Last year, the United States woke up to the reality
of hundreds of thousands of soldiers wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan
and began to grapple with what to do about it.
On Feb. 18, 2007, the headline "Soldiers
Face Neglect, Frustration at Army's Top Medical Facility" splashed
across the front page of one of the nation's premier newspapers, the Washington
Post. The article, which described unsafe conditions and substandard care
at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, began with the story of Army Specialist
Jeremy Duncan, who was airlifted out of Iraq in February 2006 with a broken
neck and a shredded left ear, "nearly dead from blood loss."
"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," the article
read. "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."
The Post reported that patients inside Walter Reed, which lies just
five miles from the White House, found it difficult to receive the care they
were promised and felt they deserved.
When the story broke, politicians from both parties expressed outrage and promised
solutions. Walter Reed's commander, Maj. Gen. George Weightman, was fired almost
immediately. Following him out the door was the secretary of the Army, Frances
On March 6, President George W. Bush announced the formation of a bipartisan
independent commission lead by former Republican senator Bob Dole and Donna
Shalala, the secretary of Health and Human Services in the Bill Clinton administration.
"It's unacceptable to me, it's unacceptable to you, it's unacceptable
to our country, and it's not going to continue," Bush told the American
Legion in a speech announcing the commission's formation. "My decisions
have put our kids in harm's way. And I'm concerned about the fact that when
they come back they don't get the full treatment they deserve."
Three weeks later, Bush paid a visit to Walter Reed and apologized again: "I
was disturbed by their accounts of what went wrong," Bush told Walter Reed's
staff after a tour of the facility. "It is not right to have someone volunteer
to wear our uniform and not get the best possible care. I apologize for what
they went through, and we're going to fix the problem."
But the allegations raised in the Washington Post were not actually
new. In February 2005, the exact same conditions had been raised in a damning
series in the online magazine Salon.com. Wounded soldiers at Walter Reed, reporter
Mark Benjamin wrote, are "overmedicated, forced to talk about their mothers
instead of Iraq, and have to fight for disability pay. Traumatized combat vets
say the Army is failing them, and after a year following more than a dozen soldiers
at Walter Reed Hospital, I believe them."
Top Bush administration officials knew about Walter Reed's problems, but they
had other priorities. Indeed, before the Washington Post put the facility's
substandard conditions on its front page, President Bush's appointees at the
Pentagon had strenuously lobbied Congress against funding military pensions,
health insurance, and benefits for widows of retirees. Their argument: that
money spent caring for wounded soldiers and their families could be better spent
on state-of-the-art military hardware or enticing new recruits to join the force.
In January 2005, Bush's Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness
David Chu, the official in charge of such things, went so far as to tell the
Wall Street Journal veterans' medical care and disability benefits "are
hurtful" and "are taking away from the nation's ability to defend
Before the scandal at Walter Reed broke in the Washington Post, the
Bush administration ran programs for injured soldiers in much the same way it
did the rest of the war primarily for the benefit of an elite group of
In 2005, with tens of thousands of casualties already reported, a Pentagon
commission recommended closing Walter Reed by 2011. When the commission report
became public, the Bush administration moved to privatize the facility for as
long as it would remain open, turning management of the hospital over to IAP
World Services, a politically well-connected firm with almost no experience
in military medicine.
In January 2006, the military awarded a five-year, $120 million contract to
Florida-based IAP, which had already faced scrutiny from Congress for unseemly
profiteering after Hurricane Katrina. After the levees broke, FEMA ordered the
company to deliver 211 million pounds of ice intended to cool food, medicine,
and sweltering victims of the storm. Instead, IAP had the ice trucked around
the country in circles at taxpayers' expense, with much of it ending up in storage
1,500 miles away in Maine.
The company's leadership had an even more extensive record of corruption. Before
going to work at IAP, company CEO Al Neffgen was a top executive at Halliburton
subsidiary Kellogg, Brown & Root, where he was responsible for "all
work performed by KBR for the U.S. government." That included being hauled
before congressional committees to testify about why the company (which had
earlier been run by Vice President Dick Cheney) had overcharged U.S. taxpayers
by hundreds of millions of dollars while providing support for U.S. troops in
Neffgren wasn't the only well-connected person at IAP. The company's president,
the aptly named David Swindle, is also a former executive at Halliburton. One
of its directors is Dan Quayle, Bush senior's vice president from 1989-1993.
Employees started to leave Walter Reed before the deal was even finalized,
figuring they would lose their jobs anyway. When news of the contract first
surfaced in 2005, 300 federal employees provided facilities management services
at Walter Reed. That figure had dropped to fewer than 60 by Feb. 3, 2007, the
day before IAP took over facilities management. When IAP did take over, the
company replaced the remaining 60 employees with 50 private workers.
Inside Walter Reed, alarm bells were sounding. On Sept. 21, 2006, Garrison
Commander Peter Garibaldi wrote a letter to the base's commanding general saying
privatization had put "patient care services at risk of mission failure."
"We face the critical issues of retaining skilled personnel for the hospital
and diverse professionals for the Garrison, while confronted with increased
difficulty in hiring," he wrote.
No one took notice then, and little has been done since to improve care or
lessen bureaucracy at Walter Reed or at the Pentagon and the VA's network of
hospitals and clinics nationwide. Military hospitals are still short-staffed.
Injured soldiers are still left alone for hours, or even days.
In September 2007, a congressionally mandated report by the nonpartisan Government
Accountability Office found the Pentagon and VA care for service members suffering
from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury was "inadequate"
with "significant shortfalls" of doctors, nurses, and other caregivers
necessary to treat wounded soldiers.
According to the GAO, "46 percent of the Army's returning service members
who were eligible to be assigned to a [medical] unit had not been assigned due
in part to staffing shortages." Over half of the military's special "Wounded
Warrior Transition Units" had staffing shortfalls of more than 50 percent.
Key bases like Fort Lewis in Washington and Fort Carson in Colorado were short
massive amounts of doctors, nurses, and squad leaders. In short, the Bush administration
was simply not hiring enough doctors and nurses to care for what had become
a tidal wave of injured soldiers wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In December, Congress put its solution forward folding a Wounded Warrior
Bill designed to help disabled veterans into a massive $700 billion defense
bill. But on Dec. 28, President Bush surprised many observers by vetoing the
measure. Bush objected to a provision that would allow victims of Saddam Hussein's
regime to seek compensation in court.
Congressional Democrats are now checking to see if they have the votes to override
Bush's veto. If they don't, they may send the bill back to President Bush with
the offending sections removed.
Either way, Veterans for Common Sense's Paul Sullivan says veterans are not
likely to see major progress until 2009.
"Some of the problems may be solved in the next year if Congress fights
hard but I do believe that the anti-veteran Bush administration does indeed
need to go away so that real reform can be brought to the Department of Veterans'
Affairs," Sullivan told IPS.
(Inter Press Service)