Monday, March 05, 2007

Betrayal at Walter Reed

The scandal at Walter Reed Army Medical Center here in DC, with its revelations of terrible housing conditions and mind-numbing bureaucracy imposed on our combat-wounded veterans, is a national disgrace. The sacking of the Walter Reed commander and of the Secretary of the Army is fully justified, and the Army owes it to its soldiers to fix the problems immediately.

Now, let me put the above in context.

I am a veteran of 23 years service in the Air Force. I was never in combat, and was never treated at Walter Reed. Nevertheless, in those 23 years I was seldom dissatisfied with the quality of the medical care I and my family received at any military hospital anywhere in the world. My daughter was an in-patient at Walter Reed on several occasions, and I never found her care there to be anything but the very best. I felt strongly enough about her treatment at Walter Reed that I at one point wrote a letter to the commander, specifically commending many of the doctors, nurses, and technicians who cared for her.

So what happened?

I think the problems at Walter Reed probably stem from one thing: continuing budget cuts. As the war in Iraq has ground on relentlessly, the Army has needed more and more money to purchase new and repair or replace old equipment. To augment the funds received from Congress, the Army moves money between accounts to cover shortages...and I am willing to bet that military medical care (other than immediate battlefield and theater trauma care) has been decremented to fund other needs. In addition, the Veterans Administration, responsible for the long-term care of our wounded veterans, has been underfunded for many years - witness the periodic exposes of poor care and bad conditions at regional VA medical centers.

The issue of bureaucracy is another matter. The military may not have invented bureaucracy, but it has tried to perfect it, and any veteran can tell you horror stories about the vast amount of paperwork needed to accomplish almost anything. But when bureaucracy stands in the way of getting care for those who have been grievously wounded in the service of their country, when amassing all the right paperwork is more important than ensuring prompt and compassionate care for our veterans, something is very, very wrong. Much of the dreaded paperwork is, in fact, required by laws enacted by Congress and implemented by military regulations to prevent fraud and ensure that those who seek treatment are entitled to it...but we must find a way to streamline the process to take care of our wounded soldiers. They deserve no less.

Here in the Washington, DC, metro area every second car sports a nice red-white-and-blue ribbon urging everyone to "Support Our Troops." Magnetic ribbons are cheap. Care for badly wounded veterans is expensive. But we have a moral responsibility to spend whatever it takes to care for them.

Have a good day. Thank a veteran for the freedom you have to enjoy it.

More thoughts tomorrow.


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