Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. has often been revered as the premier medical facility for wounded combat veterans, but a recent series of articles by the Washington Post claims that rat infestation, moldy ceilings, and unqualified personnel are just some of the many signs of rampant neglect at the hospital.
On Sunday, the Post reported on the squalid conditions at Walter Reed, the nearly 100-year-old hospital that has treated nearly a quarter of the soldiers injured in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Reporters Dana Priest and Anne Hull, who spent more than four months chronicling the lives of wounded soldiers at the hospital without the knowledge or consent of Walter Reed officials, uncovered living conditions one might expect to find at Guantanamo Bay, but certainly not where those who have gallantly served in the military are convalescing.
Interviews with veterans and their families revealed a “broken-down bureaucracy” at Walter Reed. Paperwork is so badly mishandled that the hospital sometimes has no records of soldiers who have served in Iraq. To prove that he had served in the war, one Iraq veteran had to show his Purple Heart to a Walter Reed clerk to get a replacement uniform for the one that was left blood-stained on the battlefields of the Middle East. Another veteran, who is an amputee, was told to report to a military base in Germany while he was seeking treatment for his injuries. While soldiers navigate through the maze of bureaucracy, Building 18, which houses injured soldiers, is so bad that black mold lines the walls of many rooms. The method for dealing with the facility’s rat infestation problem is to give mouse traps to soldiers.
The White House reaction to the Post story is absolute shock, claiming, according to an article in Editor and Publisher, that “the president first learned of the troubling allegations regarding Walter Reed from the stories this weekend in the Washington Post. He is deeply concerned and wants any problems identified and fixed.”
While the administration tries to respond to the pending crisis, bloggers are already reacting. Some are assailing the lack of support for the troops, while others see the Post’s series as evidence of the media’s anti-military and anti-war stance.
“I’ve been brooding over the anti-Military hit piece for two days. There’s so much that needs to be explained and the current MSM hysterics need to be tempered with a dose of reality, but I haven’t come up with the right words,” said GunnNutt on Semper Gratus. “I hate the smarmy, tabloid manner in which the WaCompost stories were written, but having been a regular volunteer at the hospital for a year and a half, I’ve known about the same problems that Andi and all the other folks have heard or dealt with personally and I am glad that the situation is getting some badly needed attention. Just remember that the problems are in the administration, NOT the quality of health care. I’ve heard some rather off-topic and hysterical pronouncements about the Walter Reed story. It’s important to distinguish between medical care and administrative issues. Walter Reed does indeed provide first-class medical care. I can attest to this firsthand.”
Jon Swift agrees with GunnNutt, albeit somewhat sarcastically. “Although the articles do make Walter Reed sound bad, they give a distorted, one-sided picture. They don’t tell us about the thousands of tough, courageous veterans who survived their care there,” wrote Swift. “The story makes some veterans look like whiners and complainers, when most veterans are happy to make sacrifices for their country. Veterans know that their service to their country doesn’t end when they come home, and they are perfectly willing to save the government a little money, just as they were proud to serve without body armor or armored vehicles that would have been much too expensive to provide. Most veterans don’t want to be coddled and they don’t think they need the kind of care that only rich people can afford just for doing their duty. To imply otherwise is the journalistic equivalent of spitting on our brave soldiers.”
But other bloggers were truly indignant and found it unfathomable that the administration claimed to be ignorant of the situation at Walter Reed, especially since Salon reported on conditions at the hospital in 2005.
“They shouldn’t have been so surprised,” said Mark Benjamin on Salon. “In early 2005, Salon brought to the attention of Walter Reed officials disturbing information based on interviews, medical records and other Army documents which showed that soldiers receiving outpatient treatment for mental wounds were suffering from a shocking pattern of neglect. At that time, Walter Reed officials refused to discuss Salon’s findings. Instead, they issued a statement saying it just wasn’t so: ‘We are satisfied that there is a very high level of patient satisfaction with their treatment,’ the statement read.”
Blogger Jo of Jo’s Café said that the conditions at Walter Reed demonstrate an ongoing problem with medical care for wounded veterans. Responding to Tony Snow’s statement that “There’s plenty of outrage,” Jo wrote, “So ‘now’ there is outrage because someone had the backbone to tell the public how their warriors are treated after doing their time in a war zone? Please, the system has been broken for years in the medical arena of the military. Just ask a retired vet from the last war.”
The Post’s reporting has already brought changes: On Wednesday, the White House and members of Congress promised a dramatic overhaul at Walter Reed. Army officials have toured Building 18 and workers have already started to make adjustments, removing mold and stained carpets.
Though these repairs are a delayed response by the White House to a situation that has gone unchecked for years, some bloggers, like Charlie on the PA Turnpike, argue that medical treatment for service members has always lagged, irrespective of which party was in office.
Satta Sarmah is a CJR intern.
“As for our veterans, this great nation has one particular fault that cannot be denied: we do not pay nor treat the veterans who defend this nation nearly enough,” remarked Charlie. “This is not a problem that started in 2002, nor 1962, nor 1950 … historically, we send our boys (and now girls) home with a pat on the back and off they go. Veterans are never given the respect they deserve — and that’s across party lines.”