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.
...Vera Heron spent 15 frustrating months living on post to help care for her son. "It just absolutely took forever to get anything done," Heron said. "They do the paperwork, they lose the paperwork. Then they have to redo the paperwork. You are talking about guys and girls whose lives are disrupted for the rest of their lives, and they don't put any priority on it."
...Life beyond the hospital bed is a frustrating mountain of paperwork. The typical soldier is required to file 22 documents with eight different commands -- most of them off-post -- to enter and exit the medical processing world, according to government investigators. Sixteen different information systems are used to process the forms, but few of them can communicate with one another. The Army's three personnel databases cannot read each other's files and can't interact with the separate pay system or the medical recordkeeping databases.
...At Walter Reed, however, outpatients have been drafted to serve as platoon sergeants and have struggled with their responsibilities. Sgt. David Thomas, a 42-year-old amputee with the Tennessee National Guard, said his platoon sergeant couldn't remember his name. "We wondered if he had mental problems," Thomas said. "Sometimes I'd wear my leg, other times I'd take my wheelchair. He would think I was a different person. We thought, 'My God, has this man lost it?'
And in a complementary article in today's Washington Post:
McLeod, 41, has lived at Mologne House for a year while the Army figures out what to do with him. He worked in textile and steel mills in rural South Carolina before deploying. Now he takes 23 pills a day, prescribed by various doctors at Walter Reed. Crowds frighten him. He is too anxious to drive. When panic strikes, a soldier friend named Oscar takes him to Baskin-Robbins for vanilla ice cream.
"They find ways to soothe each other," Annette says.
Mostly what the soldiers do together is wait: for appointments, evaluations, signatures and lost paperwork to be found. It's like another wife told Annette McLeod: "If Iraq don't kill you, Walter Reed will."
That we as a people have allowed this to unfold, have allowed our soldiers to wallow in such conditions after they have fought and been wounded on far-flung battlefields, is disgusting, inexcusable, and brings shame upon our nation. Please write your member of Congress, your local newspaper, and the President, and tell them so. Only constant attention and the light of day can possibly hope to change their circumstances.
And as today's news indicates, the wounded won't stop coming anytime soon:
Insurgents launched a brazen coordinated attack on a U.S. combat post Monday, sending in a suicide bomber and clashing with American troops. Two U.S. soldiers were killed and 17 wounded, the military said.
The assault began with a suicide bomber exploding a vehicle outside the base north of Baghdad, said the military statement. It gave no further details beyond the number of dead and wounded.
Such attacks are proof that the insurgents themselves will have something to say about the success of the "surge" in Iraq. Though I suppose one could argue that these soldiers didn't defend themselves very well because they were demoralized be the debate on the war at home.
UPDATE: The military has updated the number of soldiers killed in yesterday's attack to three.