My Visit to Walter Reed Army Medical Center
Tuesday, April 12, 2005
Last week I took some time out of my Senate schedule to visit Walter Reed Army Medical Center. It was something I'd been meaning to do for awhile, prompted in part by the disabled veterans that I've had the opportunity to meet with in Illinois as well as the conversations that I've had with the families of young men and women who have been killed on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Walter Reed is about a half hour away from the Capitol, and during the drive over, I had the opportunity to talk with representatives from the Army about some of the grim statistics behind the war in Iraq. So far, 1,545 have been killed, and 11,664 have been wounded. And, in part because of improved medical technology, I was aware that this war will generate a far higher proportion of disabled veterans than in previous wars. Also, through my service on the Veterans Affairs Committee, I've learned that soldiers are already coming home with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, with Traumatic Brain Injury that could lead to epilepsy, and with conditions that may result in over 100,000 soldiers requiring mental health treatment when they come home.
These statistics alone are a sobering reminder of the fact that decisions made in the U.S. Senate have consequences. But the consequences of these decisions were really brought home when visiting with the extraordinary soldiers that I met when I arrived at Walter Reed. In the occupational therapy center of Walter Reed, I met a young man whose legs had been blown off from mortar fire and who had sustained severe nerve damage in his arms and hands. He was sewing as a means of regaining his small motor skills, and as his wife looked on they talked about the efforts they were making to piece their lives back together, and the wonderful way that their young daughter had embraced her father and told him she loved him despite his disfigurement. I also talked to a young man who had lost a leg and an arm and who now had a breathing tube in his throat. He was working with two of the therapists in a mock-up kitchen to cook hamburgers on his own. They've constructed a small apartment in the facility so that these disabled veterans can acclimate themselves to living independently in the future.
We went down to the physical therapy area where I talked to a 19-year-old former track star who had lost both his legs and was working out on one of the weight machines. And I was able to speak with some of the personnel there about the tremendous advances that have been made in prosthetics. I also spoke to one sergeant from Iowa who had lost one of his legs but was working vigorously to get back on his feet and planned to return to Iraq as soon as he could. I then went up to the wards to visit with other injured heroes - to take pictures, talk about basketball, and to say thank you.
Throughout these visits, I was extraordinarily impressed with the deep care, attentiveness and professionalism of the staff at Walter Reed. They considered these young people to be part of their families and are able to maintain a powerful balance between empathy for those in their care and a cheerful insistence on the ability of these wounded soldiers to recover from their injuries.
But of course, I was even more impressed with the extraordinary courage and hopefulness of the soldiers themselves. Uniformly, they were proud of the service they rendered their country. They weren't interested in self-pity, but were instead interested in moving forward with their lives. And they displayed the kind of grit and optimism and resourcefulness that makes one proud to be an American.
What doesn't make me proud is the failure on the part of politicians to adequately support these veterans after they're discharged from active duty.
Recently, I learned that some of our most severely wounded soldiers are being forced to pay for their own meals and their own phone calls while being treated in medical hospitals. Because the Department of Defense doesn't consider getting physical therapy or rehabilitation services in a medical hospital as "being hospitalized," these wounded veterans do not qualify for the free meals other veterans receive. And after 90 days, even those classified as hospitalized on an outpatient status lose their free meals as well.
Also, while our soldiers in the field qualify for free phone service, injured service men and women who may be hospitalized hundreds or thousands of miles from home do not receive this benefit. For soldiers whose family members aren't able to take off work and travel to a military hospital, hearing the familiar voice of a mom or dad or husband or wife on the other side of the phone can make all the difference in the world.
And yet, our government will not help pay for these calls. And it will not help pay for those meals.
This is why I will offer an amendment to the supplemental appropriations bill that will fix this. It will expand the group of "hospitalized" soldiers who cannot be charged for their meals to include those service members undergoing medical recuperation, therapy or otherwise on "medical hold." And the amendment will also extend free phone service to those injured service members who are hospitalized or otherwise undergoing medical recuperation or therapy.
Still, there's so much more that we should be doing for our veterans. There are roughly 480,000 compensation and pension claims still unprocessed, but this year's veterans budget provides for only 113 new employees to help deal with this backlog. There are thousands of veterans who can't afford to get the health care they need, but the President's original budget called for a $250 annual enrollment fee just to enter into the health care program, it proposed doubling prescription drug co-payments, and the budget tells veterans who make as little as $30,000 a year that they're too wealthy to enroll in the VA health care system. There are VA hospitals on the brink of closing down around the country, but this year's budget cuts $351 million in funding for veterans' nursing homes, and eliminates more than $100 million in state grants that are desperately needed by VA facilities.
There are veterans everywhere in need, but our country still refuses to meet those needs. We're trying to change that here in Washington, and if you want to help us, I urge you to contact your Senator or Congressman.
What I've consistently found by talking to people across the state of Illinois is that whether you supported the war or opposed the war, there's a uniform insistence on the need for us to honor and care for our veterans. This isn't just the right thing to do, it's a moral obligation we have to each other. And I think that anyone who doubts the worthiness of that cause should take the time to make their own visit to Walter Reed.