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Walter Reed Ex-Patient, Wife Speak Out on Poor Conditions at Army’s Top Medical Facility

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The Army’s Vice Chief of Staff General Richard Cody admitted on Wednesday there has been a “breakdown in leadership” at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. His comments came three days after The Washington Post revealed that hospital rooms at Walter Reed were infested with mouse droppings, cockroaches, stained carpets, rodents and black mold. We speak with a former Walter Reed patient, the wife of another patient, and a Salon.com reporter who documented the problems at Walter Reed two years ago. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: A top Army general admitted on Wednesday there’s been a “breakdown in leadership” at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. The comments of General Richard Cody, the Army’s vice chief of staff, came three days after The Washington Post revealed that hospital rooms at Walter Reed were infested with mouse droppings, cockroaches, stained carpets, rodents and black mold. General Cody said no one has been fired or relieved of command because of the neglected facility, but he vowed that the Army would immediately fix the problems.

GENERAL RICHARD CODY: I have never been made aware of Building 18, its condition or complaints by any of our wounded warriors over the last five years. That is not an excuse by any shape or form. Clearly, we’ve had a breakdown in leadership, and a bureaucratic, medical and contractual processes bog down a speedy solution to these problems. I can assure you that the appropriate vigor and leadership is being applied to this issue, and we will correct any problems immediately.

JUAN GONZALEZ: General Richard Cody, the Army’s vice chief of staff. While The Washington Post investigation has attracted the attention of President Bush and top Army officials, it is not the first time the press has exposed problems at Walter Reed. Two years ago, Salon.com began publishing a series of articles by Mark Benjamin on how soldiers receiving outpatient treatment for mental wounds were suffering from a shocking pattern of neglect. This is Mark Benjamin speaking on Democracy Now! in March 2005.

MARK BENJAMIN: What I found was that at Walter Reed there’s an interesting thing going on, and this seems to be the case at other military facilities. Soldiers from this war who suffer acute wounds, amputees, head injuries, bullet wounds, you know, people that are blown up by roadside bombs, get excellent, excellent medical care, or that’s what they report to me. They get off those battlefields very, very quickly. They’re bought back to Walter Reed. You’ll see them — you will see their good news stories on TV, where reporters are allowed to see them rehabilitating there at Walter Reed. What is interesting about that is that soldiers who are hurt in their mind, soldiers who have debilitating, really scary post-traumatic stress disorder — we’re talking about people that are acutely homicidal, acutely suicidal after what they’ve seen or had to do in Iraq — their treatment, the way they describe their treatment at Walter Reed is extremely substandard. They don’t get the kind of therapy they deserve. They don’t get one-on-one therapy. They don’t — they’re treated by not even doctors, they’re medical students, and the entire time that they’re at Walter Reed, the Army seems to be more bent on trying to determine that their problems were not, in fact, caused by the war and that, in fact, these soldiers were just crazy of their own accord.

AMY GOODMAN: Mark Benjamin, the national correspondent of Salon.com, speaking on Democracy Now! in March of 2005, almost two years ago. At the time, Walter Reed officials refused to discuss _Salon_’s findings. Instead, they issued a statement, saying, “We are satisfied that there is a very high level of patient satisfaction with their treatment.”

Mark Benjamin joins us now live from Washington, D.C. And joining us on the phone from Knoxville, Tennessee, we have retired Army veteran, First Lieutenant Jullian Goodrum. He was treated at Walter Reed for two years. And we’re also joined on the phone from Chesterfield, South Carolina, by Annette McLeod, wife of National Guardsman Dell McLeod, who was treated for almost a year at Walter Reed. We welcome you all to Democracy Now!

Mark Benjamin, can you start by responding to what The Washington Post has exposed and the Army’s response?

MARK BENJAMIN: Well, I think The Washington Post did an excellent job of covering two subjects. One is the obvious dilapidation of some of the facilities of Walter Reed, which is a problem there for the outpatients. And also I think that they did a good job of exposing how soldiers — and I think Lieutenant Goodrum — I know his case relatively well — can describe, which is where people are — particularly people with injuries that aren’t as obvious, you know, people that don’t have a leg missing, but people who are suffering from, say, post-traumatic stress disorder, can really languish there at Walter Reed for, in some cases, years while they’re struggling to get proper treatment, proper care and proper compensation for their injuries. So, I think they did a good job.

