The sad state of our Veterans Affairs

On February 18, 2007 the Washington Post broke a startling story (a long 5 page article) describing neglect and frustration the wounded soldiers from Iran and Afghanistan face when they’re sent to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. One particular building, known as building 18, stands out because of the more advanced deteriorating conditions.

Deteriorating conditions include rotting ceilings and walls, mouse droppings, dead cockroaches, stained carpets and cheap mattresses. The elevator and garage door don’t work, and sometimes there isn’t any heat or water.

The report goes on to detail how the 5 1/2 years of heavily sustained combat has transformed the once highly respected Medical Center into a holding ground for approximately 700 physically and psychologically damaged outpatient soldiers and Marines who still need treatment or are awaiting bureaucratic decisions on their treatment before they’re discharged or returned to active duty.

These outpatients are suffering from brain injuries, severed arms and legs, organ and back damage and various other degrees of post-traumatic stress. The wounded manage other wounded. Soldiers with psychological disorders of their own are in charge of other soldiers at risk of suicide. The average stay is 10 months, but some have been stuck there for as long as two years or more.

Disengaged clerks, unqualified military personnel and overworked case managers have a hard time dealing with simple needs. A marine sergeant, an amputee who lived at Walter Reed for 16 months is quoted as saying “We don’t know what to do. The people who are supposed to know don’t have the answers. It’s a nonstop process of stalling.”

Soldiers feel alone and frustrated. Last March 75 percent of the soldiers polled said their experience was “stressful.” Soldiers, their families, social workers and the heads of volunteer organizations complained repeatedly to the military command about what one called “The Handbook no one gets” that explains life as an outpatient.

One Staff Sergeant spent several weeks in the main hospital at Walter Reed hospital after his eye and skull were shattered by a bullet in November of 2004. His adventure as an outpatient (which has lasted over 2 years) began when he was handed a map of the grounds and told to find his room across the post. He didn’t expect to be left alone by the Army after such serious surgery and a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. For his first two weeks as an outpatient he had appointments. Since then, nothing.

A lot of soldiers with impaired memory from brain injuries sat for weeks with no appointments and no help from the staff to arrange them. Many disappeared for longer periods. Some finally just left for home.

Forms and records have a bad habit of disappearing. Sometimes the Army has no record that a soldier even served in Iraq. One combat medic who served 3 tours had to bring letters and photos of herself in Iraq to prove she had been there when a clerk couldn’t find a record of her service. She isn’t the only soldier that had to prove they were in Iraq.

Newsweek is publishing a lengthy article detailing how the U.S. is failing its war veterans. It starts out by detailing how a 25 year old Marine (a recipient of 2 purple hearts) suffering from flash backs and panic attacks tried to get help from the VA. He went so far as to tell that he felt suicidal, but no one was available to screen him for hospitalization that day, so he was told to call back the next day.

When he called back the next day he was placed on a waiting list…he was number 26 on that list. Told to call back periodically over the next 2 weeks. 4 days later he wrapped an electrical cord around his neck and hung himself.

The story goes on to detail how much red tape is involved with the Department of Veterans Affairs, all the shortcomings and overall lack of planning for the war.

Now the Army Times is reporting that Walter Reed patients are being told to keep quiet and that they will wake up every morning at 6 a.m. and have their rooms ready for inspection at 7 a.m. The article also notes that it’s unusual to have daily inspections after Basic Training and that the Pentagon also clamped down on media coverage of any and all Defense Department medical facilities.

Ann McFeatters, a writer for the Scripps Howard News Service has an article in the Korea Times titled “Bush Administration is MIA.” She details a conference on “quality of life” problems faced by soldiers, their families and civilian staff at Walter Reed that was held a month before the story in the Washington Post.

Some of the issues include:

  • inadequate convalescent-leave paperwork, resulting in soldiers not getting benefits to travel as scheduled
  • lack of direction for emergency family care
    unequal benefits based on the locale where a soldier is injured and not on the extent of injuries
  • no overall plan to help wounded warriors through their convalescence
  • lack of childcare, uniforms, military housing, parking, laundry facilities, recreational activities and cleanliness
  • She also goes on to point out how “Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., defender of President Bush’s strategy in Iraq, nonetheless has called former defense chief Donald Rumsfeld “one of the worst secretaries of defense in history.” It’s not the first time the Senator has pointed fingers at someone else. Quit the childish games of finger pointing and do something about it.

    Sadly, this appears to be just the tip of the iceberg. More horror stories and shining examples of a Government not being able to help their own will be unfolding as time goes by.

    Suddenly top Military Officials are saying that the problems are being addressed and corrected. The sad part is that the ineptitude and lack of caring, as well as the lack of funds has been going on for years.

    Irregardless of whether or not you agree with or believe in this war, our wounded soldiers deserve better treatment than this. A lot of these soldiers are kids straight out of high school or a little older. This kind of treatment is disgraceful and inexcusable and the people in charge need to be held accountable.

    When the Bush Administration was trying to find reasons for going to war they appear to have forgotten that with war comes casualties and injuries. Especially when the war has gone on as long as it has. Now more troops will be sent over which will lead to more casualties. How to ensure that traumatized young adults get the proper care and attention after losing arms, legs and numerous other limbs, not to mention the psychological damage that comes with watching your best friends get needlessly blown away doesn’t seem to have been considered.

    Congress needs to ensure that all wounded veterans receive the proper treatment and anything else they need, as well as giving the bureaucratic system the major overhaul that it needs. It also needs to be done in a timely manner. All the “hearings” in the world don’t amount to a hill of beans until these veterans are appreciated and receive the treatment and any other help they deserve. Enough of the talking. It’s time for action.

    How to get involved:

    You can take action by writing to your Congress person – http://www.house.gov/writerep/ or to the Whitehouse – http://www.whitehouse.gov/ to express your opinion

    Intrepid fallen heroes fund – paying tribute to and supporting those who have sacrificed for our nation – http://www.fallenheroesfund.org/

    Fisher House – helping military families – Supporting America’s military in their time of need, we provide “a home away from home” that enables family members to be close to a loved one at the most stressful time – during hospitalization for an illness, disease or injury – http://www.fisherhouse.org/

    Armed Service YMCA – ASYMCA offers essential programs such as childcare, hospital assistance, spouse support services, food services, computer training classes, health and wellness services, and holiday meals, among many others. In 2004, the ASYMCA served more than 433,340 military family participants – http://www.asymca.org/

    Wounded Warrior Project – providing programs and services to severely injured active service members and their families during the critical time between their initial rehabilitation while on active duty and their eventual transition to civilian life – http://www.woundedwarriorproject.org/

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