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Senator Says Army is the Problem, Marines Watch Over their Own

BTW, his committee noted in 1995 that GWS was more common in those who were vaccinated.--Nass

Charleston Daily Mail
Jay calls treatment of vets a tragedy
Senator says Army is the problem; Navy, Marines watch over their own
Jake Stump Daily Mail Staff

U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller equates the Walter Reed Army Medical Center scandal to a volcano ready to erupt.

Reports of rodent- and cockroach-infested conditions, stained carpets, black mold and insufficient heat and water at the Army's premier hospital have incited uproar among veterans, families and politicians.

Those accounts of neglect don't surprise Rockefeller, D-W.Va., a longstanding member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.

Rockefeller says this scandal represents just a slice of a larger problem -- the federal government's general disregard for veterans.

He said in a telephone interview that he believes Army veterans are especially neglected and that the Department of Defense -- not the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs -- is largely to blame.

"The Marines and Navy, they watch over their vets closely," Rockefeller said. "The Army kind of lets them go. You'll find people wandering around Water Reed who can't get medical appointments."

Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland is the top medical center for the U.S. Navy. Rockefeller suspects the naval hospital is more accommodating to its patients than Walter Reed, which is in Washington, D.C.

In addition to highlighting the conditions at the Army hospital, The Washington Post also recently outlined the bureaucratic nightmare that wounded or sick soldiers face.

A typical soldier must file 22 documents with eight different commands to enter and exit medical processing. Forms are processed by 16 different information systems, but the Army's three personnel databases can't even interact with each other.

Some soldiers receiving care have had to prove they served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Maj. Gen. George Weightman, who headed the hospital for only six months, was fired in the wake of the stories. Secretary of the Army Francis Harvey was forced to resign from his position.

Rockefeller says officials who lose their jobs amid the scandal deserve it.

"I'm all for it," he said. "It makes a point."

Rockefeller said he hopes these actions are a first step in fixing the broad range of problems plaguing the country's combat veterans.

The senator returns to West Virginia several times a year to meet with residents who have fought in various wars. These meetings are private, as Rockefeller never discloses them to the public or media. He doesn't even let his staffers in on the meetings.

"Sometimes they're Afghanistan or Iraq vets, sometimes they're Vietnam vets," Rockefeller said. "They put on their Arnold Schwarzenegger glasses to figure out if I'm real or not.

"The veterans usually warm up to the senator after a bit, although he sometimes delves into territory they would rather avoid."

After an hour, one of them might say, ‘Hey. Stop right there. You got to a level where I can't handle that pain,' " Rockefeller said.

These interactions -- understanding their problems -- can be just as important as knowing what type of care they're receiving at Walter Reed, he said.

"They go through hell and probably will the rest of their lives," Rockefeller said.

"Sometimes they feel guilty it wasn't them that was killed, or they wake up after being sound asleep and think everyone in the house is an Iraqi ready to kill them.

"The real question is not necessarily what happens at Walter Reed," the senator said.

The Department of Defense has been the real culprit in ignoring veterans' needs, Rockefeller contends.

During the Persian Gulf War, soldiers were given a chemical called pyridostigmine bromide in pill form to prevent harm from exposure to the nerve agent soman. It was believed that soman, which shuts down the function of muscles and the brain, could have been used in a chemical attack on military personnel.

Pyridostigmine bromide, often called PB, was never approved by the Federal Drug Administration. It wasn't even tested on animals.

The Pentagon itself in 1999 said the drug could be linked to Gulf War Syndrome, with symptoms that include chronic fatigue, headaches, skin problems and muscle pain.

Rockefeller said he hired his own staff to research PB and soon came to know veterans who were told to take the drug daily.

One of the veterans was a woman from South Charleston who was experiencing loss of muscle control in her arm.

"I saw men and women who developed such lassitude," Rockefeller said. "They couldn't get up in the morning or read newspapers. Some had blotches on their faces. Some lost their day jobs.

"When American forces bombed the southern village of Camassia in Iraq, a cache of chemical weapons exploded. It was later determined that the PB drug given to soldiers had no effect in combating exposure to those chemicals.

The federal government didn't do its homework on the drug when issuing it to soldiers, Rockefeller insists.

After returning home, several soldiers began experiencing symptoms. At veterans' hospitals, doctors would literally tell veterans to "go home and take aspirin," Rockefeller said.

Agent Orange, the herbicide and defoliant widely sprayed on dense jungle areas and waterways during the Vietnam War, is another product that is believed to have caused harm to soldiers.

Veterans affected by the herbicide weren't compensated until the death of an admiral's son brought the issue to light.

Retired Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, a U.S. Navy commander in Vietnam who actually ordered the spraying of Agent Orange, blamed the defoliant for the death of his son, who had Hodgkin's disease and rare lymphoma."It was used as a defoliant, but it defoliated a lot of lives," Rockefeller said.

At a Walter Reed hearing this week, Rockefeller asked why the Veterans Administration and Department of Defense didn't share records with one another. He discovered that the Department of Defense actually keeps some soldiers' files on paper only.

The department does not keep computerized medical records, he said.

"What an absolutely incredible lack of communication, and frankly, a total indifference shown by the DOD to its soldiers once they are finished with them," Rockefeller said.

Perhaps the Walter Reed controversy will shift focus to the treatment and care of returning soldiers rather than sending more into combat, he said.

"The strongest point I can make is that not one dime for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is coming from the federal budget," Rockefeller said.

"It's all borrowed, mostly from Japan, South Korea and European banks. If it's borrowed, you don't have to worry about anything. You've got all you need. But the V.A. has to live within a budget and live by it."

There's an American instinct that says to admire the war fighter who gets all the television coverage and takes lethal risks. Then they come back wounded and America tends to say, ‘So, OK. We're sorry about that. But it's the war we're focused on.'

"It's one of the most staggeringly emotional and traumatic things happening in this country."Contact writer Jake Stump at jakestump@dailymail.com or 348-4842.
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