You have to appreciate, if that's quite the right word, the way the military administration works sometimes.
First, there's this story:
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. When the wounded combat engineer stands in his shower and looks up, he can see the bathtub on the floor above through a rotted hole. The entire building, constructed between the world wars, often smells like greasy carry-out. Signs of neglect are everywhere: mouse droppings, belly-up cockroaches, stained carpets, cheap mattresses.
This is the world of Building 18, not the kind of place where Duncan expected to recover when he was evacuated to Walter Reed Army Medical Center from Iraq last February with a broken neck and a shredded left ear, nearly dead from blood loss. But the old lodge, just outside the gates of the hospital and five miles up the road from the White House, has housed hundreds of maimed soldiers recuperating from injuries suffered in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The common perception of Walter Reed is of a surgical hospital that shines as the crown jewel of military medicine. But 5 1/2 years of sustained combat have transformed the venerable 113-acre institution into something else entirely -- a holding ground for physically and psychologically damaged outpatients. Almost 700 of them -- the majority soldiers, with some Marines -- have been released from hospital beds but still need treatment or are awaiting bureaucratic decisions before being discharged or returned to active duty.
They suffer from brain injuries, severed arms and legs, organ and back damage, and various degrees of post-traumatic stress. Their legions have grown so exponentially -- they outnumber hospital patients at Walter Reed 17 to 1 -- that they take up every available bed on post and spill into dozens of nearby hotels and apartments leased by the Army. The average stay is 10 months, but some have been stuck there for as long as two years.
Not all of the quarters are as bleak as Duncan's, but the despair of Building 18 symbolizes a larger problem in Walter Reed's treatment of the wounded, according to dozens of soldiers, family members, veterans aid groups, and current and former Walter Reed staff members interviewed by two Washington Post reporters, who spent more than four months visiting the outpatient world without the knowledge or permission of Walter Reed officials. Many agreed to be quoted by name; others said they feared Army retribution if they complained publicly.
While the hospital is a place of scrubbed-down order and daily miracles, with medical advances saving more soldiers than ever, the outpatients in the Other Walter Reed encounter a messy bureaucratic battlefield nearly as chaotic as the real battlefields they faced overseas. On the worst days, soldiers say they feel like they are living a chapter of "Catch-22." The wounded manage other wounded. Soldiers dealing with psychological disorders of their own have been put in charge of others at risk of suicide. Disengaged clerks, unqualified platoon sergeants and overworked case managers fumble with simple needs: feeding soldiers' families who are close to poverty, replacing a uniform ripped off by medics in the desert sand or helping a brain-damaged soldier remember his next appointment. "We've done our duty. We fought the war. We came home wounded. Fine. But whoever the people are back here who are supposed to give us the easy transition should be doing it," said Marine Sgt. Ryan Groves, 26, an amputee who lived at Walter Reed for 16 months. "We don't know what to do. The people who are supposed to know don't have the answers. It's a nonstop process of stalling." [...]
The Pentagon, needless to say, was horribly embarrassed and humiliated at the prospect of this story, as they should have been. Therefore, they went into tornado spin mode.
A top Army general vowed yesterday to personally oversee the upgrading of Walter Reed Army Medical Center's Building 18, a dilapidated former hotel that houses wounded soldiers as outpatients. Gen. Richard A. Cody, the Army vice chief of staff, used terminology similar to that of a military campaign to describe his plan to overhaul the broken building, including giving it a more "appropriate" name, and the sluggish bureaucracy for outpatient care. "We own that building, and we're going to take charge of it," Cody said at the Pentagon. "The senior Army leadership takes full responsibility for the lack of quality of life at Building 18, and we're going to fix it."
Cody blamed "a breakdown in leadership" for the troubling conditions but said no one has been fired or relieved of command. He did point to lower-ranking officers and noncommissioned officers lacking "the right experience and the authority to be able to execute some of the missions. That's what we're correcting right now," he said.
Cody and William Winkenwerder Jr., the assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, said at a news conference that they frequently visit Walter Reed and were surprised and disappointed by the living conditions and the fact that they had learned about them from media reports. The Washington Post reported Sunday and Monday on the challenges facing outpatients at Walter Reed. "We get concerns all the time directed to us. But we never got a concern sent our way about this issue, which is a little surprising. I'm not sure why that is," Winkenwerder said....
OK, wait just one minute here. General Cody and Mr Winkenwerder frequently visit Walter Reed, yet they had to learn about conditions from media reports? Are they blind? Do their handlers make sure that they only visit the decorous portions of the hospital, so as to keep they away from the nitty-gritty aspects of injury and rehabilitation? Seriously, how could they frequently visit and not know?
Oh, yes, the spin:
It's not every day one gets to witness a whitewash in action, but Walter Reed Army Medical Center provided just such an opportunity yesterday.
In Sunday's Washington Post, Dana Priest and Anne Hull described the woeful conditions of Room 205 in Walter Reed's Building 18: "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. When the wounded combat engineer stands in his shower and looks up, he can see the bathtub on the floor above through a rotted hole."
