Sunday, February 25, 2007

Forgotten Heroes


The issue of veterans' care jumped into the headlines last week when The Washington Post published a series about Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. The stories revealed decay and mismanagement at the hospital, and provoked shock and concern among politicians in both parties. "The doctors were fantastic," a Walter Reed patient, 21-year-old Marissa Strock, tells NEWSWEEK. "But some of the nurses and other staffers here have been a nightmare." Strock suffered multiple injuries, including broken bones, a lacerated liver and severely bruised lungs, when her Humvee rolled over an improvised explosive device on Nov. 24, 2005. She later had both her legs amputated. "I think a big part of [Walter Reed's problems] is they just don't have enough people to adequately handle all the wounded troops coming in here every day," she says. (Walter Reed did not respond to requests for comment about Strock's case.) The Pentagon responded swiftly to the Post series. It vowed to investigate what went wrong and immediately sent a repair crew to repaint and fix the damage to the aging buildings. The revelations were especially shocking because Walter Reed is one of the country's most prestigious military hospitals, often visited by prominent politicians, including the president. But it is just one part of a vast network of hospitals and clinics that serve wounded soldiers and veterans throughout the country. A NEWSWEEK investigation focused not on one facility but on the services of the Department of Veterans Affairs, a 235,000-person bureaucracy that provides medical care to a much larger number of servicemen and women from the time they're released from the military, and doles out their disability payments. Our reporting paints a grim portrait of an overloaded bureaucracy cluttered with red tape; veterans having to wait weeks or months for mental-health care and other appointments; families sliding into debt as VA case managers study disability claims over many months, and the seriously wounded requiring help from outside experts just to understand the VA's arcane system of rights and benefits. "In no way do I diminish the fact that there are veterans out there who are coming in who require treatment and maybe are not getting the treatment they need," White House Deputy Press Secretary Tony Fratto tells NEWSWEEK. "It's real and it exists."

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