View Full Version : Where's the support for troops?

03-12-07, 09:22 AM
Where's the support for troops?

Sunday, March 11, 2007


"Broken windows and empty hallways.

"A pale dead moon in the sky streaked with gray.

"Human kindness is overflowing,

"And I think it's going to rain today."

--Randy Newman

Less than three weeks ago, articles in the Washington Post described conditions in parts of the United States' Walter Reed Army Medical Center: broken ceilings, open walls, a creeping plague of black mold, vermin infestations, urine spilled on floors and soaked into mattresses, a shortage of staff and supplies.

The reports that some injured American military men and women, back in the States after service in Iraq and Afghanistan, were being subjected to such treatment provoked indignation in and out of government, as well they should have. Senior officials have been fired, investigating commissions are being formed and, last week, congressional committees began holding hearings, some on the grounds of Walter Reed itself.

What outraged me more than the descriptions of the physical plant at Walter Reed, though, were some of the experiences of individual soldiers:

Staff Sgt. Mike McCauley, a 57-year-old Vietnam veteran, had a heart attack after he was sent to Afghanistan. Shipped back to Walter Reed, he was assigned to supervise 200 rooms of injured troops, which subsequently triggered a recurrence of the post-traumatic stress disorder that had lain dormant since Vietnam.

Staff Sgt. John Daniel Shannon, a 43-year-old former sniper, was shot in the eye and brain in Iraq, requiring replacement of a large chunk of his skull. But at Walter Reed, he couldn't get a replacement uniform for the one that medics had cut off his body when he was injured. Shannon finally thought to use his Purple Heart medal as proof that he had served in Iraq and, thus, was entitled to a free uniform.

Sgt. David Thomas, 42, couldn't get a new uniform at Walter Reed, either, despite having lost his in combat in Iraq -- along with a leg. Sent to a Red Cross outpost, he was given some sweats but still couldn't get any underwear.

There is more here -- and in earlier reports by Salon.com and UPI -- than facilities having fallen into disrepair, inadequate staffing levels or even a massive, gummy bureaucracy. At the core of these outrages is a fundamental disrespect for the humanity of returning injured troops and military veterans, an affront to their dignity as individuals and a betrayal of their acceptance of the risks of military service.

If letting injured service men and women drift in run-down buildings like so much refuse isn't enough proof of failure, consider this:

Some of the badly injured troops and family members live and languish for months in these slums waiting for certification of disabilities and eligibility for benefits. Some Army doctors spend that time, the Washington Post reported, digging for indications of pre-existing medical conditions. Why? So that the soldiers' claims can be denied or their disability benefits diminished.

How dare they.

Other grave problems faced by injured soldiers and their families were underscored by a powerful ABC News documentary that aired in prime time just days after the Washington Post stories broke. "To Iraq and Back: Bob Woodruff Reports" devoted about half its time to the astounding recovery of Woodruff from a massive traumatic brain injury he suffered when a roadside bomb exploded near him in Iraq. Cameraman Doug Vogt also was seriously injured in the blast.

The rest of the program, however, documented gaps in the military's ability to deliver continuing care to troops suffering from brain injuries. There is considerable doubt, Woodruff reported, about whether many of these injuries are even being diagnosed, much less treated. So-called closed-head injuries, in which brain damage from blast shockwaves is entirely internal, require a broad and rigorous program of screenings in order for them to be detected.

Not all returning soldiers and Marines are getting that screening, even though, according to Pentagon data cited by Woodruff, as many as 10 percent of the 1.5 million men and women who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan may have sustained brain injuries. That's 150,000 people.

The ABC program also echoed January reporting by my St. Louis Post-Dispatch colleague Ron Harris on discrepancies in the statistics on Iraq-war-related injuries, as well as a study by Linda Bilmes and Joseph Stiglitz of Harvard University of the casualties and costs of the current conflict.

Although the Department of Defense reports that about 23,000 troops have been injured so far in Iraq, that doesn't count an additional 24,000 people who have suffered non-combat injuries and diseases that left them unable to perform their duties.

These may include thousands of soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorders who have been harassed and intimidated by superiors when they've returned to the United States. In December, reports by National Public Radio focused on the some of those mentally injured soldiers at Fort Carson in Colorado Springs, Colo. The assistant secretary of defense for health affairs was sufficiently troubled by the reports to order an investigation.

After the Washington Post stories appeared, the Pentagon announced that the Assistant Secretary Dr. William Winkenwerder Jr., whose responsibilities include care provided at Walter Reed and other military medical facilities, would be leaving the Defense Department. The person Dr. Winkenwerder put in charge of the Fort Carson investigation was Lt. Gen. Kevin C. Kiley, a former commander of Walter Reed who has been severely criticized for having dismissed or ignored deteriorating conditions there.

Whatever the Pentagon's treatment deficiencies and injury stats, the Department of Veterans Affairs -- a separate arm of the federal government -- has acknowledged that more than 200,000 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are receiving treatment at hospitals, emergency rooms and clinics operated not by the military but by the Veterans Health Administration.

Included in these 200,000 are tens of thousands of veterans with mental disorders and tens of thousands more suffering from problems relating to nervous system and bone and muscle conditions.

When ABC's Woodruff questioned Secretary of Veterans Affairs James Nicholson about those figures, Nicholson said that "a lot come in for dental problems."

It's worth remembering that less than two years ago, the Bush administration proposed a budget to Congress that left the Department of Veterans Affairs $1.5 billion short of funds needed for medical care of veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. Turns out it had calculated the budget based on pre-war data from 2002. Initially, it planned to cover the shortfall by shifting money intended for building construction and maintenance to medical care.

But when administration officials admitted the problem during a congressional committee hearing, Democrats and veterans' advocacy groups were joined by Republicans in raising hell about it. Eventually, the administration agreed to add $1.5 billion to its veterans budget.

American troops in combat have suffered because of the Bush administration's reckless incompetence in planning for the Iraq war and its aftermath. Injured troops and veterans have suffered because of disrespect and betrayal of their service by senior military and civilian leaders.

There are plenty of words to describe this outrageous state of affairs. "Support the troops" are not among them.

Eric Mink is commentary editor for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Write to him at: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 900 North Tucker Blvd., St. Louis, Mo. 63101, or at emink@post-dispatch.com