You would have to be dead or on the moon not to have heard about the appalling living conditions and Byzantine red tape that dogs wounded veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
The explosion of news about these conditions began on Sunday, February 18, with a front-page story in the Washington Post.
In this story and a follow-up the next day, the Post documented the plight of wounded soldiers who, as outpatients, find themselves in a medical limbo, living in buildings plagued by mold, peeling paint and rodents as they wait endlessly for medical appointments and government paperwork that will help them get their lives back in order. The series provoked huge coverage from other media, prompted House hearings, caused the firings of the top brass at the Medical Center and the resignation of the Army Secretary.
The series has been hailed as a testament to the power of a free press. And it does demonstrate what happens when a powerful newspaper like the Post takes on an issue.
So this is how things are supposed to work, right? Crusading reporters uncover major problems with veterans’ care. The stories provoke enormous attention and arouse the interest of Congress. Heads roll, the President says he is angry and demands immediate change, and the painters and mold removers are all over Walter Reed’s outpatient buildings.
Well, not exactly. Before this story became something the mainstream media dined on, it had simmered a very long time on the back burner.
Mark Benjamin, now a reporter at the online magazine Salon, wrote his first story about the horrendous living conditions of wounded soldiers at Fort Stewart, Georgia, for United Press International in 2003. In early 2005, Benjamin wrote a searing Salon story about the suicide of a combat veteran angry and discouraged by the treatment he was getting at Walter Reed. Another of Benjamin’s stories, dated January 27, 2005, blasted an Army policy of charging some outpatients for their meals. Within the context of that story, Benjamin touched on many of the issues that the Post would target two years later.
“Processing at Walter Reed can take over a year, much to the frustration of the soldiers who would prefer to get outpatient treatment near their homes and families,” Benjamin explained. “Soldiers in medical hold [outpatients] also complain they are still expected to line up for daily formations and buy new uniforms even as they struggle with debilitating physical and mental trauma from their service in Iraq.”