- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 4, 2007

Poor treatment of injured Iraq veterans is finally getting the high-level attention it deserves. What was no secret among Iraq veterans and readers of this page is now an explosive political issue which on Friday cost Secretary of the Army Francis Harvey and Walter Reed Army Medical Center head Maj. Gen. George Weightman their jobs. This shouldn’t play out according to the usual Washington scandal script. To do right by our soldiers, the whole system, not just Walter Reed, must be put on a better course. The good news is that the stars are aligned politically for President Bush and the Democratic Congress to do something about it. It’s time to test everybody’s favorite mantra of “I support the troops.”

For starters, this problem is much bigger than mushrooms and rats in shoddy Walter Reed dorms or paperwork irregularities. Last March, we called on the Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs to greatly increase their joint efforts for injured and traumatized Iraq veterans, so that “at least one or two facilities offer all types of excellent care for veterans with multiple severe injuries.”

Do it. The timing is already too late for some Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, but no moment could ever be more politically opportune. In the same editorial one year ago, we recounted the travails of the severely injured Army Sgt. Edward Wade, whose brain damage, arm loss and other serious injuries required that he and his wife Sarah travel up and down the East Coast dozens of times to tens of medical facilities, none of which could handle all his injuries at the same time. This needs to end. It wastes irreplaceable time in the most critical period on the road to recovery.

The crux of the issue is that the Pentagon and Department of Defense simply were not prepared for the types of unprecedented serious injuries being sustained in Iraq. This is most tragically evident in the lack of facilities to handle all the kinds of injuries common to soldiers fighting in the Iraq war. After the battlefield, Walter Reed, Texas’ Brook Army Medical Center and a handful of so-called “polytrauma” centers are the best chance for a seriously wounded veteran today to make strides toward recovery. The bipartisan commission the White House has promised should figure out what works at these centers and then expand it to the rest of the Veterans Affairs network.

Inexplicably, Congress still shows few signs that it truly understands the problem. The remedies much discussed this week, courtesy of Democratic Sens. Claire McCaskill and Barack Obama, are laughable if they are intended to solve the systemic problems. They are a bandaid on a gaping wound. The senators call for simplifying paperwork, hiring more caseworkers and improving their training, requiring more oversight from inspectors general, improved reporting to Congress, establishing facility-repair timelines and increasing psychological counseling. It pains us to cry cynical politics because these measures would be worthy and welcome, but they are too small-bore and reactive to make a significant difference. This is classic scandal legislation which makes the sponsor look good but does little to solve the issue.

The politics of this issue point in only one direction — serious attention from both the executive and legislative branches. If Mr. Bush and the Democratic Congress fail to attack the root systemic problems, they have only themselves to blame for failing our service members.

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