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CHALLENGES 2007-2008: Wounded Vets Trade One Hell for Another

Aaron Glantz

SAN FRANCISCO, California, Jan 15 2008 (IPS) - 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.

Wounded Iraq war veteran at a protest in Washington, DC on Sep. 15, 2007. Credit: SusanAstray

Wounded Iraq war veteran at a protest in Washington, DC on Sep. 15, 2007. Credit: SusanAstray

On Feb. 18, 2007, a headline titled “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 Centre, 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, Major General George Weightman, was fired almost immediately. Following him out the door was the Secretary of the Army, Frances Harvey.

On Mar. 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 under 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 apologised 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 apologise 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 on-line magazine Salon. 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. Traumatised 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 Defence 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 itself”.

Before the scandal at Walter Reed broke in the Washington Post, the Bush administration ran programmes for injured soldiers in much the same way it did the rest of the war – primarily for the benefit of an elite group of private contractors.

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 privatise 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-dollar 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 2,500 kilometres 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 Iraq.

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 finalised, 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 Sep. 21, 2006, Garrison Commander Peter Garibaldi wrote a letter to the base’s commanding general saying privatisation 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 non-partisan 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-dollar defence 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.

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