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Taking care of the troops

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By Michelle Malkin  •  February 20, 2007 11:10 AM

***update: come together to support Operation First Response***

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Tale as old as time

Stories of shoddy care in the VA hospital and military health care systems are not new. I reported on the problem after a visit to the Perry Point, Maryland VA Medical Center eight years ago:

Perry Point, Md. – Let me take you on a quick tour. We enter the sprawling campus of the Perry Point Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center. Rolling hills and dusty roads lie ahead. To our right is a panoramic view of the Chesapeake Bay. Waves break against the rocky shore. A groundhog waddles beneath a leafy oak.

Around the bend is a spiffy firehouse. The administrative offices are majestic; the director’s home is a colonial estate. New, multi-million-dollar construction projects gleam in the autumn sun. And then we reach the nursing home.

It is one of the shabbiest buildings in sight. The paint is flaking. The windows are musty. An aged veteran sits alone on the porch in a thin, plaid robe. His face is drawn and his eyes are somber. We wave as our car rolls by. He shrinks, hesistates, and then finally waves back with a grimace.

Taking care of the nation’s war veterans is an obligation that has existed since the days of the Continental Congress. It is a right and honorable tradition. Why can’t the federal government at least give the impression that it has its priorities straight? Is it too much to ask to clean the windows where the battle-worn live their last days? We finish the driving tour – only a small portion of the nearly 500-acre estate is publicly accessible – with an unshakeable feeling of melancholy.

A few hours south of Perry Point, the head of the VA system in Washington, D.C. is living la dolce vita. The agency’s inspector general reported last month that VA Secretary Togo West Jr. had ignored federal rules requiring government employees to take cost-saving commercial flights – and instead helped himself to tax-subsidized military aircraft on two trips to Alaska and Louisiana last year.

That’s not all. In another flagrant indulgence, the report said a 1998 dinner West gave at his home for then-Navy Secretary John Dalton and his wife “fueled the perception of waste.” The tab: $283 a plate for 31 guests – a total of $9,340. West brought in the U.S. Army Band and also charged taxpayers $375 for a plaque awarded to Dalton’s wife.

West’s defenders may complain that his expenses were petty. VA bureaucrats may grumble that they are unfairly singled out for anecdotal tales of waste, fraud, and abuse. But petty waste on plaques and parties is money not spent improving veterans’ care. The nickles and dimes add up to a $17 billion-dollar agency that rots from the head down.

The VA’s government-run system of hospitals, clinics, and nursing homes, which serve approximately 2.7 million of the nation’s 26 million veterans, is clogged with bureaucratic excess. Thirty-one VA facilities, such as Perry Point, have their own federally-funded fire departments. Others boast golf courses, aquariums, and lavish estates. Meanwhile, the shoddy care provided by the VA is infamous – and costly.

Four years ago, a federal judge awarded $4.5 million to a disabled vet who was maltreated at three different VA hospitals – including Perry Point. According to the Rocky Mountain News, disabled vet John Deasy suffers from a rare tissue disease that causes psychiatric symptoms. When Deasy complained of neglect and malpractice, the judge wrote, the doctors “attributed his views to delusions and tried to drug them out of his mind.”

Similar complaints have been made this summer in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where one VA doctor who sided with patients’ complaints about substandard treatment was punished for his whistle-blowing activities.

In a damnable demonstration of its priorities, the VA takes far better care of its administrative buildings and vacant hospitals than its patients. A recent investigation by the independent General Accounting Office found that the agency spends more than $1 million a day to sustain unneeded hospital buildings. Another $35 million is spent annually to perform upkeep on empty space, including unused lots and warehouses.

Douglas McArthur, head of the New Mexico-based National Veterans Organization, says VA officials “have created the damndest country club in America. Whatever toys they want, they get. Nobody is watching what they spend these millions of dollars on, and obviously, no one cares.”

Both Republicans and Democrats will point to increased VA budget appropriations this fall as a sign of their allegiance to those who served and sacrificed for our country.

This is not patriotism. It’s profligacy.

Here’s coverage of a GAO report on poor VA medical care from 1991.

One vet posted horror stories at ScrewedbyVa.com.

And on and on.

Over the weekend, the Washington Post published a series on problems for active-duty patients at Walter Reed. This morning, the paper reports that the series has produced some results:

Walter Reed Army Medical Center began repairs yesterday on Building 18, a former hotel that is used to house outpatients recuperating from injuries suffered in Iraq and Afghanistan and that has been plagued with mold, leaky plumbing and a broken elevator.

The facility’s commander, Maj. Gen. George W. Weightman, said Army staff members inspected each of the 54 rooms at the building and discovered that outstanding repair orders for half the rooms had not been completed. He said that mold removal had begun on several rooms and that holes in ceilings, stained carpets and leaking faucets were being fixed.

Walter Reed, the Army’s premier medical facility, has turned into a holding ground for wounded soldiers during 5 1/2 years of sustained combat. Almost 700 outpatients suffering from physical injuries and psychological problems live on the 113-acre military post or in nearby quarters. Many linger there for 18 months or longer as they move through the Army’s numbing bureaucracy.

A Washington Post series over the weekend described “The Other Walter Reed,” where overdoses, suicide attempts and depression among outpatients are the parallel narrative to the spit-polish hallways of the renowned hospital.

Building 18, in particular, symbolizes the indifference and neglect that many of the wounded say they experience at Walter Reed.

Yesterday, Weightman said a broken elevator in the building had been repaired and soldiers were working to improve the outside of the building, including removing ice and snow. The slippery conditions have kept some soldiers in their rooms. A garage door that has been broken for months will soon be repaired as well.

Spec. Jeremy Duncan, whose room has a moldy wall that was featured in one photograph in the Post series, has been moved to another room while workers make repairs. Duncan will be able to return to his room when the work is completed, Weightman said.

Walter Reed and Army officials have been “meeting continuously for three days” since the articles began appearing, Weightman said. A large roundtable meeting with Army and Defense Department officials will take place at the Pentagon early this morning to continue talks about improvements in the outpatient system, he added.

Good. The mess at the VA and in the military health care sysm is systemic and complicated. Political grandstanding on both sides of the political aisle has impeded reforms for years. The push to modernize and consolidate facilities, including Walter Reed, has been met with fierce resistance–exacerbated by bureaucratic edifice complex. That these failures to prioritize continue in war time unabated is damnable. Any light shone on the soldiers’ toll, whatever the motivations and prejudices of the WaPo reporters might be, is welcome, IMO.

Vets often attribute this quote to George Washington when recounting their nightmares with the VA:

“The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified,shall be directly proportional as to how they perceive the veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their nation.”

We can always do better. We must do better.

I do hope all the left-wingers who are now newly enraged by problems at the VA sustain their interest beyond the time frame in which these stories maximize embarrassment of their political opponents. Supporting the troops takes much more than exploiting their neglect.

***

Milblogger Uncle Jimbo at Blackfive provides his always blunt, unvarnished reality-based insights on the story. And a commenter at Blackfive adds this:

As a vet I am familiar with both the military and VA hospital experiences. Any critique of either must never [lose] sight of the fact that each is a centralized bureaucratic leviathan run by the Federal government.

Whenever a leftie points out the problems in such a system, remind them that is the nature of the beast, and it’s the same beast they ask for when they demand universal heatlh care.

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