Friday, February 23, 2007

Support our troops -- Catch-22

By Nancy Jane Moore

The only thing everyone in the U.S. seems to agree on when it comes to the war in Iraq is the need to support our troops.

So why aren't we doing it?

Today's New York Times has an article on the toll that repeat deployments are taking on our troops -- especially the reserves and guard units, who had every reason to assume that they wouldn't be called up for such extensive combat duty except to the defend the country against an immediate and grave danger. (Despite the rhetoric Cheney is throwing around, the invasion of Iraq had nothing to do with defending the U.S.)

And that's just the troops who are coming home more or less in one piece. The wounded are suffering a great deal more. A two-part series by Dana Priest and Anne Hull in The Washington Post on how the wounded are being treated at Walter Reed Army Medical Hospital points out that many of the seriously wounded are not getting the support and treatment they need. Even worse, the military is trying to keep their disability payments to a minimum. Given that a lot of these wounded soldiers suffered brain injuries, it's hard for them to fight the entrenched military bureaucracy.

The Post article also pointed out that a lot of these wounded veterans are living in substandard conditions in old buildings on the Walter Reed campus. Interestingly, the Army immediately latched onto the problems with mold and vermin. Dana Milbank writes in Friday's Post online:
It's not every day one gets to witness a whitewash in action, but Walter Reed Army Medical Center provided just such an opportunity yesterday.
Milbank gives the entertaining details of people scurrying around to -- literally -- slap whitewash on moldy walls, and then observes:
The general also seemed to miss a larger point identified by other officials: Walter Reed's problem isn't of mice and mold but a bureaucracy that has impeded the recovery of wounded soldiers.
This is supporting our troops?

Our treatment of wounded soldiers is particularly important, because we have so many of them -- one source puts U.S. wounded at over 23,000. That's the thing about this war: More wounded soldiers make it out alive. A report on Science Daily back in 2005 says that only 10 percent of those wounded in combat are dying in Iraq -- as opposed to 24 percent in Vietnam and 30 percent in World War II. The article goes on to point out:
But that's not entirely good news for the survivors. Injuries from suicide bombs and land mines often leave lifetime disabilities. Surgeons report a depressingly high incidence of blindness. Amputations, seen almost weekly on television, raise distressing questions about how survivors and their families will adapt and function.
And as The Post article made clear, the military isn't doing much to help these survivors and their families adapt and function.

Support our troops? Sure, as long as all we're spending is rhetoric.

A couple of days after The Post articles came out, I heard Lt. Gen. Kevin Kiley, chief of the Army Medical Command, interviewed on NPR's Diane Rehm Show. He said something in passing that caught my ear -- one reason some work didn't get done in a timely manner at Walter Reed was because it was being transferred over to private contractors. Sounds like yet another example of this administration's penchant for making sure the private sector can make a profit on government work -- whether it gets done right or not.

But the real key here is that we have a bureaucracy -- in the government, in the military, and in the private contractors handling their functions -- that really isn't interested in making sure our soldiers get the care they need. Perhaps they're just trying to keep our costs down by making sure the wounded don't get the disability payments they need. Or perhaps it's only that -- like many bureaucrats -- they see their job as getting a piece of paper off their desks, rather than making sure people get what they're entitled to.

This is the same kind of incompetence and indifference we saw from the government after Hurricane Katrina. (If you want a recent account of how things are in New Orleans these days, I recommend this post on Erin Solaro's Civic Feminism blog.)

It's the same sort of bureaucratic failure that we see in so many public schools -- a recent article in The Washington Post Magazine about a teaching fellow's experience as a special ed teacher in D.C. is just one of thousands of examples of how the schools aren't giving children what they need.

But what can we expect from a country that can't be bothered to take care of its wounded soldiers?

No comments: