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Support the Rage

By John Fox · March 7th, 2007 · Editorial

The news out of Iraq, as usual, is grim. The news lately about Iraq is just as awful.

The scandal surrounding poor outpatient care given to injured soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center is just exploding now, and each day brings horrible new accounts. Congressional committees are hearing heart-wrenching testimony from military personnel and their loved ones, and The Washington Post, The New York Times and TV networks are pulling at the major threads of this story to unravel worse and worse details.

The official explanations for why wounded Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have routinely been subjected to inferior treatment and a bureaucratic clusterfuck at the nation's premier military medical facility have gone something like this: "We didn't know there was a problem." "No one could have foreseen things would be this bad." "We're doing the best we can." "We'll get to the bottom of it." "It's the media's fault." And, of course, "Talking about this stuff only emboldens the terrorists."

Repeat those "explanations" aloud, then think back and remind yourself of the Bush administration's attempt at previous damage control: 9/11, no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, chaos and civil war in Iraq after the U.S. invasion, the lack of proper body armor protection for U.S. soldiers in Iraq, Abu Graib, New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and Scooter Libby's prosecution and conviction for leaking a CIA agent's identity.

It's all the same thing, basically. It's the same arrogance of leadership, lack of attention to details and shirking of responsibility we've seen with every Bush administration scandal.

Conditions at Walter Reed hit the front page of The Washington Post last week following a long investigation by two reporters. The current and most recent commanders at the facility expressed surprise at descriptions of poor outpatient treatment and substandard living conditions there and at first tried to brush off the reports as media hype.

Well, it turns out that The Post's own investigative work has unleashed.

The two main military officers who expressed "surprise" with the Post reports -- Army Secretary Francis Harvey and Walter Reed Commander Maj. Gen. George Weightman -- were relieved of duty. William Winkenwerder Jr. MD, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, hastily "retired" from his position the day after downplaying the deficiencies at Walter Reed, calling them "quality of life experience" issues.

The previous commander at Walter Reed, Lt. Gen. Kevin Kiley, told a Congressional committee that, even though he lived across the street from Building 18 -- identified by The Washington Post as an outpatient facility rife with mouse droppings and moldy walls -- he never once stopped by to check out the poor conditions injured soldiers were complaining about. It wasn't his job, he said.

During that March 5 hearing, U.S. Rep. John Tierney (D-Mass.) wondered whether the medical care scandal was "another horrific consequence of the terrible planning that went into our invasion of Iraq," according to The New York Times.

He warned of a coming crunch with President Bush's "surge" plan to send 21,500 more troops to Iraq, saying "these problems are only going to get worse, not better."

And Salon came back March 6 with a report saying that media and Congressional attention is about to shift to civilian leaders inside the Pentagon, specifically Winkenwerder and David Chu MD, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness. "While they are lower-profile characters in the Walter Reed drama thus far," Salon reports, "their critics say they bear primary responsibility for the problems."

Later in the Salon story comes this nugget: "Several retired generals who worked close to Chu and Winkenwerder were similarly critical of their management approach. One retired general who worked in the Army's medical command and requested anonymity wrote in an e-mail that Chu is 'an economist who has looked at military healthcare primarily from the view of the cost impact.' That retired general also wrote that 'Bill Winkenwerder has not anticipated the problems we are seeing now.' The Pentagon maintains that the two have proper qualifications for the jobs they hold."

Oops. Potentially unqualified political appointees caught in an embarrassing fuck-up?

You can almost picture Bush stopping by the Pentagon to say, "Chewey, Winky, you're doing a heckuva job!"

It would be funny if the incompetence weren't so damaging.

Remember Condoleezza Rice telling Congress that there was no way the Bush administration could have foreseen 9/11? Then she was forced to admit she'd been presented an intelligence report titled "Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the U.S."

Remember Donald Rumsfeld saying no one inside the Bush administration could have foreseen the looting and lawlessness that gripped Baghdad after the U.S. invasion? Lots of people warned about that. Same with the current civil war throughout much of Iraq.

Remember President Bush saying that no one could have foreseen the levies around New Orleans crumbling in the wake of Hurricane Katrina? The city's Times Picayune newspaper had published a five-part series a few years earlier offering eerily prescient details about how a powerful hurricane could swamp the city's levy system.

And so it goes with this medical care scandal as well. Lots of warning signs were evident years ago, and the Bush administration looked the other way.

CityBeat played a small part in offering warning signs when we participated in a national story called "Soldier's Heart" in late 2004. More than 40 member papers of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies got together to fund an investigative story about the U.S. military's lack of readiness to deal with soldiers returning from the Middle East with post-traumatic stress disorder (PSTD); we published "Soldier's Heart" on Dec. 15, 2004.

"Now, after a particularly bloody summer and fall," the story said, "many military and mental health experts predict the rate of PTSD will actually run nearly twice what the Army study found, approximately the same level suffered by Vietnam veterans. Others think it could spike even higher and note that rarely before has such a dramatic rate of PTSD manifested so early.

"At the same time there is mounting concern over the system designed to help: the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Numerous reports show the VA doesn't have many of the essential services veterans need. ... The VA chronically has under-funded mental health programs and currently projects a $1.65 billion shortfall in those programs by the end of 2007. ...

"The House Veterans Affairs Committee urged Congress to pump an additional $2.5 billion into the Bush administration's VA health care budget for 2005. But by November, with the budget poised for passage, it seemed unlikely, despite warnings from veterans groups and VA doctors who sat on the PTSD Committee."

I realize that the VA is a separate organization from the U.S. military's official health facilities, but as Walter Reed and other facilities dump out poorly treated soldiers, they wind up at their local VA hospital. All of these health systems are connected, just as the Bush administration's lack of planning is connected to these scandals.

Remember this organizational failure the next time you hear a Bush backer wave his or her miniature American flag and tell you to "Support the troops!"

Contact john fox: jfox(at)citybeat.com


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