Long before the uproar over the long-term medical care of troops returning home from Iraq made it fashionable to advocate for veterans rights, Sen. Patty Murray was on the front lines.
The Washington Democrat’s father, a disabled World War II veteran, used a wheelchair most of his life. At 19, she volunteered in a veterans psychiatric ward during the Vietnam War. But nothing, Murray said, compares to what she is seeing now.
“It’s just amazing to me that we are now in the fifth year of this war and this administration is still not ready for the large number of soldiers coming home — to help them navigate the system and give them medical attention they need,” she said in an interview in the Capitol.
Murray — the first woman to sit on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, was tapped by Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to take the lead on veterans care in her caucus. That means she gets thousands of e-mails from hurting soldiers and she briefs her colleagues every week.
“The mistake would be to call this just a Walter Reed problem,” she said. A Washington Post series last month detailed conditions at a Walter Reed Army Medical Center facility, including mold and dilapidated rooms. “If we just go up there and paint the walls and move people out of the building at Walter Reed,” Murray said, “we have ignored thousands of men and women who are sitting in facilities that are equally troubling.”
She’s all too conscious that President Bush is scheduled to visit Walter Reed tomorrow for the first time since the scandal erupted. She visited yesterday to get a firsthand view. She said she found impressive care by dedicated doctors and nurses, but also gravely injured soldiers trying to navigate a “bureaucratic nightmare” as they try to fathom their next step.
“They are very worried they are going to get lost again after all the publicity dies down,” she said. “It’s a very vivid image for them to see us drive away.”
Murray contends that the reason returning soldiers and veterans are getting such poor care is that the Bush administration failed to adequately prepare for the aftermath and length of this war.
“We haven’t projected the cost for medical care in anticipation of where we will be 10 years from now,” she said. “If we have 200,000 brain-injured adults today, they will still need care 10 years from now.”
The closest estimate, she said, came when ABC’s Bob Woodruff — who received a serious head injury in Iraq — confronted Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson in an interview with research showing that 200,000 veterans may have been treated for injuries from Afghanistan and Iraq. Nicholson was widely ridiculed by the left for saying that many of those veterans merely “come in for dental problems.”
“Oh, come on,” Murray scoffed. ” ‘Dental problems?’ “
“I think there is a country here ready to take pride and ownership of these soldiers and take care of them,” she said, “but they are not being told what is happening.”