SCOTT SIMON, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates yesterday examined the facilities at Walter Reed Army Center and announced that a commission will investigate the medical services that injured soldiers received there and other military facilities. Secretary Gates and other officials have vowed to improve the care that wounded soldiers receive.
The sudden focus on this issue was prompted by a Washington Post series this week that portrayed squalid living conditions and bureaucratic delays at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
Steve Robinson, a Gulf War veteran, is an advisor to Veterans for America, an advocacy organization for veterans. He joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.
Mr. STEVE ROBINSON (Veterans for America): My pleasure.
SIMON: Help us understand what you think are the first priorities that are necessary for veterans to get the treatment they have earned.
Mr. ROBINSON: Well, the first thing is the medical care on the battlefield is saving lives and we need to laud them for that. The second thing is that once they're evacuated to Walter Reed they get state of the art care in terms of medical procedures, prosthetic limbs, burn care, bullets and bombs injuries. They're getting care. But then comes the hard part.
When they transition from inpatient care to outpatient care they languish. And for those soldiers what needs to happen is that they need to have care managers in that hospital helping the soldiers navigate what I like to call one of the most convoluted workman's comp systems in the world, which is the military discharge process.
SIMON: Mr. Robinson, what about long term care for those veterans who are permanently disabled?
Mr. ROBINSON: Well, now you're talking about the transition from getting out of DOD and moving into the VA health care system. There's a thing that we've been arguing about for seven years called the seamless transition.
It's supposed to happen that there is no bump in the road between getting out of the military and getting into the VA health care system. But what veterans are finding is that once they survive the Walter Reed experience and then get out, they then face an entirely new and the second largest bureaucracy in the federal government, which is the Department of Veterans Affairs.
And that in and of itself is a whole other war, a battle of paperwork, a battle of proving that your injury that you got while you were serving is compensatable and deserving of healthcare and treatment.
SIMON: Mr. Robinson, forgive me for not knowing this. We've literally just met when you've come into the studio. But were you injured?
Mr. ROBINSON: I was injured in actually peacetime. Yeah, I did. I was blown up - had my right hand blown up and had my lips blown off in a training accident. I was fortunate enough to get some really good surgery at a German hospital. It wasn't a military hospital. And...
SIMON: But you were in the Army when this injury occurred?
Mr. ROBINSON: Oh, yeah.
SIMON: Do you need continuing care now?
Mr. ROBINSON: I have filed a claim with the VA. And it took me two and a half years from the moment I filed my claim to the moment I received disability compensation for the injury I sustained in the military. Now, fortunately I had a job.
If you can imagine having to wait two and a half years and not being able to work if you had your right hand blown off; that's the problem, the gap between getting out and getting the care. The bureaucratic delays of getting out of DOD and the long time to wait to get into the VA health care system is extremely frustrating. It's not necessary and we can do better.
SIMON: Is there a hierarchy among wounded war veterans?
Mr. ROBINSON: It's interesting you ask that question, because the first part of the answer is yes, they try to treat the most severely wounded first. The problem with that is there are many people that are coming back that aren't missing limbs or didn't receive injury from bullets and bombs.
They have the unseen wounds of war, the psychological wounds of war, and they're no less debilitating than a bullet to the brain. And so we have a tough time with those guys, getting them the appropriate care. But yeah, there is a hierarchy.
SIMON: Steve Robinson, a Gulf War veteran, special advisor to the Veterans for America. Thanks very much for being with us.
Mr. ROBINSON: It's my pleasure.