By Oliver M. Style
Since the start of the Iraq campaign almost four years ago, war doves and hawks have been able to agree on one thing relatively consistently: support the troops, irrespective of the controversy surrounding their mission. But the precipitation of events in the nation’s capital over the past few weeks—involving reports that injured soldiers were being housed in dilapidated medical facilities teeming with rats and cockroaches—is a deeply worrying indication that the type of “support” American military personnel can expect to receive after returning from combat is woefully inadequate.
On Feb. 18, Washington Post columnists Dana Priest, a UC Santa Cruz alumna and former City on a Hill Press editor, and Anne Hull published an article outlining several cases of neglect at the Walter Reed National Army Medical Center in Washington, DC. Their investigation focused primarily on Building 18—a former hotel building purchased by the hospital to house patients—which they described as rodent-infested, with stained carpets, cheap mattresses, and black mold.
Soldiers at the facility also reported a lack of heat and water, as well as security problems involving incursions by local drug dealers. Among those patients who had been subjected to Building 18’s deplorable conditions were troops who had lost limbs and suffered traumatic brain injuries or post-traumatic stress.
In a sign that the Post’s revelation of mistreatment at Walter Reed was true to its reporting, three top-ranking officials have so far lost their jobs. Major General George W. Weightman, the flagship hospital’s commander, was promptly fired from his position on Mar. 1, and the secretary of the U.S. Army, Francis J. Harvey, was forced to resign the following day. Lieutenant General Kevin Kiley, the U.S. Army’s surgeon general, also stepped down last Sunday, Mar. 11, but emphasized that his retirement would not be enough to address the military’s failure in leadership: “We are an Army Medical Department at war, supporting an Army at war—it shouldn’t be and it isn’t about one doctor.”
Far from quelling the firestorm, the political fallout from this single incident has potentially revealed something much more alarming: thousands of other wounded soldiers in other parts of the country are most likely receiving even worse care and attention.
Testimony from a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on Mar. 5 produced angry responses from politicians on Capitol Hill. Representative John Tierney (D-MA), who chaired the panel, believed the conditions at Walter Reed were merely “the tip of the iceberg,” and that the problems “go well beyond the walls” of the Army medical facility. Even before last Monday’s hearing, Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) was able to surmise that, “If it’s this bad at the outpatient facilities at Walter Reed, how is it in the rest of the country?”
This scandal—and it is a scandal in the most sobering sense—must be handled swiftly and with the seriousness it requires. It would be all too easy for the government to put this investigation on cruise control while more wounded soldiers suffer needlessly. The fact that members of Congress have called for the creation of an independent bipartisan commission to examine conditions at all medical facilities treating military personnel and veterans should provide little comfort, especially considering President Bush’s proven tendency to ignore the advice of commissions, bipartisan or otherwise.
The young men and women of the U.S. Armed Forces who risk their lives on a daily basis in the Baghdads and Fallujas of the world—who went to war because their commander-in-chief falsely told them a maniac with WMDs had an itchy trigger finger and had to be dealt with—deserve our utmost gratitude for their remarkable sacrifices. And if those brave soldiers should become gravely ill or critically wounded during combat, it is the government’s responsibility to take care of them—for the rest of their lives if need be.
But when reports begin to surface describing the mistreatment of wounded soldiers by the military’s very own medical staff back in the United States, should that worry our politicians? Should the fact that severely incapacitated men and women are being housed in moldy, cockroach-infested hospital buildings after returning from tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan bother us? The answer is a resounding YES, and we should be disgusted that a situation like this was ever allowed to happen.