Behind the door of Army Spec. Jeremy Duncan's room, part of the wall is torn and hangs in the air, weighted down with black mold. When the wounded combat engineer stands in his shower and looks up, he can see the bathtub on the floor above through a rotted hole. The entire building, constructed between the world wars, often smells like greasy carry-out. Signs of neglect are everywhere: mouse droppings, belly-up cockroaches, stained carpets, cheap mattresses.
This is the world of Building 18, not the kind of place where Duncan expected to recover when he was evacuated to Walter Reed Army Medical Center from Iraq last February with a broken neck and a shredded left ear, nearly dead from blood loss. But the old lodge, just outside the gates of the hospital and five miles up the road from the White House, has housed hundreds of maimed soldiers recuperating from injuries suffered in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
These are the parts of Walter Reed the public doesn't get to see. President Bush's photo ops all take place in shiny, modern Ward 57. During his last visit, Bush said, "We owe them all we can give them. Not only for when they're in harm's way, but when they come home to help them adjust if they have wounds, or help them adjust after their time in service."
We're doing a great job.
Building 18, the building that the politicians never visit, is where most of the psych patients are sent because, apparently, nothing says "peace of mind" like cockroaches, rats, black mold, and traffic noise, and nothing says "we heart our troops" like dumping them, drugged, disoriented, and frequently suffering from brain injuries, to find their way around the 113-acre campus without help. Because the horrors of getting blown up in Iraq weren't traumatic enough.
And this is yet another direct result of Bush's stupid, poorly planned, poorly conceived war. Walter Reed - and VA hospitals across the country - is overburdened, underfunded, and taxed by a constant influx of serious injuries from a war that was supposed to be a cakewalk. It was supposed to last a matter of weeks, shock and awe, candy and flowers. Now the hospitals don't know what to do with the 23,000 troops it has to take care of - 96 percent of whom were injured after "Mission Accomplished."
And what's worse, Bush proposes to balance the budget on the backs of our troops by further cutting health care in 2009 and 2010. That means that as the number of injured veterans - soldiers and Marines coming home from the Iraq war - rises five percent a year, the VA will have nearly $40 billion less to care for them each of the next two years.
It's a fine and patriotic thing to wave flags and slap yellow "I support our troops" ribbons on the backs of our Tahoes, but it's another thing entirely to actually have to care for those troops or even look at them when they come back home all busted up:
Perks and stardom do not come to every amputee. Sgt. David Thomas, a gunner with the Tennessee National Guard, spent his first three months at Walter Reed with no decent clothes; medics in Samarra had cut off his uniform. Heavily drugged, missing one leg and suffering from traumatic brain injury, David, 42, was finally told by a physical therapist to go to the Red Cross office, where he was given a T-shirt and sweat pants. He was awarded a Purple Heart but had no underwear.
David tangled with Walter Reed's image machine when he wanted to attend a ceremony for a fellow amputee, a Mexican national who was being granted U.S. citizenship by President Bush. A case worker quizzed him about what he would wear. It was summer, so David said shorts. The case manager said the media would be there and shorts were not advisable because the amputees would be seated in the front row.
" 'Are you telling me that I can't go to the ceremony 'cause I'm an amputee?' " David recalled asking. "She said, 'No, I'm saying you need to wear pants.' "
David told the case worker, "I'm not ashamed of what I did, and y'all shouldn't be neither." When the guest list came out for the ceremony, his name was not on it.
We tuck them away in squalor, lose track of them, forget about them entirely - and then we screw them out of their disability benefits:
A pale scar creates a deep furrow connecting Van Antwerp’s eyebrows. Doctors replaced bone with titanium after he fractured his skull. Bare-chested as he trimmed, Van Antwerp has a deep, laddered line from beneath his sternum to at least the top of his sweatpants. A blast ruptured his spleen and ripped out his colon. Pushing up his left pant leg as he told his battle story, Van Antwerp showed where three ligaments tore away from his knee, and then pointed out the scar from his broken tibia.
Above his heart, the ranks and last names of two dead friends are etched in ink. But he calls a friend to ask their first names. Short-term memory loss arrived for Van Antwerp in the same attack that killed his buddies.
In Bayji, Iraq, a suicide bomber drove a vehicle beside the truck Van Antwerp drove for the 101st Airborne Division and set off an improvised explosive device, killing Pfc. Alex Gaunky and Spc. Vernon Widner on Nov. 17, 2005. Van Antwerp said he believes in one of the Army’s oft-repeated mottoes: “No soldier left behind.”
He will always carry his friends with him.
Yet when it was time for the Army to take care of him, one of its wounded warriors, Van Antwerp gave up before he even began. Rather than fight for a higher disability rating, he quietly signed for 20 percent — and no medical benefits — saying he knew he couldn’t do better. He inherited his father’s stubbornness, he said, and refused to ask anyone to pull strings based on his dad’s rank. Then his first medical board counselor, the person who would help him make his way through the medical evaluation board system, left. The second, he said, “wasn’t on the ball.”
“The Army is trying to give you the lowest amount of money possible,” he said. “A lot of people are appealing, but I’ll be going to [the Department of Veterans Affairs]. I want to go home.”
A 30 percent disability rating would have gotten him a disability retirement check based on time in service, rank, and rating. Less than 30 percent means that he goes home with a one-time check and the thanks of the Army for his sacrifices.
So there you have it. There's the news out of Iraq. There's "supporting our troops." There's what they give to us, and what we give back to them. There's the flag-waving, patriotic glory of fighting for our freedoms in the Global War on Terra. There's what this guy has to look forward to if, God forbid, he should be injured.
But don't worry. If that makes you sacrifice your peace of mind, I'll hunt down some happyganda to make it all better.
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