Independent Review Group Hosts First Public Meeting
By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 14, 2007 An independent review group charged by the defense secretary with identifying shortcomings and making recommendations for improvements in care for injured troops held its first public meeting at Walter Reed Army Medical Center yesterday.
The group heard emotional testimony ranging from praise and support to tearful pleas for help and change.
“What we really want from you is as much as you have to tell us,” Togo West, a former Veterans Affairs and Army secretary, told those who had come to be heard.
Anyone wanting to speak was allowed five minutes at the microphone, but no one was stopped if they went over their allotment. The panel promised individual meetings and follow-ups. Hearing the stories, panel members said, was their priority, and there would be no repercussions for anyone testifying.
For nearly three hours, one by one, servicemembers, family members and veterans took turns at the microphone in a town-hall like session, delivering the details of their experiences -- good and bad -- at the facility that has been thrust into the national spotlight in recent weeks after reports of poor outpatient soldier care and bureaucratic medical board processes.
The sometimes emotional testimony took roller-coaster-like turns, with some passionately defending the quality of care and the staff at the center, and others openly crying and pleading to the panel for help.
While most proclaimed that the doctors and medical staff at Walter Reed provided exceptional care, even the staunchest defenders of the hospital conceded that changes are needed in the administration of its outpatient services and the medical and physical board processes.
“You know, what's failed to have been said in all this bad press … is that Walter Reed is not as bad as (what’s) being portrayed in the media,” said one of the first speakers, an Army specialist injured in Afghanistan. “Yes, there's issues with the (medical) board process -- there are issues -- but that's been ongoing for years. It's not exclusive to Walter Reed.”
He said that for five days he was bedridden with pain from his injuries, and that everyone in his chain of command, including his social worker and case manager, volunteered to deliver meals to his room.
He’s only lived in Walter Reed’s outpatient quarters for five months – a relative newcomer, considering some servicemembers spend two years or more in outpatient care. But still, he said, he is not daunted by the impending board process that promises mountains of paperwork, numerous appointments and certain frustration.
“They have helped me get supporting documents. Well, that eases me a little bit. Whenever I get ready to start my med board, I'm not as scared as what you might think, because I've got a good social worker. I have an excellent chain of command, and I do not feel that it's as big of an issue (as it’s been made out to be),” he said.
The panel followed up by asking the soldier if he was coached prior to the meeting, to which he responded “No.”
“I'm doing this on my own accord,” he said. “This is my home right now. I'm sticking up for my home.”
Other testimony included a veteran who asked the panel to visit the Armed Forces Retirement Home and survey what he called “significant medical, health and welfare” issues there.
Two Army National Guard soldiers testified to problems in the medical and physical board process. Doctors categorized their injuries as pre-existing, even though they had been cleared for duty and had no prior record of the injuries, they said.
The wife of an Army National Guard lieutenant colonel said no one from the hospital met him when her husband arrived at the airport here last year. Her children drove from West Virginia to pick him up. He was forced to stay in a local motel for weeks because there was no room at the center, and still has not been reimbursed for the room.
Near tears, she said she is tired of fighting the system.
“Sometimes you just feel like giving up, you know? I've got other things I need to take care of. I've got to take care of my husband and my children, and I don't really have the time or the energy or the strength left in me to deal with all of this here,” she said.
The family is again staying in a motel, she said, for which she is not sure they will be reimbursed.
One father of a soldier injured in Ramadi, Iraq, said the center is the best facility a servicemember could ask for. He cited several changes there that were made even prior to the media attention at the center.
He said escorts now meet soldiers and families at the airport. Also, the Malogne House -- a temporary lodging facility on the Walter Reed grounds -- now accepts soldiers’ meal cards. If soldiers are too ill to leave their rooms, meals will be delivered.
“My son has received the best care,” he said.
A woman caring for her injured Army National Guard stepson said she is bothered by what others are surmising from recent media reports.
“I get phone calls and letters from family and friends daily who think that my son is living in squalid conditions here. He's not,” she said.
Still, she said, holding up her calendar, her life is inundated with appointment-making, to the point that she cannot manage it by herself. She said that a central appointment system is needed so that all departments can schedule using a single servicemember appointment calendar.
“This is out of hand. I can't do this any more. My son was in the hospital again for four days last week, so all of his appointments scheduled (were) completely cancelled. We had to start over,” she said.
She also cited several other family members she knew who were muddling through the benefits process unaware of benefits to which they are entitled and unsure of the claims process.
The nine-member panel made up of doctors, lawyers, congressmen and former senior military members was formed about two weeks ago, and since then has been visiting medical facilities. The group is working as a subcommittee of the Department of Defense Health Board and will report its findings through the board to the secretaries of the Army and Navy by April 16. They travel to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., today for another such public meeting.
The review group may hold additional meetings for patients and families.
The group has established a Web site at www.ha.osd.mil/dhb/irg. There, anyone can submit comments. Click on “How You Can Help” in the left column of the review group Web site to provide comments.
The group also has opened a toll-free hotline at 1-866-268-2285.
Submissions will be recorded. All persons submitting comments can remain anonymous.