Wednesday, August 16, 2006

American soldiers in Iraq have suffered severe brain injuries in proportions unknown in previous wars. Congressional appropriators and Pentagon officials typically say all the right things about ensuring the best treatment possible. But then they produce defense appropriations legislation that halves funding for the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center, a joint Pentagon-Veterans Affairs program headquartered at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, from $14 million to $7 million. This is unacceptable. Pentagon officials and congressional appropriators have missed a colossal opportunity to do the right thing.

The center, founded in 1992, treats battlefield-wounded veterans who sustained traumatic brain injuries, suffered largely in improvised-explosive device blasts. As we’ve recounted in this space previously, brain-injured service members sometimes get shuffled from hospital to hospital because their injuries — including and especially traumatic brain injury — are often beyond the ken of doctors and therapists accustomed to treating World War II and Vietnam veterans.

“Honestly, they would have loved to fund it, but there were just so many priorities,” a Senate Appropriations Committee staffer told USA Today, which broke the story last week.

This week, The Washington Times gave the committee a chance to clarify this obviously short-sighted explanation. Here’s what a committee staffer told us: “We understand the importance of this program, but additional funding for it was not requested or justified,” reads the e-mail. “There were many competing priorities and important programs that also needed funding.” And in truth the Pentagon looms large in defense appropriations, so we contacted a Defense Department spokesman for comment. We received no response by deadline. The VA, for its part, referred us back to the Pentagon. We called Walter Reed’s public affairs office, but it has no chief spokesman right now, so it referred us to the Army Medical Research and Materiel Command. The command also referred us back to a Pentagon spokesman.

A cut for brain-injury programs would be outrageous, especially in light of the many lower-priority projects now emerging in bills under consideration. For instance, the Labor, Health and Human Services appropriations bill and its 1,867 earmarks contain more than $5 million for projects in Washington, including $500,000 for the InTune Foundation Group’s music-education programs; $100,000 “for digitization and technology” at the Georgetown Visitation Monastery; and $150,000 for the Washington National Opera’s trips to Maryland schools. The defense bill itself contains $4.5 million for the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Foundation in Manhattan, which bills itself as “privately-operated.” We don’t mean to denigrate any of these appropriations, but what about soldiers with brain injuries? Add the fact that $7 million is a rounding error in a $468 billion bill and the explanation begins to look insulting.

It’s not as if some back story can excuse this. The expected closing of Walter Reed in 2011 did not factor into this decision, according to the committee. There are no plans, at least among appropriators, to transfer the money to other brain-injury centers in Palo Alto, Calif., Richmond, Va., Tampa, Fla., or four other sites after Walter Reed closes.

This episode suggests a pervasive unwillingness to aggressively improve treatment for soldiers with brain injuries coming home from Iraq. It is disgraceful. Fortunately for Republicans, Senate Democrats temporarily derailed the bill two weeks ago for unrelated reasons. Use the opportunity to fix this problem, so our soldiers can heal. It’s the least we can do for the men and women who have put their lives on the line.

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