An explanation, but not an excuse

Among the (well-deserved) outcry over conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, one question has been repeated over and over: how the hell did things get so bad there? And amidst the muddle, a lot of people have extended that argument in wrong directions: from “how can we treat our veterans so badly” to “how did the Veterans Administration let this happen?”

That little misunderstanding — that Walter Reed falls under the VA — was actually a pointer to some people.

Walter Reed is not — repeat, NOT — a Veteran’s Hospital. It is owned and operated by the United States Army, and is for active duty personnel — not former service members.

And as part of the Army, it fell under the last round of Base Realignment And Closure (BRAC) cuts.

In 2004, a non-partisan commission took a long, hard look at our military installations, and made recommendations that many of them be reduced, consolidated, or eliminated entirely. And Walter Reed — the Army’s premiere hospital — has been around for almost a century. The commission recommended that it be closed, effective 2011, and consolidated with the Naval National Medical Center at Bethesda, Maryland.

Here are a couple of cold, hard facts that most likely contributed to the deterioration at Walter Reed:

1) The military has a finite amount of money to spend.

2) Any money invested in Walter Reed will, in essence, be “wasted” as the whole facility will cease to exist in about four and a half years.

What SHOULD have happened was that the shut-down should have been modified, with the worst facilities being closed down, modest temporary fixes applied where possible, and patients transferred to other facilities. Administrators of the hospital should have been performing architectural “triage” on the campus, sacrificing the most deteriorated buildings and focusing on their core concerns. Instead, it appears they just watched the clock, betting that things wouldn’t get too bad before the whole issue became irrelevant.

That was a losing bet — and our sick and injured service members are having to cover it.

This in no way excuses what happens there. It needs to be fixed, and fixed NOW. Those who made that bet need to be disciplined, demoted, reassigned, or fired. Courts martial might even be in order.

But the state of matters at Walter Reed are too big to be the result of negligence, of carelessness, of even malice. They are systemic — and the BRAC decision was a major factor in perverting that system. It should have been anticipated that this might happen when one schedules the shuttering of such a huge hospital, especially during a time of war.

At this point, I don’t care if we find someone to blame now, or go looking later. The main thing we need to do first is get those sick and wounded service members the hell out of those conditions. They’ve suffered far too much already in service to all of us; to leave them there while trying to pin the blame on whoever you don’t like is to use them in the most obscene of political theatre.

If I were in their place, if given the choice between staying in the disgusting conditions in parts of Walter Reed and being used as a political prop, I think I’d stay with the rats.

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