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Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Walter Reed Hearings Review and Latest Developments

A second day of hearings into care given our returning troops at Walter Reed Army Medical Center moved forward today. Yesterday's hearing took place at Walter Reed itself and was given the title "Is This Any Way to Treat Our Troops?"

Today's hearing is led by Sen. Carl Levin [D-Mich.], chairman of the Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill. Also today, President Bush named former Republican Senator Bob Dole and former Health & Human Services cabinet member under Bill Clinton, Donna Shalala, to lead his presidential commission on the state of our military hospitals.

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

Good program again today on NPR's Diane Rehm Show:

An update on recent reports of substandard care for some outpatients at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the wider inquiry into problems faced by wounded soldiers and veterans around the country. Guests:

Anne Hull, reporter, "The Washington Post"

Dana Priest, intelligence correspondent for "The Washington Post" and author of "The Mission: Waging War and Keeping Peace with America's Military"

David Gorman, Disabled American Veterans

Linda Bilmes, professor of public finance, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University co-author of "The Economic Cost of the Iraq War: An Appraisal Three Years After the Beginning of the Conflict

Turning back to yesterday's historic hearing, while Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates called the conditions at Walter Reed 'a failure of leadership' last week, yesterday that leadership reacted. Fired Walter Reed commander Maj. Gen. George W. Weightman said he "failed" in understanding the frustration of veterans and military family members struggling with the after-care bureaucracy. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Schoomaker said he was "extraordinarily angry and embarrassed" by what's come out. Meanwhile, Army Undersecretary Peter Geren said, "We have let some soldiers down," and Army Surgeon General and former head of Walter Reed until 2004, Lt. Gen. Kevin C. Kiley, apologized for the housing conditions, which "did not meet our standards."

One snippet of questioning of Lt. Gen. Kiley:

From last night's NBC Nightly News broadcast:

From the Los Angeles Times:

Several lawmakers accused Army brass of making [Maj. Gen. George W.] Weightman the scapegoat for problems at the medical center. Veterans groups have complained that Weightman, who was Walter Reed's commander for only six months, made progress in reducing the ratio of case managers to patients and in spotlighting post-traumatic stress disorder.

Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey was forced to resign over the scandal last week. Weightman's predecessors - retired Maj. Gen. Kenneth L. Farmer Jr., who commanded the hospital complex for two years until August, and Lt. Gen. Kevin Kiley, who ran the complex from 2002 to 2004 - have not been disciplined. Kiley, the Army's surgeon general, was removed last week after serving a day as interim commander at Walter Reed but retains his primary post. "Tell me why he (Weightman) got the ax and why the others walk on the earth today," asked Rep. John Tierney, D-Mass., chairman of the subcommittee that held the Monday hearings. "Where has all the brass been?"

Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, the Army's chief of staff, exploded in anger. "I've got a daughter and a son-in-law that are on the way to combat," said Schoomaker, whose younger brother Maj. Gen. Eric B. Schoomaker has been named to run Walter Reed. "This is not something about people (who) don't care, and I am not going to sit here and have anybody tell me that we don't care."

"Nobody said anything about people not caring," Tierney shot back, calling Schoomaker's response a "red herring."

Like the federal government's flawed response to Hurricane Katrina, the burgeoning scandal over medical treatment for returning soldiers is exposing major weaknesses. Members of Congress promised more hearings on the maze of red tape that forces wounded soldiers to battle bureaucracy. "You've been fighting a war," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., addressing veterans. "You shouldn't have to come back here and fight a system."

On last night's MS-NBC's Countdown program:

From The Chicago Sun-Times:

Two injured veterans who testified Monday:

Staff Sgt. John Daniel Shannon, who lost his left eye and suffered brain injuries from a rifle wound, said after he was discharged from Walter Reed, he was given a map of the grounds and eventually found outpatient quarters by wandering around and asking for directions. Then, he says, he "sat in my room for a couple of weeks wondering when someone would contact" him about continuing treatment.

