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Sunday, February 18, 2007

WaPo: Walter Reed Patients 'Neglected, Frustrated'

This is stunning, saddening, and maddening:

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.

Click on 'Article Link' below tags for much more...

[For educational purposes, I will quote extensively from the piece.]

Washington Post staff members spent four months at Walter Reed conducting interviews with patients, family members, and current and former staff. They surveyed the hospital long regarded as the pinnacle in medical care for our returning veterans. The result of their investigations is stunning.

In Building 18, for example, an "old lodge, just outside the gates of the hospital and five miles up the road from the White House" where soldiers are sent to recover from their injuries, "signs of neglect are everywhere: mouse droppings, belly-up cockroaches, stained carpets, cheap mattresses."

How bad is it?

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."

Deplorable and unacceptable. One bright light:

Along with the government promises, the American public, determined not to repeat the divisive Vietnam experience, has embraced the soldiers even as the war grows more controversial at home. Walter Reed is awash in the generosity of volunteers, businesses and celebrities who donate money, plane tickets, telephone cards and steak dinners.

Yet at a deeper level, the soldiers say they feel alone and frustrated. Seventy-five percent of the troops polled by Walter Reed last March said their experience was "stressful." Suicide attempts and unintentional overdoses from prescription drugs and alcohol, which is sold on post, are part of the narrative here.

Vera Heron spent 15 frustrating months living on post to help care for her son. "It just absolutely took forever to get anything done," Heron said. "They do the paperwork, they lose the paperwork. Then they have to redo the paperwork. You are talking about guys and girls whose lives are disrupted for the rest of their lives, and they don't put any priority on it."

What's the reason for the frustration, for the stalling?

Maj. Gen. George W. Weightman, commander at Walter Reed, said in an interview last week that a major reason outpatients stay so long, a change from the days when injured soldiers were discharged as quickly as possible, is that the Army wants to be able to hang on to as many soldiers as it can, "because this is the first time this country has fought a war for so long with an all-volunteer force since the Revolution."

Here's a taste of the run-around some have received:

Staff Sgt. John Daniel Shannon, 43, came in on one of those buses in November 2004 and spent several weeks on the fifth floor of Walter Reed's hospital. His eye and skull were shattered by an AK-47 round. His odyssey in the Other Walter Reed has lasted more than two years, but it began when someone handed him a map of the grounds and told him to find his room across post.

A reconnaissance and land-navigation expert, Shannon was so disoriented that he couldn't even find north. Holding the map, he stumbled around outside the hospital, sliding against walls and trying to keep himself upright, he said. He asked anyone he found for directions.

Shannon had led the 2nd Infantry Division's Ghost Recon Platoon until he was felled in a gun battle in Ramadi. He liked the solitary work of a sniper; "Lone Wolf" was his call name. But he did not expect to be left alone by the Army after such serious surgery and a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. He had appointments during his first two weeks as an outpatient, then nothing.

"I thought, 'Shouldn't they contact me?' " he said. "I didn't understand the paperwork. I'd start calling phone numbers, asking if I had appointments. I finally ran across someone who said: 'I'm your case manager. Where have you been?'

"Well, I've been here! Jeez Louise, people, I'm your hospital patient!"

Additional reasons for the delays our wounded vets have to endure:

Life beyond the hospital bed is a frustrating mountain of paperwork. The typical soldier is required to file 22 documents with eight different commands -- most of them off-post -- to enter and exit the medical processing world, according to government investigators. Sixteen different information systems are used to process the forms, but few of them can communicate with one another. The Army's three personnel databases cannot read each other's files and can't interact with the separate pay system or the medical recordkeeping databases.

The disappearance of necessary forms and records is the most common reason soldiers languish at Walter Reed longer than they should, according to soldiers, family members and staffers. Sometimes the Army has no record that a soldier even served in Iraq. A combat medic who did three tours had to bring in letters and photos of herself in Iraq to show she that had been there, after a clerk couldn't find a record of her service.

Because of this, some patients get 'lost' in the Walter Reed system:

Cpl. Jeremy Harper, returned from Iraq with PTSD after seeing three buddies die. He kept his room dark, refused his combat medals and always seemed heavily medicated, said people who knew him. According to his mother, Harper was drunkenly wandering the lobby of the Mologne House on New Year's Eve 2004, looking for a ride home to West Virginia. The next morning he was found dead in his room. An autopsy showed alcohol poisoning, she said.

"I can't understand how they could have let kids under the age of 21 have liquor," said Victoria Harper, crying. "He was supposed to be right there at Walter Reed hospital. . . . I feel that they didn't take care of him or watch him as close as they should have." The Army posthumously awarded Harper a Bronze Star for his actions in Iraq.

Shannon viewed Harper's death as symptomatic of a larger tragedy -- the Army had broken its covenant with its troops. "Somebody didn't take care of him," he would later say. "It makes me want to cry. "

Unbelievable:

Soldiers discharged from the psychiatric ward are often assigned to Building 18. Buses and ambulances blare all night. While injured soldiers pull guard duty in the foyer, a broken garage door allows unmonitored entry from the rear. Struggling with schizophrenia, PTSD, paranoid delusional disorder and traumatic brain injury, soldiers feel especially vulnerable in that setting, just outside the post gates, on a street where drug dealers work the corner at night. "I've been close to mortars. I've held my own pretty good," said Spec. George Romero, 25, who came back from Iraq with a psychological disorder. "But here . . . I think it has affected my ability to get over it . . . dealing with potential threats every day."

After Spec. Jeremy Duncan, 30, got out of the hospital and was assigned to Building 18, he had to navigate across the traffic of Georgia Avenue for appointments. Even after knee surgery, he had to limp back and forth on crutches and in pain. Over time, black mold invaded his room.

But Duncan would rather suffer with the mold than move to another room and share his convalescence in tight quarters with a wounded stranger. "I have mold on the walls, a hole in the shower ceiling, but . . . I don't want someone waking me up coming in."

Wilson, the clinical social worker at Walter Reed, was part of a staff team that recognized Building 18's toll on the wounded. He mapped out a plan and, in September, was given a $30,000 grant from the Commander's Initiative Account for improvements. He ordered some equipment, including a pool table and air hockey table, which have not yet arrived. A Psychiatry Department functionary held up the rest of the money because she feared that buying a lot of recreational equipment close to Christmas would trigger an audit, Wilson said.

In January, Wilson was told that the funds were no longer available and that he would have to submit a new request. "It's absurd," he said. "Seven months of work down the drain. I have nothing to show for this project. It's a great example of what we're up against."

A pool table and two flat-screen TVs were eventually donated from elsewhere. But Wilson had had enough. Three weeks ago he turned in his resignation. "It's too difficult to get anything done with this broken-down bureaucracy," he said. At town hall meetings, the soldiers of Building 18 keep pushing commanders to improve conditions. But some things have gotten worse. In December, a contracting dispute held up building repairs.

"I hate it," said Romero, who stays in his room all day. "There are cockroaches. The elevator doesn't work. The garage door doesn't work. Sometimes there's no heat, no water. . . . I told my platoon sergeant I want to leave. I told the town hall meeting. I talked to the doctors and medical staff. They just said you kind of got to get used to the outside world. . . . My platoon sergeant said, 'Suck it up!' "

So, this is the best we can do? The 'richest' country in the world, and this is the best care we can afford for our returning troops?


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