I think with respect to the response from the military, to be completely frank, it has me rather concerned. And there’s a lot of discussion from the Pentagon about taking care of this mice and mold problem, which, of course, there shouldn’t be mice, you know, in a building where soldiers are recuperating. That, to me, to be completely frank, is a bit of a red herring. I mean, you know, fixing the mold in one building is just not what’s really the big problem here. What is the big problem, as far as I can tell, among the soldiers who are recuperating there, is they want to be promptly treated for their problems, promptly and accurately diagnosed for their problems, and they want to be fairly compensated for their injuries, which are service-related. That is the nasty bureaucracy that The Washington Post uncovered.

And I’m, to be completely frank, really concerned that the way that the military so far has responded to this is, “We’re going to throw some more paint up on the walls, we’re going to fix that in this one building, Building 18.” That’s great and wonderful, and, of course, those soldiers seem to deserve that, but the real problem here is a system that, if you don’t, as I said two years ago, if you have an injury that is not obvious, a traumatic brain injury, which can be extremely debilitating — Annette can talk about that — or post-traumatic stress disorder, which, yes, can be very dangerous — and I think Lieutenant Goodrum can talk about that — those are the kinds of soldiers who want to be treated and want to be compensated and are fighting and fighting unfairly to get that.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Mark, in terms of this whole issue of once they’re there at Walter Reed, often — I’ve interviewed soldiers who have waited months and months in the battle over determining the extent of compensation and how much of a disability they will have. It becomes a huge and drawn-out process and a battle for them. What could be done to change that whole procedure?

MARK BENJAMIN: I’m glad you asked that. To me, that’s one of the most important issues. It’s not as sexy, as I said, as the mice and mold issue, but there is a fundamental problem, or my reporting seems to show a fundamental problem. The way it works is, when you are injured or hurt serving in Iraq, for example, and you come back to a place like Walter Reed, two things are happening at the same time, and the Army is trying to do both. On the one hand, the Army is trying to help you heal, to treat, for example, your post-traumatic stress disorder. On the other hand, the same Army is trying to make a determination about how much money the Pentagon is going to pay that soldier, perhaps for the rest of their life. Now, the Army’s mission, you have to understand, is to take ground and hold it. The Army’s mission, frankly, is not to compensate veterans for their service. So what we have is essentially a conflict of interest. The Army is trying to do both at the same time: save money for bullets and bombs on the backs of veterans, and also treat them and compensate them. So it’s this strange problem.

And my reporting suggests that those two missions are conflicted, and the person who is suffering is the veteran. So the veteran is — essentially their medical care is getting mixed up in their compensation. A simple example is somebody who appears to have post-traumatic stress disorder, ends up getting diagnosed as something called personality disorder not otherwise specified. In other words, “It’s not our fault you have mental problems; it’s your fault. You came to the Army that way.” I see that all the time. To be totally honest, if I could wave a magic wand, I would take the ability of the Army to be in the business of compensating soldiers out of their hands. I just don’t think they should be — just as my reporting suggests, they shouldn’t be in the business at all. You know, let the VA do it, an organization that is dedicated solely to treating and compensating veterans, because, frankly, I just think the Army is conflicted here about handing out money.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to First Lieutenant Jullian Goodrum, treated at Ward 54 in Walter Reed for two years. Mark wrote a piece about you, and it begins, “Groucho Marx once said that military justice is to justice what military music is to music. Lt. Jullian Goodrum laughs at that quote. ’It’s crazy,’ the 35-year-old Army reservist and Iraq vet says about his knock-down, drag-out fight with the Army. It pushed him to the edge, physically, emotionally and financially. 'I have to laugh. Otherwise, I'd go crazy,’ he says.” Well, First Lieutenant Jullian Goodrum, Mark Benjamin is writing about you. Tell us what happened to you.

FIRST LT. JULLIAN GOODRUM: Yes, ma’am. Good morning, and thank you for having me on the show. To my dismay, and to be honest, I still have problems actually believing what I encountered was actually true. But, unfortunately, I was caught in a — or I actually found myself in a system that basically, as far as treating soldiers, was illegal and unethical, as far as, for myself, trying to receive the proper and mainstream medical care and also to be diagnosed properly and to be rated justly and fairly.

