The common perception of Walter Reed Army Medical Center is of a surgical hospital that shines as the crown jewel of military medicine.
But more than five years of sustained combat involving U.S. troops have transformed the venerable 113-acre institution in Washington, D.C., into something else entirely – a holding ground for physically and psychologically damaged outpatients. Almost 700 of them have been released from hospital beds but still need treatment or are awaiting bureaucratic decisions before being discharged or returned to active duty.
Their numbers have grown so large – they outnumber hospital patients at Walter Reed 17 to 1 – that they take up every available bed on post and spill into dozens of nearby hotels and apartments leased by the Army. The average stay is 10 months, but some have been stuck there for as long as two years.
In a series of stories last weekend, the Washington Post described the problems facing these outpatients in what it described as the “Other Walter Reed.” Among them:
•Poor facilities. The series opened with a description of Building 18, a former hotel used to house outpatients that has been plagued with mold, leaky plumbing, a broken elevator and a rodent infestation “I hate it,” one soldier told the Post. “There are cockroaches. The elevator doesn’t work. The garage door doesn’t work. Sometimes there’s no heat, no water. … I told my platoon sergeant I want to leave. … My platoon sergeant said, ‘Suck it up.’ “
•Bureaucratic frustrations. The typical soldier is required to file 22 documents with eight different commands to enter and exit the medical processing world, according to the Post.
•Inadequate assistance. Civilian care coordinators and case managers are supposed to track injured soldiers and help them with appointments, but government investigators and soldiers complain that they are poorly trained and often do not understand the system. Some family members who speak only Spanish have to rely on Salvadoran housekeepers, a Cuban bus driver, a Panamanian bartender and a Mexican floor cleaner for help with translation.
•Lack of treatment. Many soldiers with impaired memory from brain injuries sat for weeks with no appointments and no help from staff to arrange them. For many soldiers the wait was even longer. Some simply left for home. Seventy-five percent of the troops polled by Walter Reed last March said their experience was “stressful.”