I met three families that each had really excruciatingly detailed and different stories. Now you’re into a person’s medical history, their credibility. After I met the third one, I said to myself, this is probably a story not just about government bureaucracy and failure, but also about human beings. I’m not the best person to write that story. I started to think about [Post colleague] Anne Hull, who I actually hadn’t said two words to before that. We didn’t know each other. I went over to her desk and was very tentative because I didn’t want to scare her away. I wanted her to seriously think about participating. It’s funny, because when we have talked about this first discussion, she says she didn’t want to scare me away. She was so excited about it, but she didn’t want to seem overly excited. We’re totally different writers, but we’re similar in the sense that we are loner reporters. So the idea of teaming up, for both of us, could pose some challenges. Although, in the end, it really did not.

At first I was asking, “How can I get onto the campus?” and my sources were saying, “Just come on.” All you have to do is show your driver’s license, let your car be searched, and write down your name. I couldn’t believe it, because of terrorism, but it was true. I didn’t have to write down my organization. And, because of privacy issues, they’re not allowed to ask you who are you visiting in the hospital, because the guards are not supposed to know who’s in the hospital.

There are all these women walking around—mothers, sisters, girlfriends, wives, aunts. We wore casual clothes to fit in. But we knew if anyone asked us who we were, we couldn’t lie. So that meant not doing things and not going places where we thought there would be someone in authority who would ask, “Well, who are you?” So we avoided things, and when people like officers would walk into a room, we would leave automatically. And, when we got into prolonged conversations with an individual soldier, you’d have to tell them pretty quickly who you were and what you were doing.
We started building a classic network of sources. We got a great source inside Walter Reed who was helpful throughout, who also gave us other sources in Walter Reed who helped to vet what the soldiers were telling us about their medical records. We started asking all the soldiers for their medical records, and in most cases their families had these incredible files of their records—because they all had had such bad experiences with the hospital losing their records or giving them wrong records. Some of them had bought Xerox machines and put them in their rooms, because they had to do this so much.
By the time we went to the Army with our first list of thirty questions, we had the answers to them all, but we did want to give them a chance to have their say-so. Frankly, I couldn’t see how they would explain them away. They decided it would be the commander at Walter Reed who would respond to all the questions. So we went over one afternoon in the winter. It was snowing. We had been there many times before, and the snow was actually one of the parts of the story, because they didn’t clear the sidewalks wide enough so that the wheelchairs could get through the snow. You really had a problem if you were in a wheelchair. And they didn’t do a very good job of cleaning up anyway, so if you were on crutches. . . . One of the wives in our story had sprained or broken her ankle slipping on an un-cleared path. But the minute our car drove in, they had like three MP cars escorting us to where we were going, and then they had a completely snow-blowed—the snow blower was still working on it—parking space available. And we were like, “Can you believe this?”

The reaction to the Walter Reed stories was incredibly positive, so much so that it was overwhelming and surprising. And even from the government. I have a letter on my wall from the Secretary of Defense, who thanked us for the stories. I never have thought that people who work in government are evil. On the contrary, I think they’re probably trying to do a good job; they think they’re doing something right. Like the CIA stuff—those are people who thought that this was the right thing to do, by and large, and no one was telling them otherwise. So for the military to say something like that, it reaffirms that point, that people want to do the right thing. They just often don’t.

Jill Drew is a 2009-2010 Encore Fellow at CJR. She was an associate editor at The Washington Post until August 2009. For nine of her fourteen years at the newspaper, she was assistant managing editor for financial news.