Honor, Tradition, Courage: Broken Tiles, Broken Healthcare System

This week at Walter Reed Army Medical Center (WRAMC) I saw it all. GIs and their families struggling to restore a touch of normalcy after horrific battlefield injuries. As sad, perhaps even more so, the children of our troops threatened by equally horrific disease or injury, their soldier parents pulled from far away battlefields to stand by their child with fear and hope. The old retired soldier approaching the end of his days but well cared for and offering support and hope to the younger soldiers. You will be cared for after the battle. Rightly much is made of the shattered and torn hero from the battlefield. Often overlooked are the heroes who maintain the soldier in the fight. Most battlefield soldiers would rather face a thousand fights than spend one day serving in a medical center. Elbow deep in gore and/or body fluids, hugging the dying or caring for the child takes a special type of hero. Their heroism is often unrecognized except by those who see it. I knew this. I have seen the military medical system in action all over the world from base hospitals to battlefield triage units. Not just focused on point of service, military medicine leads research in battlefield and military related conditions such as agent orange or Gulf War syndrome which would be given short shrift by civilian medicine. I too have been guilty of forgetting the service of these everyday heroes. But sometimes life has a way of grabbing hold of you.

As a post operative patient at Walter Reed, I saw again the whole reason for US military cohesion and effectiveness. Honor, tradition and courage; the men and women of the US military know that, even if civilians forget, their comrades and future brother and sisters in arms will remember. This tradition of ties and honor gird the warrior for battle knowing with complete confidence that he will be healed or honored and his family maintained. As long as there have been governments there have been cost cutters for both good and bad. Bad, when the cutting is on the back of the soldier especially during wartime.

The situation at Walter Reed is NOT fixed. This week I saw a classic example of the worst of the military. Preparing for a change of command ceremony, flags were flying, troops were posturing and lawns were trimmed to near scissor precision. Tradition on display but it was false tradition, a facade. Prior to overlooking the parade field, I wandered in a quiet serenity garden on the fifth floor of the main hospital building at WRAMC. This is the same quiet space, where, while I was an inpatient, I saw military parents walk quietly with what appeared to be their seriously ill daughter. I saw a young severely wounded soldier in a wheelchair with his parents and I saw a small group of obviously healing young military patients laughing and joking. With free time in my treatment this week, I wanted to walk with my wife in what I saw as an almost magic space. I received a sad shock. What looked wonderful from afar was neglected and in disrepair. Volunteers provided assistance, veterans groups provided benches etc. The military did not provide routine maintenance and upkeep. Wood was rotted through; tile was ripped up and the fountain was out of order. The pomp of the change of command shattered to my mind.

Who, with any conscience or morality, would plan to close the Army's major medical facility, a leading research and teaching hospital, during a time of war? The answer is this administration with its cost cutting Department of Defense lapdogs. Walter Reed's change of command is a metaphor for the state of military healthcare. The current BRAC (base closure) agreement focused on stripping troop and family support systems. We are failing our troops and harming the nations military capability. It is past time to realize that the cost of war and, in truth our very success in war, depends upon acknowledging these costs and paying those bills. This administration created the problem, most of congress and the primary veterans organizations ignored the problem. Call your congress member and demand emergency funding for Walter Reed to identify and repair all short comings. Furthermore, urge them to fund restoration of the entire military heathcare system including research and a total review of BRAC in light of the current wartime conditions. That call is far more appropriate for memorial day than most anything else you may do.