Army Maj. Gen. George Weightman was fired from his position as commander of the Walter Reed Medical Center earlier this month. His firing came at the heels of the embarrassing exposure of the facility’s poor living conditions and mistreatment of veterans. Asking young men and women to risk their lives for an unjust war is bad enough; shirking our responsibility to care for injured soldiers is an atrocious injustice, even for the Bush Administration.
Since 1909, the Walter Reed hospital in Washington D.C. has supposedly been the crown jewel of America’s veteran facilities. Stories from veterans like 25-year-old Roberto Reyes have revealed a different reality. The Washington Post reported that Reyes, left immobile and mute from a battlefield explosion, was left unattended in a shower of scalding water. He suffered third-degree burns to one of his legs. Hospital staff didn’t even notice the burns until his aunt pointed them out.
Walter Reed’s Building 18 was reported to be swarming with rats and rotting from floor to ceiling. But the problem isn’t exclusive to Walter Reed. Other VA facilities have similar conditions: moldy walls, fly infestations and improper disposal of bio-hazardous waste. It is in these gruesome conditions that veterans suffering unimaginable injuries are expected to wait out their recovery. And if these medical centers are incapable of providing adequate physical care to returning soldiers, we can only imagine how poor their mental care resources are. Haven’t our soldiers been through enough?
While Weightman is holding himself accountable for the horrendous conditions at Walter Reed – what choice does he have – this trend of sloppy veteran care is a far bigger problem. Much of it stems from recent policies coming down from Washington – even as lawmakers tout their support for the troops. While the number of incoming veterans to hospitals is expected to rise by 26 percentage points in the next two years, the Bush Administration’s plans to balance the budget by 2012 will probably hit veterans hard. The 2008 budget for veteran’s affairs is expected to be $39.6 billion. However Bush plans a cut of $900 million for 2009 – conveniently the year after he leaves office.
Exacerbating the issue were private contracts awarded under the Bush Administration’s direction that rattled hospital staffing. In the past, staff at veterans’ hospitals had been trained with tried-and-true methods to handle both the physical and mental issues of patients. Veterans’ care is different from many types of medical care, and the act of passing down traditions from staffs is essential to successful treatment. The move to privatize the staff saved money but brought inefficiency and incompetence.
Our country should be ashamed of the conditions of the hospitals that treat our veterans. Shipping soldiers abroad to protect this country but failing to protect them in return is unacceptable. This idea is especially infuriating considering how unpopular the war in Iraq currently is. The military already has trouble meeting recruiting quotas; the knowledge of what kind of care awaits potential recruits when they return wounded from the battlefield is no additional incentive to enlist.
Fortunately, the Democrat-controlled Congress has initiated an investigation into the veterans’ hospital system that should help improve the current standards of care. But the government made these same promises after Vietnam, and yet here we are again. Our veterans fought for us, it’s time for us to fight for them.