Americans Outraged by Squalor Surrounding Wounded Iraq Veterans

Walter Reed Army Medical CenterLike most Americans, I’ve been shocked recently by reports of the conditions at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. Like everyone else, I assumed that our veterans who are returning wounded from Iraq and Afghanistan were receiving the best care possible. After all, Walter Reed is a prestigious army hospital, and is supposed to be among the best hospitals in the country.

Do the paragraphs below, which I’ve culled from various media sources, sound like one of the best hospitals in the country?

“Staff Sergeant John Shannon, 43, whose eye and skull were shattered by a sniper in Ramadi, was sent to Walter Reed in November 2004. On arrival he was given a map of the grounds and told to make his own way to his room. Badly disoriented and barely able to see, he had to hold himself upright by sliding against the walls, asking anybody he could find for directions.”

“The Post reported that black mold was thick on the walls and that roaches ran rampant, except when they were pushed out of the way by rats and mice. The wounded soldiers, many of whom are wheelchair bound, had to make their own way a quarter, or half, mile up the street to the hospital for treatment.”

“Disengaged clerks, unqualified platoon sergeants and overworked case managers fumble with simple needs: feeding soldiers’ families who are close to poverty, replacing a uniform ripped off by medics in the desert sand or helping a brain-damaged soldier remember his next appointment.”

“On the worst days, soldiers say they feel like they are living a chapter of “Catch-22.” The wounded manage other wounded. Soldiers dealing with psychological disorders of their own have been put in charge of others at risk of suicide.”

According to Diane Benson, mother of Latseen Benson, 27, who was recovering from a double amputation at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, her son met a parade of VIPs. Every time the President, the Vice-President or the Defense Secretary passed by, the military hospital would be thoroughly scrubbed. But the improvements wouldn’t last long.

“I wasn’t so bothered by the rats, although there were a lot running around outside, but I really wanted his room to be swept and kept clean,” she said. “You couldn’t get people to mop the blood and urine from the floor while my son was there with his legs wide open.”

Like many Americans, I keep asking one simple question. How could this have happened in the United States of America? Doesn’t President Bush stand up there almost on a daily basis and try to excoriate anyone who questions his handling of the war or how ill-equipped our soldiers are? Much less anyone who disagrees with the Iraq War itself. They’re dismissed as left-wing kooks who are undermining the morale of our people who are serving in the military. So wouldn’t you think that the Administration would be on top of this issue? If for no other reason than good PR?

The Bush Administration has been in full spin mode since news of the conditions of Walter Reed became public. President Bush said in his weekly radio broadcast on Saturday that he was appalled by the conditions at the prestigious army hospital, and announced an inquiry into veterans’ care.

“This is unacceptable to me, it is unacceptable to the country and it’s not going to continue,” he said.

But it’s quite likely that the Bush Administration’s push for privatization may have helped create the Walter Reed disaster. Getting much less attention in the media are reports that a five-year, $120 million contract awarded to a firm run by a former executive from Halliburton (a multi-national corporation where Vice President Dick Cheney once served as CEO) will be probed at a Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs hearing scheduled for Monday.

A letter sent by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, to Major General George W. Weightman, the former commander at Walter Reed, asks him to “address the implications of a memorandum from Garrison Commander Peter Garibaldi sent through you to Colonel Daryl Spencer, the Assistant Chief of Staff for Resource Management with the U.S. Army Medical Command” in order to better prepare himself for his testimony at the hearing.

“This memorandum, which we understand was written in September 2006, describes how the Army’s decision to privatize support services at Walter Reed Army Medical Center was causing an exodus of ‘highly skilled and experienced personnel,’” Waxman’s letter continues. “As a result, according to the memorandum, ‘WRAMC Base Operations and patient care services are at risk of mission failure.’”

“We have learned that in January 2006, Walter Reed awarded a five-year $120 million contract to a company called IAP Worldwide Services for base operations support services, including facilities management,” Waxman continues. “IAP is one of the companies that experienced problems delivering ice during the response to Hurricane Katrina.”

Before the contract, according to the memorandum, over 300 federal employees provided facilities management services at Walter Reed, but that number dropped to less than 60 the day before IAP took over.

“Yet instead of hiring additional personnel, IAP apparently replaced the remaining 60 federal employees with only 50 IAP personnel,” Waxman writes.

A year ago, the Government Accountability Office “dismissed a protest filed on behalf of employees at the Army’s Walter Reed Medical Center, ruling that the employee group had no standing to challenge the outcome of a public-private job competition initiated prior to January 2005,” GovExec.com reported.

