Wounded in war

March 06, 2007

At a congressional hearing at Walter Reed hospital yesterday, Cpl. Dell McLeod's wife, Annette, described how he had spent a befuddled year as an outpatient at the hospital following a head injury in Iraq, prone to panic and unable, virtually, to put two and two together. His cognitive abilities are shot - but Army doctors are challenging his claim that this has anything to do with the injury he received while serving his country.

It's the same story the McLeods told to The Washington Post, which last month reported that wounded soldiers coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq are left largely to fend for themselves in moldy, vermin-infested outpatient housing, where they are shamefully neglected by the Army's medical bureaucracy - except for those moments when one doctor or another is trying to dismiss any connection between their battlefield wounds and their current conditions.

This is perhaps the most appalling piece of news (though doctors at veterans hospitals have been doing the same for years). Essentially, the government is trying to cheat wounded soldiers out of the medical care it owes them. If a pre-existing condition - depression, let's say, or, in Corporal McLeod's case, a low "native intelligence" - wasn't serious enough to keep a soldier out of the Army, it isn't grounds for denying him care after he has been wounded.

The Army fell all over itself reacting to the newspaper's articles. Immediately, the outpatient housing at Walter Reed was spruced up - which was a good thing, though it was hard not to notice that if the painting and plastering were so easy to take care of, there was no excuse for not having done so earlier. Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey fired the head of the hospital and brought back the man under whom most of the worst problems began festering. That move got Mr. Harvey, who has spent most of his career working for defense contractors, fired in turn.

Some have argued that the woeful care provided by the hospital stems from the administration's inability to foresee that the war in Iraq would be so protracted and produce so many casualties. There is undoubtedly some truth to that - but four years have passed since the war began. Wounded soldiers can't still be surprising people. Others have pointed out that much of the support work at the hospital has been contracted out - and significantly cut back.

At yesterday's hearing, Rep. John F. Tierney said similar conditions apparently exist throughout the Army's medical system. There is no excuse. The neglect of the wounded is a blot on the honor of the service.

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