Defense Secretary Robert Gates examined the facilities at Army Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., Friday and announced that a commission will investigate the medical services that injured soldiers receive there and at 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 that portrayed squalid living conditions and bureaucratic delays at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
Steve Robinson, a Gulf War veteran, is an adviser to Veterans for America, an advocacy organization for veterans. Scott Simon asked him for his observations about medical care for veterans:
Help us understand what you think are the first priorities that are necessary for veterans to get the treatment they have earned...
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-bomb injuries — they're getting great 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 they need to have care managers in that hospital, helping the soldiers to navigate what I like to call one of the most convoluted workman's comp systems in the world, which is the military discharge process.
What about long-term care for those veterans who are permanently disabled?
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's 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 ... they then face the second-largest bureaucracy in the federal government, which is the Department of Veterans Affairs. And that in and of itself is a whole 'nother war — a battle of paperwork, a battle of proving that your injury that you got while you were serving is compensatable and deserving of health care and treatment.
Were you injured during the Gulf War?
I was injured in peace time. I was blown up — had my right hand blown up and 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.
Do you need continuing care now?
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 compenstation 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.
Is there a heirarchy among wounded war veterans?
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 or 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. We have a tough time with those guys, getting them the appropriate care. Yeah, there is a heirarchy.