The Last Straw by Joe Galloway
Walter Reed Hospital Scandal is 'The Last Straw'
As The Washington Post probe proves, there's more to supporting our troops than making "Support Our Troops" a phrase that every politician feels obliged to utter in every speech, no matter how craven the purpose. How can they look at themselves in the mirror every morning?
By Joseph L. Galloway
(February 21, 2007) -- There’s a great deal more to supporting our troops than sticking a $2 yellow ribbon magnet made in China on your SUV. There’s a great deal more to it than making "Support Our Troops" a phrase that every politician feels obliged to utter in every speech, no matter how banal the topic or craven the purpose. This week, we were treated to new revelations of just how fraudulent and shallow and meaningless "Support Our Troops" is on the lips of those in charge of spending the half a trillion dollars of taxpayer's money that the Pentagon eats every year. The Washington Post published a probe, complete with photographs, revealing that for every in-patient who's getting the best medical treatment that money can buy at the main hospital at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, there are out-patients warehoused in quarters unfit for human habitation. Some of the military outpatients are stuck on the Walter Reed campus, a couple of miles from the White House and the Capitol, for as long as 12 months. They've been living in rat and roach-infested rooms, some of which are coated in black mold. There was outrage and disgust and raw anger at this callous, cruel treatment of those who have the greatest claim not only on our sympathies, but also on the public purse. Who among the smiling politicians who regularly troop over to the main hospital at Walter Reed for photo-op visits with those who've come home grievously wounded from the wars the politicians started have bothered to go the extra quarter-mile to see the unseen majority with their rats and roaches? Not one, it would seem, since none among them have admitted to knowing that there was a problem, much less doing something about it before the reporters blew the whistle. Within 24 hours, construction crews were working overtime, slapping paint over the moldy drywall, patching the sagging ceilings and putting out traps and poison for the critters that infest the place. Within 48 hours, the Department of Defense announced that it was appointing an independent commission to investigate. Doubtless the commission will provide a detailed report finding that no one was guilty -- certainly none of the politicians of the ruling party whose hands were on the levers of power for five long years of war. They will find that it all came about because the Army medical establishment was overwhelmed by the case load flowing out of Iraq and Afghanistan. Meanwhile, brave soldiers who were wheelchair-bound with missing legs or paralysis, have been left to make their own way a quarter-mile to appointments with the shrinks and a half-mile to pick up the drugs that dim their minds and eyes and pain, and make the rats and roaches recede into a fuzzy distance. All this came on the heels of my McClatchy Newspapers colleague Chris Adams's Feb. 9 report that even by its own measures, the Veterans Administration isn't prepared to give returning veterans the care they need to help them overcome destructive, and sometimes fatal, mental health ailments. Nearly 100 VA clinics provided virtually no mental health care in 2005, Adams found, and the average veteran with psychiatric troubles gets about a third fewer visits with specialists today than he would have received a decade ago. The same politicians, from a macho president to the bureaucrats to the people who chair the congressional committees that are supposed to oversee such matters, have utterly failed to protect our wounded warriors. They’ve talked the talk but few, if any, have ever walked the walk. No. This happened while all of them were busy as bees, taking billions out of the VA budget and planning to shut down Walter Reed by 2011 in the name of cost-efficiency.
Among those politicians are the people who sent too few troops to Afghanistan or Iraq, who failed to provide enough body armor and weapons and armored vehicles and who, to protect their own political hides, refused to admit that the mission was not accomplished and change course. But it's they who are charged with the highest duty of all, in the words of President Abraham Lincoln in his Second Inaugural in 1865: "to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan. "How can they look at themselves in the mirror every morning? How dare they ever utter the words: Support Our Troops? How dare they pretend to give a damn about those they order to war? They've hidden the flag-draped coffins of the fallen from the public and the press. They've averted their eyes from the suffering that their orders have visited upon an Army that they've ground down by misuse and over-use and just plain incompetence. This shabby, sorry episode of political and institutional cruelty to those who deserve the best their nation can provide is the last straw. How can they spin this one to blame the generals or the media or the Democrats? How can you do that, Karl? If the American people are not sickened and disgusted by this then, by God, we don’t deserve to be defended from the wolves of this world.
*** Joseph L. Galloway (email@example.com) is a legendary war correspondent, winner of a Bronze Star and co-author of "We Were Soldiers Once...and Young." His column on military affairs is distributed by Tribune Media Services.***