I’ll give one example. During my stay at Walter Reed, during one time I came, I had homicidal tendencies. I went to my treating psychiatrist and told him, “Hey, I’m having some real serious problems here. I’m thinking about killing.” And his response was, “There’s nothing I can do for you. You will be held fully accountable for your actions.” So, on that note, I sought treatment at a local vet center, which is ran by the VA in Silver Springs, Maryland.

Another great, great example of the medical board, another psychiatrist I had — unfortunately, you obtain psychiatrists as probably — they rotate every three, four months. But one of them kept asking me about alcohol. Did I drink? Did I drink? Did I drink? I kept saying, no, no, no, no. And after he rotated on, I came under care of a civilian psychiatrist at Walter Reed, and I told her the conversation. And she said, “Good for you.” She said, “This is what they do. If they can get you or prove that you drink, even just one or two beers, they’ll put you in a” — the Army, there’s a three-week alcohol program at Walter Reed. From that, that documentation goes in your medical file, and most patients with PTSD have a dual diagnoses of major depression disorder. So when the board is looking at a percent for rating you for a major depression, they’ll see the form in there that you was in an alcohol problem. They’ll turn to the doctor, say, “Doctor, can a depression be” — excuse me —- “Can alcohol cause depression?” They’ll say yes. “OK, his depression is self-induced. Zero percent.” So that’s just several examples of things a soldier faces. You know, for example -—

AMY GOODMAN: First Lieutenant Jullian Goodrum, we have to break. But when we come back, I want to ask what happened when you sought treatment at a civilian hospital and how the military then responded. First Lieutenant Jullian Goodrum was treated at Ward 54 in Walter Reed for two years. We’ll also be back with Mark Benjamin and speak with the wife of a soldier who was treated at Walter Reed for almost a year. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking about the revelations that The Washington Post has just revealed in a series of investigations of Walter Reed Hospital. We’re talking to Mark Benjamin, who had been focusing on Walter Reed Hospital now for years, along with First Lieutenant Jullian Goodrum, treated at Ward 54 in Walter Reed for two years.

Now, when you left after being dissatisfied with the treatment at Walter Reed, Jullian Goodrum, you went to a Knoxville, Tennessee psychiatric hospital, a civilian hospital. The Army subsequently accused you of desertion, because you had been turned away from the military hospital but went into a civilian hospital?

FIRST LT. JULLIAN GOODRUM: That’s absolutely correct. Actually I was — which they confirmed through medical documentation and testimony, that I was denied medical treatment at Fort Knox, Kentucky, but it was a misunderstanding. When I sought treatment, I was in the midst of what I know now to be a point of dysfunction, otherwise known as a nervous breakdown. I sought treatment at an in-patient psychiatric hospital in Knoxville, Tennessee, which received great care, and they was able to get me stable in a week, week and a half. But from that, the Army was contacted that I was in-patient, my diagnoses, but yet they still considered me AWOL. And I actually had at one time alleged charges for a desertion.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Lieutenant, you had been in the military 16 years. Is that correct?


JUAN GONZALEZ: And one of the things I’ve heard from many veterans is that sometimes the whole situation of their medical treatment is used sometimes as retaliation against possible things that may have happened while in the military. I know Mark Benjamin at one point wrote a piece that said that you had blasted superiors for misdeeds that you said cost a soldier’s life. Did that have anything to do, in your sense, with the way you were being treated?

FIRST LT. JULLIAN GOODRUM: Yes. The evidence, as far as Army documentation and email, definitely gives the appearance — at the minimum, the appearance that my safety concerns and equipment concerns in Iraq was part of the foundation for their illegal and unethical behavior. Personally, I say yes.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Mark Benjamin, have you found that to be the case with some of the other soldiers you’ve interviewed, the use of retaliation in terms of the way that soldiers are dealt with in terms of medical treatment?

MARK BENJAMIN: Well, certainly, I think what Lieutenant Goodrum is talking about is when a soldier who has a stellar career sees something that they think is wrong in the theater, say, in Iraq and tries to alert superiors and tries to do the right thing and ends up resulting, in this case, in the death of a young soldier, and in Goodrum’s case, which I think is very well documented, it ends up that there’s a lot retribution against the soldier, and it’s carried out through his medical care, and it’s carried out through charging him with AWOL for trying to go get psychiatric care. I think those cases are relatively unusual. They do happen. I mean, being a whistleblower in the military, stepping up and doing, frankly, what officers are taught to do, which is blow the whistle when things get out of hand, yes, there are serious, serious cases of retaliation, and you do come across them.

