My fellow amputees on 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 MacArthur went to die. After I lost a hand as an embedded soldier in Iraq — I was treated at Walter Reed from Dec. 16, 2003, to Jan. 8, 2004. I, along with my fellow patients, 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 of Ward 57 told her staff after the Iraq war began in 2003. "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 — dramatically improved odds of surviving serious injury and of restoring function among the survivors. 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 apparently reserved for such overnight guests — in-patients. A recent Washington Post exposé 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 nearby home in Washington regularly as an outpatient over the next 18 months for therapy and prosthesis training.
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 and abject Pentagon apologies. Defense Secretary Robert Gates saw a public hungry for accountability — not perspective.
We expect the best for our wounded. No matter what most Americans think of President Bush's policies, we agree to put the interests of injured 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.
Now we know that problems arose when wounded soldiers walked into the outpatient world. As the number of casualties grew in 2005, so did the number released from inpatient 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 and post-traumatic-stress disorder.
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 Gen. 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.
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 the March 19 issue of Time.