washington Post detailing disgusting outpatient care for wounded troops from Iraq and Afghanistan at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington D.C. These wounded soldiers are waiting for the army to decide whether or not they can return to duty or receive disability compensation.

As one wife of a vet put it, “If Iraq don’t kill you, Walter Reed will.”

The articles detailed surgical miracles in the hospital. But, for every soldier in the hospital recovering from surgery and wounds, there are 17 wounded soldiers, still on duty, as they wait for a medical review board to decide their future. Over 700 are simply waiting in other buildings at the Walter Reed Center or at nearby hotels and apartments rented by the Armed Services.

In one building, Building 18, the reporters described mold, broken floor boards, mouse droppings, dead cockroaches, even an elevator that didn’t work in a building with wheelchair-bound patients. A wounded sergeant from the National Guard, who had lost a leg and suffered traumatic brain injury, was wearing rags from the day he got his injury in Iraq. A case worker sent him to a charity, the Red Cross, to get some clothing. This man was still a soldier on duty!

VA officials began lying to the press after these articles appeared, when they weren’t already caught in lies before. General Kevin Kiley, the head of Walter Reed Medical Center from 2002 to 2004, said two days after the articles appeared, “We’re not letting soldiers languish ... Those great young Americans deserve nothing but the very best healthcare, which I believe they’re getting.”

But on March 1, the Army got rid of Major General George Weightman, who had been the head of Walter Reed for the past six months. And on March 2, the Secretary of Defense forced Army Secretary Francis Harvey to resign as well.

Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs Dr. William Winkenwerder, Jr. was quoted, “This news has caught me – as it did many other people – completely by surprise.” Having told the wrong lies, Winkenwerder was sent to a different job the next day, according to a White House spokesman.

Kiley, the VA and the White House all conveniently ignored the vets who testified in December of 2006 before a Congressional committee on exactly these problems. This testimony came two months before the Washington Post articles ran. However, a similar set of articles documenting the very same problems in the treatment of vets appeared in February of 2005 in Salon, the online magazine.

Other news media also gave details that VA officials conveniently overlook. Newsweek in a March 5 article gave the following figures: Wait to get benefits: minimum of six months; cases pending – 401,701 waiting decisions and 156,466 being appealed; waiting times to get appointments at VA hospitals – no official statistics.

Newsweek also said that 205,000 troops from Iraq and Afghanistan have been treated and one-third of them suffer from mental disorders. Reporters have covered stories of hideous cases of delay, lost paperwork, a bureaucracy gone mad, and, not surprisingly, suicides.

“The typical soldier is required to file 22 documents with eight different commands.... Sixteen different information systems are used to process the forms ... The Army’s three personnel databases cannot read each other’s files....” wrote the reporters from the Post.

And why is the wait so long? In 2005, before the House Committee on Government Reform, a lieutenant general testified that the army had 70 personnel for processing such cases during 2004. During the Viet Nam war, in 1972, the army had 260 employees on medical review boards. Soldiers today have to rely on family members or other wounded soldiers to try to navigate this nightmare system.

One officer of Disabled American Veterans – which helps soldiers for free – said that soldiers tell him, “You saved me for what? The soldiers feel like they are not getting proper respect...”

Support our troops, say the cheerleaders in Washington, from Congress to the White House to the media. We see exactly what that “support” means in reality – that to the U.S. government, the troops are little more than canon fodder.