I think the bigger problem, though — and I think Lieutenant Goodrum can speak to both of those — is you have those situations where you have somebody who tries to blow the whistle about dangerous equipment or lack of equipment, and so on and so forth, but then you get into this other issue of this frightening sort of bureaucracy, where the military is, A, trying treat you and, B, trying to determine if they can compensate you — and I think a lot of soldiers would say “not compensate” you by trying to save money, and doing those at the same time. And when you mix all that stuff together — for example, in Lieutenant Goodrum’s case, you have a very nasty recipe, where soldiers are both being retaliated against and struggling against a bureaucracy that is set out to primarily — or my reporting suggests — primarily save money on long-term disability payments and not so much emphasizing medical care.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring in Annette McLeod into this conversation, wife of Dell McLeod. Before he was deployed to Iraq, he worked in the rural steel and textile mills of South Carolina. Can you talk about what has happened to your husband since returning from Iraq?

ANNETTE McLEOD: My husband is no longer the man that he was when I married him. It’s almost like the day that he was injured, he actually died and had rebirth as a different man.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you elaborate? Can you tell us what happened when he came back, when he started his treatment at Walter Reed Hospital?

ANNETTE McLEOD: Well, before the accident, my husband was very easygoing. He was well liked, very quiet, very laughable. He would laugh at just the least little thing. Now, he’s angry. He’s aggressive. It’s like I told his psychiatrist and his psychologist, it’s almost like he’s angry, and he vents everything toward me. It’s like I don’t know him anymore. He’s angry at the system, but he knows he’s powerless. At the same time, he knows that if something’s not done, he’s not going to recuperate.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Could you tell us a little bit what was the nature of his injury? I understand that he suffered some brain damage. What happened in Iraq? And then, when he came back to the hospital, what kind of treatment he got?

ANNETTE McLEOD: Well, he was pulling inventory on an 18-wheeler. And first of all, the door was strapped off by a hamburger bun sack, instead of the nylon straps that they’re supposed to use. He was pulling the inventory, when the wind got behind the door, and the door actually struck him, sending him airborne through the air. From that, they didn’t realize that he had a brain injury, didn’t bother to check, didn’t bother to run x-rays. They did, however, run x-rays of the lower back at the time. He was not medevaced immediately. He was put on watch in quarters, so that he — because he couldn’t lift anything. He couldn’t move.

When he come back to Walter Reed, he was never in-patient. The day that I saw him, it was like — by talking to him, I knew something was wrong. He was very argumentative. It was almost like you had to prove everything to him. He was angry. He was always looking for — at me like I was the enemy. And this was the guy that — we just celebrated our 21st anniversary. So when you don’t know somebody anymore, something’s wrong. And I tried to tell them at Walter Reed. I talked to his social worker, I talked to his case manager, I talked to his doctors. And I kept telling them, I said, “Something is wrong. This is not my husband.”

AMY GOODMAN: Annette, Anne Hull and Dana Priest of The Washington Post began one of their pieces, their exposés, called “Injured Vets Now Battle for Benefits,” with the story of your husband Dell. They say, “One day he’s led on stage at a Toby Keith concert with dozens of other wounded Operation Iraqi Freedom troops from Mologne House, and the next he’s sitting in a cluttered cubbyhole at Walter Reed, fighting the Army for every penny of his disability.” What is your major concern right now? What are you demanding of the Army and Walter Reed?

ANNETTE McLEOD: Well, we were fortunate. By the help of a staffer, he got 50 percent from the Army. However, they did not rate his brain injury. They rated the cognitive dysfunction from the brain injury, and he got more for anxiety than he did for any of the other injuries. However, their thinking is — they rated him 30 percent for the anxiety. They would not classify him as PTSD. The thing is, they’re saying that this may get better with time, and then if it does so-called in time, then he’ll wind up with nothing.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Annette McLeod, we’re going to leave it there. We thank you very much for being with us. But we do want to follow what happens with your husband Dell McLeod, who has been treated at Walter Reed for almost a year. First Lieutenant Jullian Goodrum, thanks so much for being with us, treated at Ward 54 in Walter Reed for two years. And Mark Benjamin, national correspondent at salon.com, thank you.

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