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One year ago this month, a series of articles in the Washington Post exposed squalid living conditions and poor care for some soldiers at the Army's Walter Reed Medical Center. Lawmakers demanded change. Now, Congress is investigating whether the Army has made things better.
NPR's Joseph Shapiro reports.
JOSEPH SHAPIRO: All this month, at the one year mark since the newspaper stories, generals and government officials have been called before multiple congressional committees.
(Soundbite of congressional hearing)
Unidentified Man: General Schoomaker, would you care to make some remarks?
Lieutenant General ERIC SCHOOMAKER (Surgeon General, U.S. Army; Former Commanding General, Walter Reed Army Medical Center): Yes, sir. Chairman Tierney, Congressman Shays, distinguished members...
SHAPIRO: The Army's new surgeon general, Eric Schoomaker, says the Army has made progress.
Lt. Gen. SCHOOMAKER: Thank you for inviting me to discuss, really, a total transformation that the Army has undergone in a way that we care for soldiers and families.
SHAPIRO: For injured soldiers, the Army has created what it calls warrior transition units. These are special units for injured soldiers who are out of the hospital but still on base getting treated as outpatients, or waiting for a medical discharge. The idea is to surround them with staff who can provide whatever the soldier needs, from the right medications to getting transportation to a physical therapy appointment.
But in September, the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the investigatory arm of Congress criticized the Army's effort. It said only about half the jobs were filled. Right now, the Army's investigating whether staffing problems contributed to a series of deaths in the units, by accidental overdose of prescription medications.
John Pendleton was co-author of that September GAO report and now a new one.
Mr. JOHN PENDLETON (Acting Director of Health Care, U.S. Government Accountability Office): The Army has made a lot of progress in the five months. The trends are in the right directions.
SHAPIRO: Still there are some staff shortages. And many of the new staff are borrowed from other units, that is just on temporary assignment. The GAO investigator says, for an Army in wartime, there isn't a lot of extra staff to go around.
Mr. PENDLETON: The Army's has been stretched pretty thin by Iraq and Afghanistan. And so they're trying to get people from those mid-level enlisted ranks in order to come in and help the soldiers work their way through the system over 2,000 at this point. And that's a pretty big drain on the Army.
SHAPIRO: The Army is hiring civilians to help out, but Pendleton says that's not so easy either.
Mr. PENDLETON: Medical personnel are in high demand. And it's difficult for the government to pay salaries that would be competitive, to allow us to draw highly skilled nurses and doctors and such into these units, particularly in some of the more remote locations.
SHAPIRO: One problem is finding doctors and therapists in the military or the civilian world who are trained to handle two of the trickiest war injuries to treat: post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. The large number of soldiers with those injuries has crowded the warrior transition units, the numbers greater than the Army expected. One result is that there are a couple of thousand wounded soldiers, who could be in the units but who haven't been placed in one yet. Pendleton found that at some Army bases, a high percentage of soldiers are left out.
Mr. PENDLETON: At Fort Carson, Colorado, there's about 40 percent of folks that are outside other warrior transition unit; that's also through it for Gordon, Georgia where there's just over 40 percent.
SHAPIRO: The GAO set up focus groups to ask wounded soldiers to rate their own care. Soldiers say they've seen improvements over the last year, in their living quarters and in the attention of medical staff. But other problems persist, too many soldiers get stuck for months, some has more than a year, waiting for a medical discharge so they can go home. Soldiers in the focus group say that hasn't changed.
Joseph Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.
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