Ron Kovic, author of Born on the Fourth of July, himself a paralyzed veteran of the Vietnam war, recalls what it was like coming home wounded and wonders what it must be like for those coming home from Iraq.
I cannot help but wonder what it will be like for the young men and women wounded in Iraq. What will their homecoming be like? I feel close to them. Though many years separate us we are brothers and sisters. We have all been to the same place. For us in 1968 it was the Bronx veterans hospital paraplegic ward, overcrowded, understaffed, rats on the ward, a flood of memories and images, I can never forget; urine bags overflowing onto the floor. It seemed more like a slum than a hospital. Paralyzed men lying in their own excrement, pushing call buttons for aides who never came, wondering how our government could spend so much money (billions of dollars) on the most lethal, technologically advanced weaponry to kill and maim human beings but not be able to take care of its own wounded when they came home.
Will it be the same for them? Will they have to return to these same unspeakable conditions? Has any of it changed?...
A series in the Washington Post shows us that the good news is that things have changed, the bad news is that things haven't changed much. 'Building 18' of Walter Reed Medical Hospital is described as a decaying warehouse for the wounded, infested with cockroaches and mice, where those disabled by the war are given little care.
Behind the door of Army Spec. Jeremy Duncan's room, part of the wall is torn and hangs in the air, weighted down with black mold. When the wounded combat engineer stands in his shower and looks up, he can see the bathtub on the floor above through a rotted hole. The entire building, constructed between the world wars, often smells like greasy carry-out. Signs of neglect are everywhere: mouse droppings, belly-up cockroaches, stained carpets, cheap mattresses.
This is the world of Building 18, not the kind of place where Duncan expected to recover when he was evacuated to Walter Reed Army Medical Center from Iraq last February with a broken neck and a shredded left ear, nearly dead from blood loss. But the old lodge, just outside the gates of the hospital and five miles up the road from the White House, has housed hundreds of maimed soldiers recuperating from injuries suffered in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Links to the entire WaPo series can be found here.
Patients are left to find their own way through the maze of bureaucracy. Patients who's paperwork has been lost in the shuffle have to prove they were wounded in theater. One patient had to show his Purple Heart, another had to bring a photo. The outpatient service is staffed by other outpatients -- some with severe disabilities of their own.
Under normal circumstances, good sergeants know everything about the soldiers under their charge: vices and talents, moods and bad habits, even family stresses.
At Walter Reed, however, outpatients have been drafted to serve as platoon sergeants and have struggled with their responsibilities. Sgt. David Thomas, a 42-year-old amputee with the Tennessee National Guard, said his platoon sergeant couldn't remember his name. "We wondered if he had mental problems," Thomas said. "Sometimes I'd wear my leg, other times I'd take my wheelchair. He would think I was a different person. We thought, 'My God, has this man lost it?' "
The neglect is shocking.
...[Cpl. Jeremy Harper] returned from Iraq with PTSD after seeing three buddies die. He kept his room dark, refused his combat medals and always seemed heavily medicated, said people who knew him. According to his mother, Harper was drunkenly wandering the lobby of the Mologne House on New Year's Eve 2004, looking for a ride home to West Virginia. The next morning he was found dead in his room. An autopsy showed alcohol poisoning, she said.
"I can't understand how they could have let kids under the age of 21 have liquor," said Victoria Harper, crying. "He was supposed to be right there at Walter Reed hospital. . . . I feel that they didn't take care of him or watch him as close as they should have."
The Army posthumously awarded Harper a Bronze Star for his actions in Iraq.
If you make it through this, the government is increasingly leaving you on your own. In order to keep politically questionable promises, the Bush administration is cutting veterans' health benefits.
The Bush administration plans to cut funding for veterans' health care two years from now — even as badly wounded troops returning from Iraq could overwhelm the system.
Bush is using the cuts, critics say, to help fulfill his pledge to balance the budget by 2012.
After an increase sought for next year, the Bush budget would turn current trends on their head. Even though the cost of providing medical care to veterans has been growing rapidly — by more than 10 percent in many years — White House budget documents assume consecutive cutbacks in 2009 and 2010 and a freeze thereafter.
Here's a deal for you, if you support this war and you're not willing to go to the mat for veterans, you can peel that big yellow 'Support the Troops' magnet off your car and shut up. And do it yesterday. Too often, the people who bang their chests and shout from the rooftops that they support the troops actually just support the war. They confuse 'the mission' -- what ever the hell that is -- with people on the mission. They talk about 'boots on the ground,' without giving much thought to who's in the boots.
Check out this bit of idiocy from the Boston Globe's Jeff Jacoby:
No loyal Colts fan rooted for Indianapolis to lose the Super Bowl. No investor buys 100 shares of Google in the hope that Google's stock will tank. No one who applauds firefighters for their courage and education wants a four-alarm blaze to burn out of control.
Yet there is no end of Americans who insist they "support" US troops in Iraq but want the war those troops are fighting to end in defeat. The two positions are irreconcilable. You cannot logically or honorably curse the war as an immoral neocon disaster or a Halliburton oil grab or "a fraud . . . cooked up in Texas," yet bless the troops who are waging it.
Here's a question that's both interesting and fun; how is throwing people into a meat grinder for no good reason 'supportive?' And notice the dishonest argument the right always uses -- there are only two possibilities. Either you think the war is a great idea or you want to lose. Either you don't give a lot of thought to how these corrupt bastards wasted all these people's lives or you're on the side of terrorists. I'm so tired of these lousy arguments from people with all the spine of a garden slug and half the brains. It's damned easy to fight a war from an office at the Boston Globe, isn't it?
You want to support the troops, Jeff? Set up office in a tent outside Building 18 and keep writing about it until something's done about it. Tells us about what happens to veterans who come home and find very little support from their government. If you want to convince anyone that you support the troops, start giving a hot damn about vets -- then we'll talk.
Until then, you get to shut up. They hide the coffins and body bags, they warehouse the wounded out of sight, they talk about sacrifice while pretending there is none. How soon do you think we'll see a column from one of these right wing hawks telling us that veterans are more important than freakin' tax cuts? Not any time soon. They don't support the troops, they support the president -- it's not the same thing. In fact, since Bush is planning to cut veterans' benefits, they're opposing things. Supporting the troops and supporting the president will become the same thing when Bush starts supporting the troops. Until then, the two positions are at cross-purposes.
If you're out there and you still support this war, let me make another deal with you (after you peel that stupid magnet off your SUV) -- don't accuse me of not supporting the troops and I'll refrain from pointing out how you're a snivelling chickenhawk who cares more about tax cuts than veterans.