Spec. Jeremy Duncan, who broke his neck and lost his left ear in a roadside bombing in Iraq, had black mold, damaged walls and a hole in the ceiling of his shower at Walter Reed. "It wasn't fit for anybody to live in a room like that. ... You've just come out of recovery, you have weaker immune systems. The black mold can do damage to people," Duncan said. He said he tried unsuccessfully for months to get action though Army channels. Then he contacted the Washington Post. After its article, he was moved "and the next day they were renovating the room," he said.


Annette McLeod, the wife of a wounded soldier who was not well enough to testify himself, also offered moving testimony to the committee, saying, "My life was ripped apart the day my husband was injured. Having to live through the mess we lived through at Walter Reed was worse than anything I've ever sacrificed in my life."

The rate of news flowing from this story is enormous.

Tammy Duckworth, the Iraq veteran who returned home to run for office in last years' elections, said she also witnessed some of the reported conditions at Walter Reed:

As she recovered in 2005 from massive wounds sustained in a helicopter crash in Iraq, L. Tammy Duckworth sometimes saw hints of the scandal that has enveloped Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the retired Army major said. "I had a cockroach in my room…. I saw mice," said Duckworth, director of the Illinois Department of Veterans' Affairs, who met Monday with homeless veterans in McHenry County.

Sometimes patients had to take care of each other when there weren't enough staff members around to help, said Duckworth, who lost her legs in the 2004 crash. She was a National Guard helicopter pilot.

But as the political fallout continued over allegations of poor conditions at the storied Army hospital, Duckworth stressed that the doctors, nurses and staff were top-notch. They're just overwhelmed by a war that has lasted longer and produced more casualties than anyone predicted, she said. "Walter Reed Army hospital saved my life," Duckworth said. "They saved my arms. The men and women who work there are incredibly dedicated. They're also incredibly overwhelmed."

Duckworth has been nominated by Sen. Dick Durbin to be a member of the presidential commission.

Other issues brought up yesterday included the effect of the scheduled BRAC closure on Walter Reed, how the Bush administration's quest to cut the deficit in half before it leaves office at the same time it wages a costly war, as well as what possible effect the privatization of certain positions at the facility may have contributed to today's problems:

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman laid the blame at the doorstep of the Bush administration. “Two months before the invasion of Iraq, the [Veterans Health Administration] introduced severe new restrictions on who is entitled to enroll in its health care system,” wrote Mr Krugman. “All this red tape was created not by the inherent inefficiency of government bureaucracy, but by the Bush administration’s penny-pinching.” He added that, during the Clinton administration, the VHA had become “a shining example of how good leadership can revitalize a troubled government program”.

Mr. Krugman compared the Bush administration’s performance in veterans health care with its bungled response to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans – which he said also reflected the ideological drive to privatize critical functions of government. “One of the factors degrading FEMA’s effectiveness was the Bush administration’s relentless push to outsource and privatize disaster management, which demoralized government employees and drove away many of the agency's most experienced professionals.”

House Democrats also charge that privatization over the past five years has caused standards to deteriorate in veterans health care. They drew parallels to the waste, fraud and abuse uncovered in recent hearings on military contracts in Iraq.

“We’ve contracted out so much in this war,” said Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), who chairs the House oversight committee. “We are using mercenaries instead of soldiers, we contracted out [veterans health care] as well … in Iraq, we’re overpaying for contracting; here we’re under-serving our soldiers.”

Rep. John Tierney (D-Mass.), who chairs the national security subcommittee, agreed that “an ideological push for privatization put the care of our wounded heroes at risk”. He also said conditions at Walter Reed are “just another horrific consequence of the terrible planning that went into our invasion of Iraq.” He further suggested that President Bush’s recently announced troop surge may exacerbate the problem.

More video from yesterday here.

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