MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
Journalist Michael Weisskopf was treated at Walter Reed after he was wounded in Iraq. He thinks conditions for Walter Reed's outpatients are probably far better than the scandal suggests.
MICHAEL WEISSKOPF: My fellow amputees in Ward 57 knew that if you had to lose a limb, you were in the right place - a citadel of excellence where President Eisenhower and generals from Pershing to McArthur went to die. After I lost a hand as an embedded reporter in Iraq in 2003, I was treated at Walter Reed. Along with my fellow patients, I grew accustomed to first-class service. We used to get chocolate milk delivered to our beds.
The Ritz-Carlton is where you want to go, not Motel 6, the head nurse at Ward 57 told her staff after the war began. That's how I want all my patients treated. Even during this war Walter Reed seemed to symbolize the one thing going right for the Army. Today's soldiers may not be able to stop roadside bombs from blowing off their limbs, but they'll walk out of Walter Reed with bionic arms and legs. But it turns out it was the kind of courtesy that was reserved for such overnight guests - in-patients.
A recent Washington Post expose revealed that some wounded soldiers were placed in outpatient facilities plagued by mice, mildew and mismanagement. It's a shocking account, and not only for ordinary Americans who know Walter Reed by its spit-shine high-tech image. After I was discharged, I returned from my home in Washington regularly as an outpatient over the next 18 months. My treatment continued to be exemplary. But I never saw Building 18, the notorious barrack described in the Post account.
To me, Walter Reed still seemed cozy and efficient. Yet I understand why the Post report has touched such a raw nerve. No other scandal arising from the Iraq war has prompted such sudden firings of top brass. Defense Secretary Robert Gates saw a public hungry for accountability, not perspective. We expect the best for our wounded. No matter what Americans think of President Bush's policies, we agree to put the interests of soldiers first.
It wasn't that way for Vietnam vets, who were scorned and warehoused in decrepit VA hospitals, a mistake Americans don't want repeated. And Americans believed Walter Reed helped make good on their IOU. As a number of casualties grew in 2005, so that the number released from in-patient wards to other barracks on the 113-acre campus. Instead of discharging wounded soldiers to less sophisticated VA facilities, doctors sought to keep them longer to provide training with artificial limbs and therapy for brain injuries.
It strikes me as unfair to punish Walter Reed's leaders for extending top-notch services longer than military hospitals have in the past. Hospital commander General George Weightman, who was fired, had begun to address outpatient issues even before they became public. Conditions for Walter Reed's outpatients are probably far better than the scandal suggests. But in a war with few supporters it's in theaters like Building 18, rather than the Sunni Triangle, where the contest for public opinion is lost.
BLOCK: Michael Weisskopf is a senior correspondent for Time magazine and the author of "Blood Brothers: Among the Soldiers of Ward 57." A longer form of this essay will appear in next week's Time magazine.
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