U.S. House Hears Squalid Walter Reed Details

Squalid conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center have been caused by the Bush administration’s inadequate planning for the war in Iraq and its push to privatize military support services, a US Congress subcommittee was told on Monday at a hearing into veterans health care. The panel also heard from wounded soldiers who fought misdiagnoses, substandard health care, unsanitary conditions and an unmerciful bureaucracy when they returned wounded from Iraq.

A succession of contrite senior Army commanders took responsibility for the decrepit conditions at the facility during their testimony at the national security subcommittee hearing of the US House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. They explained that the veterans’ health care system had been overwhelmed by the sheer number of wounded soldiers returning from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, a number that is now approaching 600,000.

At the hearing, the most emotional testimony came from wounded soldiers and their families. Army Staff Sgt. John Daniel Shannon said he suffered brain trauma and lost his left eye when he was hit with an AK-47 round during a gun battle with insurgents in Anbar province in Iraq in November 2004. Five days after arriving at Walter Reed in Washington D.C., he was discharged and left to navigate horrendous military bureaucracy, without advocacy or guidance, to arrange the surgery he needed to get a prosthetic eye.

“Two years after first being admitted to Walter Reed, I’m hearing the same thing about the process that I heard when I first began it two years ago,” said Sgt. Shannon. “I want to leave this place. I have seen so many soldiers get so frustrated with the process that they will sign anything presented to them just so they can get on with their lives.”

Annette McLeod, the wife of Cpl. Wendell McLeod, told the hearing that her husband had sustained a brain injury when he was hit in the head by the steel cargo door of an 18-wheel truck in Iraq in 2005. She was not notified that he had been injured, and learned of his condition and whereabouts when he called her himself from a hospital in New Jersey, where the military had transferred him by mistake.

Yet most disturbing for the McLeods was the lack of proper diagnosis and treatment by doctors who attributed Cpl. McLeod’s brain dysfunction to pre-existing conditions, which she believes served the purpose of cutting costs. The couple has since battled endless bureaucratic stonewalling while trying to get better care for Cpl. McLeod. “For a long time, it seemed like I was the only one who cared,” said Mrs McLeod. “Certainly, the Army didn’t care.”

Army Specialist Jeremy Duncan is the soldier who decided to blow the whistle on Walter Reed after being housed in a building he described as unfit for human habitation, with holes in the wall and black mold. Mr Duncan told the hearing he “got blown up” by a roadside bomb while on patrol in Iraq and suffered injuries including loss of sight in one eye and a fractured neck. When his complaints at Walter Reed fell on deaf ears, he called the Washington Post, who broke the story just over two weeks ago. “The next day [hospital officials] moved me and renovated that room.”

Maj. Gen. George Weightman, who was dismissed this week after commanding Walter Reed for only six months, said in his opening statement to the panel, “I would just like to apologize for not meeting [the soldiers’] expectations.” He then turned to face the previous three witnesses and said, “I promise we will do better.”

Lt. Gen. Kevin Kiley, who commanded Walter Reed from 2002 to 2004, also conceded that troops returning with injuries needed to be treated with more care and respect. He told the panel, “We’ve got to give the benefit of the doubt to the soldier and his family.” Gen. Kiley was appointed to replace Gen. Weightman this week, but was then quickly dismissed because he’d known about the poor conditions for years yet had done nothing to improve them. He was one of three high-ranking military officials dismissed this week as a result of the unfolding scandal, the third being Army Secretary Francis Harvey, who was pressed to resign for appointing Gen. Kiley.

Meanwhile, some analysts argue that the problems with veterans health care cannot simply be put down to the poor performance of a few officials, and maintain that pervasive systemic issues have played a fundamental role.

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman laid the blame at the doorstep of the Bush administration. “Two months before the invasion of Iraq, the [Veterans Health Administration] introduced severe new restrictions on who is entitled to enroll in its health care system,” wrote Mr Krugman. “All this red tape was created not by the inherent inefficiency of government bureaucracy, but by the Bush administration’s penny-pinching.” He added that, during the Clinton administration, the VHA had become “a shining example of how good leadership can revitalize a troubled government program”.

Mr Krugman compared the Bush administration’s performance in veterans health care with its bungled response to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans – which he said also reflected the ideological drive to privatize critical functions of government. “One of the factors degrading FEMA’s effectiveness was the Bush administration’s relentless push to outsource and privatize disaster management, which demoralized government employees and drove away many of the agency’s most experienced professionals.”

House Democrats also charge that privatization over the past five years has caused standards to deteriorate in veterans health care. They drew parallels to the waste, fraud and abuse uncovered in recent hearings on military contracts in Iraq.

“We’ve contracted out so much in this war,” said Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), who chairs the House oversight committee. “We are using mercenaries instead of soldiers, we contracted out [veterans health care] as well … in Iraq, we’re overpaying for contracting; here we’re under-serving our soldiers.”

Rep. John Tierney (D-Mass.), who chairs the national security subcommittee, agreed that “an ideological push for privatization put the care of our wounded heroes at risk”. He also said conditions at Walter Reed are “just another horrific consequence of the terrible planning that went into our invasion of Iraq.” He further suggested that President Bush’s recently announced troop surge may exacerbate the problem.

On Saturday, President Bush acknowledged during his weekly radio address that conditions at Walter Reed are “unacceptable” and announced that his administration would form a bipartisan Presidential Commission to conduct a comprehensive review of the veterans health care system.

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