The Army mobilized. Painters were deployed to cover the offending wall with a fresh coat of white semigloss. And television crews were invited in to inspect the result. "Some of the paint is still wet against that wall, so be careful," Walter Reed public affairs officer Donald Vandrey, standing on the bed in his socks, advised the film crews. "They just finished repainting it about 10 minutes ago."
Lt. Gen. Kevin Kiley thought so. After the media tour of Building 18, the Army's surgeon general gave a news conference. "I do not consider Building 18 to be substandard," he said of a facility Priest and Hull found full of "mouse droppings, belly-up cockroaches, stained carpets, cheap mattresses" and other delights. "We needed to do a better job on some of those rooms, and those of you that got in today saw that we frankly have fixed all of those problems. They weren't serious, and there weren't a lot of them."
Kiley might have had a stronger case if men wearing Tyvek hazmat suits and gas masks hadn't walked through the lobby while the camera crews waited for the tour to start, or if he hadn't acknowledged, moments later, that the entire building would have to be closed for a complete renovation. The general also seemed to miss a larger point identified by other officials: Walter Reed's problem isn't of mice and mold but a bureaucracy that has impeded the recovery of wounded soldiers.
The Army's vice chief of staff, only 24 hours earlier, decried "a breakdown in leadership" for the conditions in the place. And Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) noted that "you could put all the wounded soldiers in the Ritz-Carlton, and it wouldn't fix the personnel management and recordkeeping problems that keep them languishing in outpatient limbo out there for months."
"We're not letting soldiers languish," came Kiley's reply.
For all the stagecraft, there was still broken glass in the driveway of Building 18 yesterday, a banana peel on the steps and an empty Budweiser can in the shrubbery. There were signs of hasty repairs: a plumber's truck outside, dust masks and spray cleaners on window sills, rat poison outside the dumpster, and a discarded box proclaiming "Emergency Exit Lighting Fixture." Construction workers came and went.
The base's public-affairs crew arrived 25 minutes late for the tour but got right to work. "Some of these people are not on our list and are not coming in," announced Lori Calvillo, Walter Reed's chief spokeswoman. "C-SPAN, you're not on the list. You're not coming in." She then attempted to evict a Washington Post reporter, who appealed, loudly, to Kiley....
Because evicting specific reporters is going to keep the rest from reporting what they see. Of course it will. (Sad thing is, the Administration at large has had the media so cowed for so long that it's entirely probable that they expected that it would work. But I digress.)
And now, with attempts at silencing the media -- however incompetently executed -- having failed, the Pentagon seems to have decided that it's now time to punish the sick and injured soldiers and their families, because they finally had had enough and spoke out about these appalling conditions. The following article reprinted in its entirety due to brevity and sheer disbelief.
Soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center’s Medical Hold Unit say they have been told they will wake up at 6 a.m. every morning and have their rooms ready for inspection at 7 a.m., and that they must not speak to the media. “Some soldiers believe this is a form of punishment for the trouble soldiers caused by talking to the media,” one Medical Hold Unit soldier said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. It is unusual for soldiers to have daily inspections after Basic Training.
Soldiers say their sergeant major gathered troops at 6 p.m. Monday to tell them they must follow their chain of command when asking for help with their medical evaluation paperwork, or when they spot mold, mice or other problems in their quarters. They were also told they would be moving out of Building 18 to Building 14 within the next couple of weeks. Building 14 is a barracks that houses the administrative offices for the Medical Hold Unit and was renovated in 2006. It’s also located on the Walter Reed Campus, where reporters must be escorted by public affairs personnel. Building 18 is located just off campus and is easy to access. The soldiers said they were also told their first sergeant has been relieved of duty, and that all of their platoon sergeants have been moved to other positions at Walter Reed. And 120 permanent-duty soldiers are expected to arrive by mid-March to take control of the Medical Hold Unit, the soldiers said.
As of Tuesday afternoon, Army public affairs did not respond to a request sent Sunday evening to verify the personnel changes.
The Pentagon also clamped down on media coverage of any and all Defense Department medical facilities, to include suspending planned projects by CNN and the Discovery Channel, saying in an e-mail to spokespeople: “It will be in most cases not appropriate to engage the media while this review takes place,” referring to an investigation of the problems at Walter Reed.
To be sure, moving soldiers out of Building 18 while it undergoes fumigation and renovation would likely be required in any event. That said, it's hard to imagine that an administrative barracks is really an appropriate place to keep injured and ill soldiers. And it's difficult to imagine that 6AM wakeups and 7AM inspections could possibly be anything other than punishment for breaking the code of silence. You break the code, you suffer, and that's all there is to it.
One wonders if, once this sort of information is more widely circulated, the military will find it difficult to meet its recruiting goals. More difficult, that is; it's already poisonously hard as it stands. Not only is it virtually certain that if you join, you'll be sent off to fight in a pointless and unpopular war; there's a very good chance you'll be injured or killed; when you return for treatment, there's a reasonable chance that it will take place in a facility that would be shut down for health code violations if it were a civilian facility; and if you speak out about substandard care, you'll be punished while you're sick and injured.
Really, quite the recuiting poster, wouldn't you say?Posted by iain at February 28, 2007 11:35 AM