Scenic photo of Dismals Canyon

A Tragedy of Our Own Creation

April 2, 2007
In The News

Recently the Washington Post published a series of articles detailing the care, or lack thereof, of soldiers and Marines in the outpatient care system at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. There’s no easy way to talk about what has happened at Walter Reed. There’s certainly no way for us to make it up to those who have been patients at the facility or to their families. Simply put, this is something that should not have taken place.

Iraq is certainly an issue that has divided the American people. People disagree on issues of responsibility, timeframes, and funding. Everything under the sun is up for debate, all that is except our troops. Every person who serves is a hero. Each has given something of themselves to promote and protect the ideals that make the United States so great. We lay claim to them as our sons and daughters, as our mother or father, friend, loved one. But really, they belong to all of us. Every American can lay claim to them and be proud that such people exist and are willing to give so unselfishly.

Government officials from President Bush to Members of Congress are in and out of Walter Reed hospital, visiting soldiers and offering thanks and prayers for their service. As the Washington Post stated, “Walter Reed is awash in the generosity of volunteers, businesses and celebrities who donate money, plane tickets, telephone cards and steak dinners.” Walter Reed was never hidden from view, yet everyone who stepped on post at Walter Reed failed to recognize what was happening nearby to the approximately 700 physically and psychologically damaged outpatients.

The most common cause of injury in Iraq is bomb blast. According to studies from Walter Reed, nearly 60 percent of bomb blast victims also suffer from traumatic brain injury. Yet in one housing facility where many of these soldiers stay there isn’t a single counselor or psychologist assigned to assist residents. They have amenities, but no trained personnel to assist soldiers and families in crisis. Social workers at Walter Reed proposed the idea but it was rejected by the military command in charge of the post.

According to news reports, some soldiers and Marines have been caught in this outpatient system for as long as 18 months. Families report that the biggest problem is lost paperwork. One soldier had to present his Purple Heart as proof that he had served in Iraq because a clerk couldn’t find the records to show otherwise. There is no one to help track appointments, even for soldiers suffering brain damage who are known to have problems remembering even something as simple as where their room is. When surveyed by Walter Reed, only 12% said any Army literature had been helpful. In the same survey 75% said the experience was stressful. There is no handbook explaining life as an outpatient.

To enter and exit Walter Reed’s medical processing world, soldiers are required to file 22 documents with eight different military commands. Many of these commands aren’t even located at Walter Reed. There are sixteen different information systems in use to process these forms and they don’t all communicate with each other. The Army has three personnel databases and none of them can read each other’s files or interact with the separate pay system or the medical recordkeeping databases. And this doesn’t even begin to touch on the process to determine if a soldier is fit to return to duty or what their rating is for disability compensation.

When the soldiers joined the military, we told them that we would take care of them when they were in harm’s way. Whether on the battlefield or here at home, it doesn’t matter. We made a promise and we’re not living up to it.

So far, the Secretary of the Army, the Surgeon General of the Army and the Commander of Walter Reed have all been fired or forced to resign. But that’s not enough. We need to condemn a system that could allow such things to happen in the first place. We now have to ask whether what happened in the outpatient care at Walter Reed is an isolated incident or is it symptomatic of a larger problem in our military health care system. Wherever this problem leads, we must address it and solve it soon.

Legislation that addresses these problems has just been unanimously passed by the House of Representatives. This bill would require more doctors and better care for our wounded service men and women - a goal that Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle support. Please know that I will continue to fight to make sure our soldiers get the care they deserve.