Pentagon medical officials on Wednesday pulled off their best version of damage control in the wake of the Washington Post's Walter Reed bruiser. Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs William Winkenwerder Jr. first emphasized to reporters that the Post series didn't expose problems with healthcare, but showed "life experience" problems while soldiers were getting medical care. "Concerns have been raised, however, about the life experience -- the quality-of-life experience of service members as they receive their outpatient care," Winkenwerder admitted. He noted "bureaucratic hassles, delays, problems with personnel systems and decisions, moving through the disability determination process, lack of clear and timely communications, and for some soldiers their housing."
It seemed like a pretty fine line for a series of Post stories that started last Sunday with the headline "Soldiers Face Neglect, Frustration at Army's Top Medical Facility" and noted that the hospital failed to treat a soldier from the 2nd Infantry Division, whose eye and skull were shattered by an AK-47, for his post-traumatic stress disorder.
Second, Winkenwerder said he was shocked, shocked that anybody at Walter Reed was being underserved. "This news caught me -- as it did many other people -- completely by surprise," he told the press.
They shouldn't have been so surprised. In early 2005, Salon brought to the attention of Walter Reed officials disturbing information based on interviews, medical records and other Army documents which showed that soldiers receiving outpatient treatment for mental wounds were suffering from a shocking pattern of neglect. At that time, Walter Reed officials refused to discuss Salon's findings. Instead, they issued a statement saying it just wasn't so: "We are satisfied that there is a very high level of patient satisfaction with their treatment," the statement read.
In early 2006, Salon alerted Army and Walter Reed officials to a very similar set of concerns: Some soldiers with traumatic brain injuries were not being screened, identified or treated. They were falling through the cracks. The Army and the hospital declined to talk with Salon about those issues, this time citing privacy concerns of patients. "I cannot arrange an interview," Lt. Col. Kevin V. Arata, an Army public affairs officer, wrote in an e-mail. In a separate written statement to Salon, Walter Reed said it had a good program to take care of brain injuries.
Salon's articles on Walter Reed are all available here.