Support the Troops

Oh. My. God.

Life in Building 18 is the bleakest homecoming for men and women whose government promised them good care in return for their sacrifices.

One case manager was so disgusted, she bought roach bombs for the rooms. Mouse traps are handed out. It doesn't help that soldiers there subsist on carry-out food because the hospital cafeteria is such a hike on cold nights. They make do with microwaves and hot plates.

Army officials say they "started an aggressive campaign to deal with the mice infestation" last October and that the problem is now at a "manageable level." They also say they will "review all outstanding work orders" in the next 30 days.

Soldiers discharged from the psychiatric ward are often assigned to Building 18. Buses and ambulances blare all night. While injured soldiers pull guard duty in the foyer, a broken garage door allows unmonitored entry from the rear. Struggling with schizophrenia, PTSD, paranoid delusional disorder and traumatic brain injury, soldiers feel especially vulnerable in that setting, just outside the post gates, on a street where drug dealers work the corner at night.

"I've been close to mortars. I've held my own pretty good," said Spec. George Romero, 25, who came back from Iraq with a psychological disorder. "But here . . . I think it has affected my ability to get over it . . . dealing with potential threats every day."

…"I hate it," said Romero, who stays in his room all day. "There are cockroaches. The elevator doesn't work. The garage door doesn't work. Sometimes there's no heat, no water. . . . I told my platoon sergeant I want to leave. I told the town hall meeting. I talked to the doctors and medical staff. They just said you kind of got to get used to the outside world. . . . My platoon sergeant said, 'Suck it up!' "
And that's only the beginning of the abject horror wounded veterans are facing during life as "outpatients" at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, some of whom "have been stuck there for as long as two years." Black mold invades the walls. Veterans aren't given the most basic help they need, including assistance finding their rooms. People go missing and no one knows what happened to them. Forms are lost, and lost again, and again. "The wounded manage other wounded. Soldiers dealing with psychological disorders of their own have been put in charge of others at risk of suicide. 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." Veterans are required to prove who they are and that they fought in the war. It just goes on and on and on.

By the end of the article, I felt nauseous and furious. Jill's spot-on when she says, "when our troops are wounded, they come home and are put into a facility that is more like the weird hospital scenes in the film Jacob's Ladder than like the kind of state-of-the-art recuperative facility these young men and women deserve." It truly does sound like an inescapable nightmare—a place I wouldn't want to convalesce after a paper cut received at an office job, and a place I can't even fucking imagine being sent to to recover from wounds acquired during a goddamned war.

Why aren't we taking better care of these men and women?

Honestly, this should rightly be regarded as yet another planning failure. The architects of this war thought it was going to be a cakewalk; they didn't in their wildest dreams consider the war would last this long, and thusly failed utterly to prepare contingency plans, as has been acknowledged even by the administration. The military healthcare system isn't designed to manage a constant influx of wounded soldiers, and I would bet that not a modicum of thought was given to readying it for that possibility. The war was going to last six weeks, remember? But instead, the war became "a long hard slog," as Donald Rumsfeld described it in November 2003, and now "Three times a week, school buses painted white and fitted with stretchers and blackened windows stream down Georgia Avenue. Sirens blaring, they deliver soldiers groggy from a pain-relief cocktail at the end of their long trip from Iraq via Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany and Andrews Air Force Base." The Pentagon numbers the wounded from Iraq and Afghanistan at 23,000, as of January.

Our wounded veterans, 96% of whom received their injuries after "Mission Accomplished," were first casualties of the utter lack of competent post-war planning for the war theater, and are now casualties of the utter lack of competent post-war planning at home. They're pratically stacked on top of each other in a rotting building, all but abandoned to circumstances unfit for a dog, no less a veteran.

Soldiers, family members, volunteers and caregivers who have tried to fix the system say each mishap seems trivial by itself, but the cumulative effect wears down the spirits of the wounded and can stall their recovery.

"It creates resentment and disenfranchisement," said Joe Wilson, a clinical social worker at Walter Reed. "These soldiers will withdraw and stay in their rooms. They will actively avoid the very treatment and services that are meant to be helpful."

Danny Soto, a national service officer for Disabled American Veterans who helps dozens of wounded service members each week at Walter Reed, said soldiers "get awesome medical care and their lives are being saved," but, "Then they get into the administrative part of it and they are like, 'You saved me for what?' The soldiers feel like they are not getting proper respect. This leads to anger."
Of course it does. I can't begin to comprehend the despair and frustration. And again I wonder why it is that "soldiers, family members, volunteers and caregivers" are trying to "fix the system," when the system should have been prepared to care for a significant number of wounded soldiers when we decided to go to not one, but two wars.

As usual, perhaps the worst part about this is the sickening propaganda for which parts of Walter Reed are used, while Building 18 and its occupants are hidden away from view like the flag-draped caskets of their brothers and sisters. Who, exactly, is helped by celebrating wounded veterans as heroes in photo-ops if they're then treated like shit for the next two years of their lives? It ain't the veterans; that's for sure.

This world is invisible to outsiders. Walter Reed occasionally showcases the heroism of these wounded soldiers and emphasizes that all is well under the circumstances. President Bush, former defense secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and members of Congress have promised the best care during their regular visits to the hospital's spit-polished amputee unit, Ward 57.

"We owe them all we can give them," Bush said during his last visit, a few days before Christmas. "Not only for when they're in harm's way, but when they come home to help them adjust if they have wounds, or help them adjust after their time in service."
Big talk.

What we owed them was preparation for this eventuality, so that the only conceivable solution to this madness would not be the Sisyphusian task of pulling order from chaos mid-crisis.

Problem is, that ship has sailed.

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