New York Times/Retro Report: Walter Reed: The Battle for Recovery

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On Monday the New York Times distributed the Retro Report documentary that we were in. You can read the original stories by clicking the following links:

Retro Report: Walter Reed: The Battle for Recovery

In 2007, the scandalous treatment of wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center shocked the nation.  Today, after major reforms, what’s changed for America’s injured soldiers? 

After a series of articles in The Washington Post detailed the neglect and squalor endured by outpatients at Walter Reed, President Bush promised reforms. Congress investigated. And the Army pledged to provide wounded, ill or injured troops with the care they–and their families–deserved.

The key reform was the creation of thirty-six Warrior Transition Units, which promised to help broken soldiers recover in a supportive environment.

But six years later, a heated debate continues about whether that promise has been fulfilled. Former Army Surgeon General Eric Schoomaker, who oversaw the WTUs, admits there were “growing pains” but says the system is working well.

Noel Koch disagrees. In 2009, as Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for the Office of Wounded Warrior Care and Transition Policy, he investigated WTUs and says he concluded that all too often the new units replicated some of the problems initially found at Walter Reed in 2007–the very problems they were supposed to solve.

As the debate continues, veterans like Dan Shannon–the original “face” of the Walter Reed scandal–continue to navigate their own recoveries and wonder what the future holds for wounded soldiers in America.

New York Times: And This Was Called Care? The Walter Reed Story

The Battle for Recovery: In 2007, the scandalous treatment of wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center shocked the nation. Today, after major reforms, what’s changed for America’s injured soldiers?

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As this week’s Retro Report video explains, the biggest scandal in recent times involving the care of wounded American troops was actually worsened because medicine on the battlefront had made such remarkable advances.

Compared with service members who served in Vietnam, troops sustaining combat wounds in Iraq and Afghanistan had roughly twice the chance of surviving. That meant many were airlifted back to this country with such severe injuries they needed the most sophisticated medical and rehabilitative care the country had to offer.

But once they became outpatients, thousands of service members entered a system that had not kept up with the times, that was understaffed, poorly organized and generally second rate.

The story broke in The Washington Post in the winter of 2007, with a series about Walter Reed Army Medical Center. While the most obvious shortcomings were the physical conditions of the hospital housing for the soldiers — peeling paint, crumbling walls, mold and rats — the more damning problem was an understaffed medical system overseen by a dysfunctional bureaucracy.

In news media accounts and at a Congressional hearing, the No. 1 witness for the wounded was Staff Sgt. Dan Shannon of the Army, a father of three, who had served in Iraq, and, on Nov. 13, 2004, took a direct hit from an AK-47.

As he told Retro Report: “It just missed the bridge of my nose and exited over my left ear. And it took all this bone and everything with it — and, of course, my left eye it took with it.”

He was medevaced out of Iraq, but only nine days after his near-fatal injury, the Walter Reed staff discharged him into outpatient status. What happened next is something out of “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” by Ben Fountain, the “Catch-22” of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

“They gave me a Xeroxed map of the hospital grounds and it was not very well photocopied,” he explains on the video. The sergeant describes roaming Walter Reed’s grounds wearing only a hospital gown and robe for two hours before making it to the small room he was assigned.

Then it took him weeks to track down the nurse who was supposedly overseeing his case, as he tells Retro Report. “Her comment was, ‘Where have you been?’ And I said, ‘What do you mean where have I been? I’ve — I’ve never left the hospital grounds. I’m right here. I’ve gone to all of my appointments.’”

Her reply, he said, was, “We can see in the computer that you went to all of your appointments, but nobody knows where you are.”

From so much bad came some good, as the military medical health care system was reorganized. But whether those fixes went far enough is, as the video demonstrates, still not clear.

This week’s Retro Report is the 13th in a documentary series. The video project was started with a grant from Christopher Buck. Retro Report has a staff of 13 journalists and 10 contributors led by Kyra Darnton, a former “60 Minutes” producer. It is a nonprofit video news organization that aims to provide a thoughtful counterweight to today’s 24/7 news cycle. The videos are typically 10 to 12 minutes long.

Previous Retro Report videos can be found here.

Visit the Retro Report Web site here.

The full video can be viewed here. (RSS Readers, click this link.)

So, what are your thoughts on this story? Does it infuriate you as much as it does for me? Share your comments below!

About The Author

Torrey Shannon

My name is Torrey Shannon and I am a writer, author, blogger, movie consultant, speaker, veteran's advocate and Blue Star Mom. I am also a full-time caregiver and spouse of a wounded warrior. My husband survived a gunshot wound to the head in a gunfight in Iraq in 2004 after serving in the Army for more than 23 years. We spent three years of his recovery at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. He has severe PTSD and suffered a traumatic brain injury. Dealing with the invisible wounds of war first-hand allows me to bring a human element to the problems our military communities face. Blogging gives me the chance to do what I love the most: write about life after combat and help create awareness and solutions for military members and their families. When I am not writing here, I freelance for a variety of publications and media outlets and am currently writing a book.