One has to wonder why this aspect of this story has received so little attention. It seems to explain a lot, doesn’t it? The mainstream media has been obsessively reporting on the conditions in Walter Reed itself, and has been largely focused on which of the medical center’s administrators were being kicked to the curb, and which politicans have had what to say about the whole subject.

Fox News, always a world unto itself, hasn’t even gone that far. Instead, they’ve been reporting on more important issues. Anna Nicole.
Brittany’s hair. American Idol nudie pics. Al Gore’s perfidious hypocrisy. Obama’s connection to racist churches. Hillary’s connection to Satan.

Have you heard a peep of indignation from Bill O’Reilly against the Republican Congress who, for the last six years, not only stood by and allowed the Walter Reed debacle to happen, but actually conspired in the abomination? Not at all. He would rather spend a few hundred segments skewering Cindy Sheehan or David Letterman.

Has there be any mention that it was House Republicans who had ousted Conservative Republican Chris Smith as the chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee when he sought higher funding for veterans services than the Bush Administration desired? Not when Rush Limbaugh was busy blaming anonymous Huffington Post commenters (not bloggers – but those who made their comments in the ope-to-anyone, including dittoheads, forums) for wishing the Vice President dead.

Standing in front of the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, Ann Coulter didn’t call Republicans to the floor for their years of undermining and under-funding veterans. She instead decided to make use of that time to call Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards a “faggot”.

And the National Review’s Jonah Goldberg, instead of trying to get to the bottom of this national embarrassment, spent most of his energy writing a column to expose Dana Priest (the Washington Post writer who, with Anne Hull, revealed the military’s dirty, rat infested secret) for having “an agenda”.

In short, the talking heads on The Right, both in the media and in the Republican Party, have instinctively attacked anyone who questioned who was responsible for the deplorable conditions at Walter Reed Medical Center. After all, Republicans have been in-charge, and so the questioning of any aspect of this issue has been dismissed, of course, at nothing more than thinly-veiled, politically-motivated attacks.

The conservative politicians have rightly started back-pedaling. They see the writing on the wall. They realize that there’s no way they can use this issue to launch political attacks against Democrats. So they’re out there making their necessary speeches expressing their outrage and moral indignation over the conditions at Walter Reed, and demanding that someone be held accountable. Which, in Republican terms, means someone should be fired so we can all move on to more important things. Like Faith-Based Initiatives. Throwing the teaching of Evolution out of public schools. Making sure gays and lesbians can’t get married. Instead, they let the propaganda wing of the Republican Part (Fox News, Right-Wing talk shows) do the dirty work for them.

They don’t want us to look at this issue. They know that if Americans are aware of all the facts, the Republicans might very well suffer dearly for turning the care of our returning veterans over to a private company that “is led by Al Neffgen, a former senior Halliburton official who testified before our Committee in July 2004 in defense of Halliburton’s exorbitant charges for fuel delivery and troop support in Iraq.”

I think all Americans agree that something must be done at Walter Reed Medical Center, and immediately. But what I’ll be watching most closely in the coming weeks is whether all the rhetoric over this issue is turned into action, or if this all just goes away when Americans are distracted by some other shiney object and diversion.

That’s all the Republicans and their Right-Wing media arm are waiting for. If they can batten down the hatches, fire a few high level people, and just hang on, this issue will go away. IAP Worldwide Services can go back to its highly profitable business of providing inadequate health care for our returning veterans and supporting Republican candidates. And Republicans can keep mouthing off about how those godless Liberals and Democrats care less about America’s soldiers than the God-fearing Conservative high-steppers on the Right.

Personally, I think Walter Reed Medical Center is just another casualty in the “culture war” that Right-Wing Christians are so obsessed about. It’s another casualty in the Republicans’ war against American Democracy, as they seek to privatize our governmental institutions, and enrich corporations (by far their largest source of political contributions) to the detriment of public programs.

Walter Reed Medical Center is a good example of what’s going on in American culture in general, where corporations are taking over our very infrastructure and seeking ways to charge Americans a fee for their love of country and patriotism. In this most immediate example of this struggle, our veterans are suffering the most from the Republicans’ misguided experiment. I hope and pray that the American public will wake up from its daze, demand that more is done than just fire a few high profile administrators, and remember who is responsible for creating this mess in the first place.

In the interim, I simply pray that our soldiers returning wounded from combat can hang on long enough to be afforded the kind of care they so rightly deserve, that somewhere amid all the rhetoric and chest-beating, someone actually gets something done.

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