The Nation's Pulse

Mission Unaccomplished

Is this what we've become, a wounded soldier in a rat-infested room at Walter Reed...?

By 3.15.07

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Is this what we've become, a wounded soldier in a rat-infested room at Walter Reed, too paralyzed to knock a cockroach off what's left of his body?

A case in point: Staff Sgt. John Daniel Shannon, suffering from the loss of an eye and brain injuries from a rifle wound, told a recent congressional hearing of being released from Walter Reed Army Medical Center less than a week after he was shot in the head.

Shannon said hospital staffers simply gave him a map of the expansive medical complex and told him to find his way to the building where he'd be staying to receive outpatient services.

"I was extremely disoriented," he explained, "and wandered around while looking for someone to direct me."

Then, waiting for plastic surgery that would allow him to wear a prosthetic eye, Shannon said he "sat in my room for a couple of weeks wondering when someone would contact" him.

Overall treatment, he testified, seemed to be "designed specifically to reduce the government's cost of veteran care."

He's probably right. In his January 2005 article, "Balancing Act: As Benefits for Veterans Climb, Military Spending Feels Squeeze," Wall Street Journal reporter Greg Jaffe quoted David Chu, the Pentagon's undersecretary for personnel and readiness, as saying that increases in spending for veterans benefits pull money away from other military priorities such as recruiting and big-ticket weapons systems.

"The amounts have gotten to the point where they are hurtful," said Chu, referring to the cost of veterans benefits. "They are taking away from the nation's ability to defend itself."

In order to boost recruiting, for example, Jaffe reported that the Defense Department "raised the amount of money that deployed troops get for serving away from their family in a war zone to $475 a month from $125 a month." For dodging bullets in an Iraqi hellhole, the $475 works out to $15 a day -- 63 cents per hour over a 24-hour day.

By way of comparison, $475 per month is $175 less than the $650 per month that lawmakers in my home state of Pennsylvania have voted themselves to cover car-lease expenses.

"Another witness at the congressional hearing, Annette L. McLeod, spoke of how the Army tried to deny benefits to her husband, Wendell, for a brain injury he suffered by suggesting that he had always been a slow learner," reported the New York Times.

McLeod, a specialist in the South Carolina National Guard, was injured in Kuwait near the border with Iraq. "They stated that Wendell appeared to be intellectually slow and that this was the cause of the problem," testified Mrs. McLeod. "They also said he overexaggerated his injuries so that he could get attention."

Spc. Jeremy Duncan, who lost his left ear and had his neck broken in a roadside bombing in Iraq, testified that the walls of his room in Building 18 at Walter Reed had holes in them and black mold growing on them.

After the aforementioned conditions were exposed, Gen. Richard Cody, Army vice chief of staff, said a name change was coming: "I will personally oversee the plan to upgrade Building 18, and we'll soon change the name. Referring to a place where our soldiers stay as Building 18 is not appropriate."

Regarding the rodents, Lt. Gen. Kevin Kiley, the Army surgeon general and commander of the U.S. Army Medical Command, blamed the wounded in an interview with CNN's Judy Woodruff: "The mice and cockroach issue was something that, in fact, the command did address last year, and that was due to soldiers leaving food in their rooms," he explained. "We policed that up, and the rodent problem and cockroach problem has been corrected."

In fact, it wasn't corrected. It's sort of like "mission accomplished," writ small.

Regarding the mold, Kiley appeared to put that in the same category as insurgencies, something the Army just might never be able to get rid of. "I think mold recurs," he told Ms. Woodruff.

And Congress? They've been too busy allocating money for bridges to nowhere, like the $315 million bridge between Ketchikan and Alaska's Gravina Island (population, 48), while simultaneously cutting funds for traumatic brain injuries.

"Unbelievably, in its appropriations bill for 2007," says retired Army Maj. Gen. Paul D. Eaton, "Congress cut in half the financing for the Army's main research and treatment program on brain injury, the signature malady of this war, which, no surprise, is at Walter Reed."

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About the Author
Ralph R. Reiland is the B. Kenneth Simon professor of free enterprise and an associate professor of economics at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh.