As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

You Messed With The Wrong Marine

All hell is breaking loose over the incredible and harrowing story of how we treat disabled Iraq War veterans at Walter Reed medical hospital, which appeared not just in The Washington Post, but was corroborated by The Army Times.

Yet when it was time for the Army to take care of him, one of its wounded warriors, Van Antwerp gave up before he even began. Rather than fight for a higher disability rating, he quietly signed for 20 percent — and no medical benefits — saying he knew he couldn’t do better. He inherited his father’s stubbornness, he said, and refused to ask anyone to pull strings based on his dad’s rank. Then his first medical board counselor, the person who would help him make his way through the medical evaluation board system, left. The second, he said, “wasn’t on the ball.”

“The Army is trying to give you the lowest amount of money possible,” he said. “A lot of people are appealing, but I’ll be going to [the Department of Veterans Affairs]. I want to go home.”

Van Antwerp is one of thousands of wounded troops rushed from the war zone for health care and then stranded in administrative limbo. They are at the mercy of a medical evaluation system that’s agonizingly slow, grossly understaffed and saddled with a growing backlog of cases. The wounded soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines are stuck in holding companies awaiting hearings and decisions on whether they will continue their military service or be discharged, and if so, at what level of benefits — if any.

The least we could do is to take care of those who fight this war. But Republican ideology of drowning government in the bathtub ensures that we don't even do that. It's disgraceful.

And Democrats are rightfully angry.

Following two votes last week in which Democrats rejected President Bush's surge plan and faced questioning from Republicans regarding their commitment to the troops, Democrats quickly seized on a story published by the Washington Post describing the conditions some soldiers encounter at Walter Reed.

"Caring for our returning heroes is one of the things we can still get right about this war, and that's why the deterioration of the conditions at Walter Reed is both appalling and unacceptable," presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) said.

Obama and Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said they would introduce legislation to improve the ratio of caseworkers to recovering soldiers, ensure caseworkers are better trained, cut back on the red tape recovering soldiers confront and set a timeline for repairs to "substandard facilities."

"I felt sick when I read these articles about how our injured American military men and women are being treated at Walter Reed," McCaskill said. "They sacrificed and fought bravely in Iraq and Afghanistan. They shouldn't have to fight a whole new war at home to receive the service and compensation they deserve."

In the House, Louise Slaughter (D-NY), chairwoman of the Rules Committee, wrote a letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

I urge you to explain why the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, once the crown-jewel of military medicine, has become a bleak and frustrating place for our wounded soldiers to recover, and what the Army intends to do to restore the integrity of its medical system.

This weekend's Washington Post series revealing the "other Walter Reed" was stunning. It painted a picture of abhorrent living conditions and a bureaucratic nightmare for our wounded soldiers in outpatient care. In striking detail, the series described how one of the outpatient facilities, Building 18, is marked by rodent infestation, mold problems, and crumbling ceilings. As if the facilities were not bad enough, wounded soldiers and their families must wrestle daily with an Army bureaucracy ill-equipped to provide them with the attention and care they need. Wounded soldiers are often left on their own to make and keep appointments, and fill out the 22 documents needed to enter and exit the Army's medical system.

The commander at Walter Reed moved quickly into damage control mode, saying that repairs on the infamous Building 18, infested with cockroaches and bad plumbing and a broken elevator, have begun. But Slaughter was correct to point out that, without the WaPo expose in the first place, nothing would have been done. It takes 9-1-1, crisis, emergency mode to get this Administration off of their ass to do anything.

In a tense White House press briefing, Tony Snow claimed Bush never knew about the appalling conditions at Walter Reed (although I think he got suckered into saying that, and Snow corrected the record as an addendum to a later transcript), and then actually said that everyone should go ask the Pentagon about it:

Q Were you aware?

MR. SNOW: We are aware now, yes. And I would refer you to the Department of Defense, which I know is taking a very close look at it, too.

Look, the men and women who have gone and fought for our country over there, they deserve the best care.

Q So why has that not been guaranteed, then?

MR. SNOW: I'm not sure that -- you know, when you find a problem, you deal with it.

Q So you're saying the President learned about this from The Washington Post?

MR. SNOW: I don't know exactly where he learned it, but I can tell you that we believe that they deserve better. And, again, Ed, this is something where I'd suggest you give DoD a call, because I know they've taken a good, hard look at it.

Right, because the President apparently has no say over the rogue, out-of-control Department of Defense under his executive command.

This story's going to have legs, and it dovetails with Rep. Murtha's call for readiness in the Armed Forces. Readiness on the battlefield extends to the hospitals and the outpatient facilities as well. You cannot keep a war going when you can't even decently house the wounded.

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