Veterans health care completely broken, Walter Reed scandal called tip of iceberg

WASHINGTON — Army Lt. Brady Van Engelen barely survived a sniper bullet that shattered his skull while he was patrolling outside a Sunni mosque in Baghdad in April 2004. But, he told the World, the medical care system for the thousands of returning combat veterans like him is “completely broken.”

Now recovered after a titanium plate was implanted in his skull, he has retired from the Army. As associate director of Veterans for America, he is an eloquent spokesman for soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, many wounded in body and spirit yet forced to wait months or even years for treatment. Many are denied any treatment or benefits.

The backlog of claims pending before the Veterans Administration now exceeds 400,000 and is expected to surge to more than one million. Veterans angrily assailed Bush’s fiscal year 2008 budget for shortchanging veterans’ health and disability benefits by charging vets a $250 enrollment fee, increasing co-pays and doubling the cost of prescription drugs. Funding in next year’s budget is barely enough to keep up with inflation, they charge.

Van Engelen has been interviewed widely since a Washington Post report Feb. 18 exposed “mouse droppings, belly-up cockroaches, stained carpets, cheap mattresses and other delights” at Walter Reed Army Medical Center’s Building 18, where 700 soldiers are treated.

Van Engelen was treated at another nearby outpatient facility at Walter Reed. Once, still groggy from his head wound, he was forced to hail a taxicab to get to the rehab clinic because he was too weak and dizzy to walk.

“They’ll repaint the building and patch the holes. But this is only the tip of the iceberg,” he said in a phone interview. “Across the board we fail to plan for the return of these soldiers. It is a system that is completely broken.”

The Post article by reporters Dana Priest and Anne Hull was based on four months of visiting Building 18 to interview soldiers without the permission or knowledge of Walter Reed officials. “Behind the door of Army Specialist Jeremy Duncan’s room, part of the wall is torn and hangs down in the air weighted down with black mold,” they wrote. “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.”

Stung by the report, the Pentagon sent in a crew that patched holes and applied fresh paint. Then Army Surgeon General Kevin Kiley toured the facility and proclaimed, “I do not consider Building 18 to be substandard.”

During a White House briefing, Bush’s Press Secretary Tony Snow shunned responsibility, saying it is up to the Pentagon to fix the problems.

“Excuse me? I served in Iraq at the orders of the President — my Commander-in-Chief,” Van Engelen wrote at Huffington Post. “It is the responsibility of the Commander-in-Chief to ensure that we are properly cared for.”

Van Engelen told this reporter, “What we’re finding is that the mental health aspects of this problem are overwhelming the system. Three of every 10 soldiers are coming back with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). There is no safety zone in Iraq or Afghanistan. Many are serving their second or even third tour of combat duty. They come back with that mindset. We’re seeing it in higher suicide rates, higher homeless rates, family breakups.”

He stressed that today’s combat veteran is different from earlier wars. In World War II, Korea and Vietnam, it was 19-year-old draftees. “Today, we have 33-year-old Guardsmen with a wife and three kids. We have 16,000 single mothers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. We need a veterans system that meets their needs.”

Tod Ensign, director of Citizen Soldier, told the World, “We could be facing an epidemic of PTSD larger than Vietnam.”

Citizen Soldier, a group dating back to the Vietnam War, is working with GIs at Fort Drum, home of the 10th Mountain Division, near Watertown, N.Y. Last fall, the Pentagon announced that the division’s 3rd Brigade would come home from Afghanistan Jan. 14. “Everybody was celebrating,” Ensign said. “Then the Pentagon announced the 3rd Brigade would remain in Afghanistan through July. The fury just swept through the base. It’s really cruel, the pressures they are putting on these people.”

Carrie Biggs-Adams, on the national staff of the Communications Workers of America and a member of U.S. Labor Against the War, has joined Code Pink’s vigil at Walter Reed most Fridays for the past two years. “We started the vigil when we found out they were bringing in the wounded soldiers in the dead of night,” she told the World. “They were charging them for food and supplies. I wasn’t surprised by the conditions described in that Post article. But I am appalled at the length of time it takes those vets to get their disability ratings. If they get below a rating of 30 percent disabled, they get only one lump sum cash payment even though they are permanently disabled.”

“These people were broken in our name and it is our obligation to fix them,” she said. “It comes back to the sign we carry: ‘Money for the wounded, not the war.’”

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