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Welch, Sanders call for expanded probe of Walter Reed hospital

By Shay Totten | Vermont Guardian

Posted March 1, 2007

BURLINGTON — Rep. Peter Welch, D-VT, has enlisted 41 of his fellow first-year members of Congress — 41 Democrats and one Republican — to call for an independent investigation of the reports of poor care and housing at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Meanwhile, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-VT, a member of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, visited Walter Reed and met with staff, soldiers, and their family members. Following his visit, he signed onto legislation aimed at fixing the problems at Walter Reed.

Two weeks ago, the Washington Post reported that living conditions for soldiers in some outpatient clinics were degraded.

Sanders, in a national radio show interview today, called the living conditions similar to that of a “cheap motel.”

In advance of Congressional hearings that begin Monday, Welch and others are asking the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) to investigate "the adequacy of the administration's long term plans to provide the full range of necessary services for veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars while continuing to care for veterans of previous wars." The GAO is an independent non-partisan arm of the federal government.

Welch, like Sanders, has signed on as a co-sponsor of the so-called “Dignity in Care for Wounded Warriers Act,” sponsored by Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-IL, in the House. The Senate bill was introduced by Sen. Barack Obama, D-IL, and Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-MO.

The legislation would ensure that wounded service members receive the treatment, care and services they deserve by requiring improved inspections; reduce red tape for recovering service members; provide improved counseling for service members and their families; and improve support for families of recovering service members. The bill would also create an oversight group to monitor the progress and ensure that the nation's recovering service members receive the highest quality of care possible, Sanders said.

“The conditions brought to light in the recent Washington Post series on the residential facilities are appalling and absolutely unacceptable. The brave men and women who have served this country deserve the best medical and mental health care available and this legislation will help ensure that they receive the treatment and services they deserve,” Sanders said in a statement. “Sadly, these problems at America’s flagship military hospital are symptomatic of the absolute failure of the Administration to provide the care and benefits that our current service members and our veterans have earned through their sacrifice for the nation.”

During his visit to the Walter Reed Medical Center, Sanders examined the conditions at the center and visited with the wife of Sgt. Archie Benware, an injured service member from Bethel, who is currently receiving treatment at Walter Reed.

On Monday, the first congressional hearings on Walter Reed will be held — at the hospital.

Welch, who serves on the National Security and Foreign Affairs subcommittee, requested a congressional hearing on the reports of care and conditions initially uncovered by the Post.

Rep. John Tierney, D-MA, who is the chairman of the subcommittee, has scheduled hearings for 10 a.m. on Monday on the grounds of the hospital. Welch had recommended the hearings be held onsite so members could meet with patients and staff.

On Feb. 21, Welch urged Rep. Henry Waxman, D-CA, chairman of the House Government Oversight and Reform Committee, to investigate the reports of "appalling and unacceptable reports" of outpatient care.

Since then, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has indicated the Department of Defense will conduct an investigation and yesterday the hospital’s chief administrator was fired. His replacement is someone who held the top post up until 2004 and is believed to also have known about the problems at the hospital, according to a report that aired on National Public Radio.

Welch said he hopes the Congressional hearings will provide some answers about under whose watch these conditions were allowed to persist.

“It seems that they are scapegoating and that this situation has been going on for some time, and that there has been a significant systemic negligence and a culture of disregard for these abominable conditions,” Welch said.

Welch plans to meet Sunday with Tierney to talk about the witness list, and the questions that members will ask witnesses.

His interests fall into two categories, Welch said.

“My immediate interest are how was it allowed that this culture of disregard was created an persisted,” said Welch. “The level of degradation shows that is not an isolated incident, but suggests there was a systemic failure and extraordinarily abusive treatment of our returning soldiers.”

He also concerned about a recent report in Army Times that claimed soldiers were being pressured into not filing complaints, or speaking to the media about conditions in the hospital.

“I want to know: Are these recent reports of soldiers who are speaking out being punished or told not to speak out true? If so, it’s unacceptable,” he said, noting that patients and employees should be allowed to blow the whistle on poor conditions without fear of retribution.

Welch said the “wounded warriers” bill, if passed, would fund improvements at the hospital, among other things, which is one solution.

More importantly, however, the GAO report he and others have requested could better determine how prepared the Bush administration is for a surge in wounded troops.

“Under the current budget proposal there are cuts proposed to veterans’ services, and we need to know that what that would do to our ability to meet the demand for new services and meeting existing obligations,” said Welch.

The bigger question on whether to fund the ongoing war and occupation in Iraq remains a hotly debated issue, especially among Democrats, Welch said.

“Anything right now to bring an end to the war is going to emerge from the supplemental budget bill,” said Welch, referring to the legislation that the Bush administration hopes to provide funding for its so-called troop surge, and the ongoing occupation of Iraq.

“There are a variety of different proposals that are being considered,” said Welch. One, being offered by Rep. Jack Murtha, D-PA, would effectively stop the surge in its tracks, he said.

Welch said while Democrats are united against the troop surge, a unified plan has not emerged on how best to end the war. But, he’s hopeful.

“My preference would be that we make it clear that we are going to end the war, set a date and the money we spend in the budget is about redeployment and departure rather than escalation and continuation of the conflict,” said Welch. “This is a civil war and it’s not the responsibility of the American military or the burden of the American taxpayer to be in the middle of it.”

Welch said he is arguing for an aggressive move to fund political and diplomatic efforts rather than a military one.

“Everyone wants to support the troops, and I believe, as do many others, that we need to use the budget as a way to bring them home but others are still apprehensive about using the power of the purse,” Welch said.