We Support The Troops!

Today's Washington Post has an extremely disturbing article about the wounded soldiers who are recuperating at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

The common perception of Walter Reed is of a surgical hospital that shines as the crown jewel of military medicine. But 5 1/2 years of sustained combat have transformed the venerable 113-acre institution into something else entirely -- a holding ground for physically and psychologically damaged outpatients. Almost 700 of them -- the majority soldiers, with some Marines -- have been released from hospital beds but still need treatment or are awaiting bureaucratic decisions before being discharged or returned to active duty.

They suffer from brain injuries, severed arms and legs, organ and back damage, and various degrees of post-traumatic stress. Their legions have grown so exponentially -- they outnumber hospital patients at Walter Reed 17 to 1 -- that they take up every available bed on post and spill into dozens of nearby hotels and apartments leased by the Army. The average stay is 10 months, but some have been stuck there for as long as two years...

While the hospital is a place of scrubbed-down order and daily miracles, with medical advances saving more soldiers than ever, the outpatients in the Other Walter Reed encounter a messy bureaucratic battlefield nearly as chaotic as the real battlefields they faced overseas.

On the worst days, soldiers say they feel like they are living a chapter of "Catch-22." The wounded manage other wounded. Soldiers dealing with psychological disorders of their own have been put in charge of others at risk of suicide.

Disengaged clerks, unqualified platoon sergeants and overworked case managers fumble with simple needs: feeding soldiers' families who are close to poverty, replacing a uniform ripped off by medics in the desert sand or helping a brain-damaged soldier remember his next appointment.

"We've done our duty. We fought the war. We came home wounded. Fine. But whoever the people are back here who are supposed to give us the easy transition should be doing it," said Marine Sgt. Ryan Groves, 26, an amputee who lived at Walter Reed for 16 months. "We don't know what to do. The people who are supposed to know don't have the answers. It's a nonstop process of stalling." MORE

Having been in the Army myself, I don't find this hard to believe at all. I'll give you a personal example. I was taking a periodic physical exam, which in the Army at that time was done as an assembly-line process. The hospital set up stations to check various things, and soldiers would carry their chart from one station to the next and finally to the end, where a senior physician would review everything.

So, I came to the dental station. An Army dentist sitting at a desk asked for my chart. He looked at it, initialed a box and told me to move on. What he did not do was look at my teeth. I wasn't about to complain about it, of course - the last thing I wanted was to get stuck in his chair to be tortured for who knows how long. It was the fastest dental exam I've ever had.

In this case my teeth were fine. No harm done. My point is that military medicine is a bureaucracy like any other. At its best, it consists of medics who will move heaven and earth, risking and sometimes losing their own lives, to bring every wounded soldier home alive. At the other end of the chain are places like Walter Reed, where people like that dentist do what they must to collect their paycheck, and nothing more.

It shouldn't be this way, but apparently it is. What really chaps me is that Walter Reed is only five miles from the White House. President Bush goes there often to visit the wounded. He "cares for the troops," we are told. If you really care, Mr. President, do something for these soldiers. The Post has done a fine job identifying the problems. You can fix them with one phone call.

And all you people who feel so patriotic because you have magnetic yellow ribbons on your cars - you can do something, too. Try cleaning out a bedpan or giving a paralyzed soldier a spongebath. Then we'll know that you care for the troops.

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