Walter Reed scandals gives veterans groups better hearing

WASHINGTON: Veterans groups said the recent scandal over rot, rats, and insensitive bureaucracy at Walter Reed hospital is providing a new opportunity for them to lobby for specific policy changes they've sought for years.

WASHINGTON: Veterans groups said the recent scandal over rot, rats, and insensitive bureaucracy at Walter Reed hospital is providing a new opportunity for them to lobby for specific policy changes they've sought for years.

Originating from a Washington Post series that began running on February 18 on the soldiers' appalling living conditions and frustrations with Walter Reed, the scandal has led to the firing of Army Secretary Francis Harvey, the appointment of new hospital administrators, and the launch of eight separate Congressional, presidential, and military commissions and investigations. 

American Legion media relations manager Ramona Joyce said her group at its recent mid-winter conference in DC used the attention on the scandal to lobby members of Congress to provide mandatory - as opposed to discretionary - annual funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).  The Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) is pushing for speedier processing of wounded soldiers from the military hospital system to the more extensive VA system.

"There's no point for us, since other people are doing it better, to criticize the Army," said PVA associate media relations director Tom Uchic. "Instead, let's try to offer a solution on transfer of patients."   

On this issue, the national leadership of the PVA plans to lobby officials in the Defense Department, the VA, and perhaps the White House, all the while maintaining communications with local chapters on what messages it’s communicating and what the latest information is on solutions to the ongoing problems in the military and veterans’ healthcare systems.

Joyce said that her group has been inundated with media inquiries since the Post launched its investigative series on Walter Reed on February 18. She said that the stories about the war in Iraq typically focus on death tolls in combat as opposed to the returning wounded, but noted that her group has been negotiating an agreement on the issue of patient transferal that just got coincidentally signed on March 6. As part of the agreement, the Defense Department would set up an office within the Pentagon to provide administrative support in transferring soldiers from the military to the VA hospital system.

That it took a series of major articles in the Post to elevate public awareness of such issues has generated some additional bitterness with veterans groups and others that say they have for years been complaining to military officials and members of Congress about administrative and budgeting problems in the military and Veterans Health Administration healthcare system.

“I don’t want to blame the media for this, but it’s like, ‘Where were you guys when we were screaming up and down, sending press releases last year, the year before, the year before that?’” said Joyce. “It’s not sexy for you guys to cover it before there’s been a huge scandal?”

Major Rebecca Leggieri, a public affairs officer in the US Army’s community relations division of Army public affairs, said she’s couldn’t comment on the communications challenge of the Defense Department as a whole in the face of the scandal, but said that that inquiries from veterans groups coming into her department before and after the articles began emerging have generally been accusatory.

She said that representatives of the veterans groups, while they may express anger toward Army leadership, basically want to know how they can assist with solving the existing problems: “They’ve used words like ‘outraged’ and ‘deeply angry’ but it’s not anger at the Army [overall], it’s more a sense of injustice, of ‘how can soldiers be treated like that?’” Leggieri said.

Evaluating the Army’s initial attempts to downplay the size and scope of the problem – the former Army secretary complained that reporters were not telling “the other side of the story.”

But Loren Thompson, a defense analyst and COO at the Lexington Institute think tank, said that complaints lobbied at the military for years about the state of the hospitals probably made the military leadership complaisant.

“When something has been an issue for a long time and has not generated major press coverage, you tend to assume that one more article won’t make a difference,” Thompson said. “But in this case it produced a real firestorm, partly because a Democratic majority now controls Congress, partly because there’s a new secretary of defense, and partly because with the war going badly, people are looking for further evidence of mismanagement in the military.”

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