The Shame of Walter Reed

Walter Reed HospitalWalter Reed was a pioneer in the field of medicine. With two medical degrees in hand by age 20, he later led a team of physicians in confirming how yellow fever was spread. Reed’s research saved the lives of countless servicemen in the United States Army, and his insights opened up whole new fields of biomedicine. His untimely death in 1902 was honored by the army, which supported his breakthrough studies with the opening of Walter Reed General Hospital in Washington, DC, which, over the years, has transformed into the Walter Reed Army Medical Center (WRAMC). If you’re wounded in the line of duty, odds are you’ll see the inside of one of its many buildings.

Whether you’ll be filled with rage or sorrow upon exiting, however, is another story.

You see, Reed’s legacy is falling apart, and isn’t fit to service the lowliest among us, let alone men and women who sacrifice their lives and bodies for the military. “Behind the door of Army Spec. Jeremy Duncan’s room,” writes Washington Post journalists Dana Priest and Anne Hull, “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.” And that’s just Building 18, a repurposed hotel not attached to the facilities proper. Much of Walter Reed’s other facilities face similar levels of neglect, and vets who recently read the Post’s exposé detailing those nightmare conditions have confirmed other VA clinics around the country aren’t much better.

“It is just not Walter Reed,” says veteran Ray Oliva. “The VA hospitals are not good either except for the staff who work so hard. It brings tears to my eyes when I see my brothers and sisters having to deal with these conditions.”

The Post’s investigation led to the forced resignation and firing of several high-level military officials, including WRAMC commanding general George Weightman, Secretary of the Army Francis Harvey, and Kevin Kiley, base commander from 2002-2004. Ignorance of the conditions was feigned, but it’s hard to ignore a body of evidence going back several years, including articles from both the Post and Salon Magazine detailing First Lt. Julian Goodrum’s court martial for seeking medical care elsewhere due to poor living conditions.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has insisted he will hold accountable those responsible for such deplorable conditions. But said conditions persist, and recent declarations by quality control inspector Mark Cordell that other buildings at WRAMC are equally inhospitable show the military’s reticence to give their wounded a shred of dignity while Harvey’s departure from his post was punctuated with a lavish going-away ceremony.

Would the top brass prefer their subordinates just die on the battlefield rather than subject the state to costly medical procedures? What’s more important: a grunt’s rehabilitation or more mortar shells? Don’t be so quick to answer.

Our troops are treated with contempt by the upper echelons of the command structure. How else do you explain the mentality behind deploying more of them in President Bush’s ill-fated “surge,” or how soldiers were ordered to abandon top-of-the-line body armor or lose death benefits? Body armor that they or family members had to purchase for themselves because materials provided by the military were substandard?

Why is it when we hear about troop food rations arriving spoiled and contaminated no one bats an eyelash? Why do Americans chuckle when they hear their brothers and sisters resort to lining Humvees with scrap metal for some measure of protection?

Why have we as a people come to expect an army that doesn’t shield its own forces from harm?

One of the mantras of the post-September 11 mindscape is that we must support our troops. That, regardless of the veracity of the war(s) they fight in, they deserve consummate respect from society for volunteering to stand on the battlefield for the American Republic. But respect doesn’t begin and end with a ribbon around a tree or some shoddy, Mexican-made magnet on the back of a car. It means we feed them, educate them, and care for them. Even if they’re sick or wounded. They stood up in service for the United States. When it’s needed, the United States must stand up for them as well.

Yet as we’ve seen, medical facilities are atrocious, benefits are cut and any attempt that can be made to curtail benefits is done. In one instance, American forces working with NATO in Kosovo may lose combat status and be stripped of thousands of dollars of pay and the ability to fly home because accountants think the war in the Balkans ended when Bill Clinton left office. Those that do receive care must jump through Catch-22 levels of bureaucracy.

Following the golden rule has never seemed so simple. Treat these men and women how we would want to be treated. Nothing less than state-of-the-art medical procedures to save life and limb. And nothing less than the best psychologists to help repair what needles and sutures cannot — a fragile mind damaged by the horrors of battle.

Because of modern warfare, veteran needs could top $1 trillion in the coming years, money the government would much rather spend on shiny new bombs or even shinier propaganda. Why fit a soldier with a prosthetic limb when it costs just as much to train his replacement on an M-16? The men and women of the armed forces are being nickeled and dimed to death by an administration that just does not care whether they live or die.

I take that back. They’d much prefer you die. And given the state of Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the faster you do so, the better.