Heads are rolling in the wake of The Washington Post’s expose
of deplorable conditions at Walter Reed. But Salon's Mark Benjamin has been writing variations
on the Post’s story for years. He discusses the media’s newfoundinterest
in wounded vets.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. On Friday, the Secretary of the U.S. Army resigned. It was the latest shoe to drop in the wake of The Washington Post's expose two weeks ago about the breakdown in outpatient care at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. The article depicted an overloaded system, where soldiers with serious injuries must fend for themselves in a nightmarish bureaucracy with substandard facilities.
The Post may have made the biggest splash, but in recent weeks the plight of the wounded also sparked major pieces in Newsweek, The New York Times, The Boston Globe and NPR, among others. This week, ABC's Bob Woodruff hosted a special on vets with traumatic brain injuries, the signature injury of the roadside bomb, the injury he sustained last year.
It's clear why ABC latched onto that story, but why the sudden interest across the media? We put the question to a reporter who's been covering the stories of wounded Iraq war vets probably longer than anybody else. That's Mark Benjamin, of the online magazine Salon. He suggests that editors may be more willing to go after these stories partly because the public is more receptive to bleak news about the war. MARK BENJAMIN: To give you an example, I wrote my first story about this issue in the fall of 2003. It was about Fort Stewart, Georgia, and the headline was something like, sick and injured soldiers held in squalor. And they couldn't get doctors appointments and they weren't being fairly compensated.
At that time, I received hundreds of really vicious e-mails, you know, where I was called a Communist and a traitor and I was a liar and so on and so forth. This is something that Congress held hearings about, and the Army publicly said, yes, we've got a problem and we're going to fix it.
My guess is that's not the reaction that The Washington Post is getting from its series on Walter Reed, and it's not the reaction that I get from doing the same kinds of stories now. BOB GARFIELD: Now, there is another reason that we may not have seen, you know, tons of coverage on this subject until now, and that is that the Pentagon has really done its best to manage, or even divert, what coverage there has been of the wounded. Can you describe what happens if, you know, I as a reporter decide to pursue this story, and, you know, call public affairs at the Pentagon and say, I'm interested in outpatient care at Walter Reed, or any other military facility? What happens next? MARK BENJAMIN: What happens is that reporter is escorted onto the facility; they are brought up to Ward 57, which is the ward where they have amputees, which is an amazing place and does an excellent job. Those reporters are introduced to prescreened and pre–selected soldiers, and the reporters are given a very limited, very happy news story, which may be true for a small number of soldiers, or even maybe a significant number of amputees, but ends up giving the public a very skewed perception of what is happening to the lion's share of people coming back from this war.
The military medical system cannot seem to get its arms around wounds that you can't see. In other words, you know, if you're missing a leg, they're going to take care of you. If you have traumatic brain injury, particularly a closed head traumatic brain injury - you can't see anything there - or you have post-traumatic stress disorder - you're extremely disturbed, you're suicidal, you're homicidal, but there's no physical thing that the medical staff can look at - for some reason, those people, as far as I can tell, get the worst of the lot and are really languishing. And that's a big story that's been overlooked.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, I noticed that in the wake of The Post's coverage that the military's response has been, among other things, to clamp down on the patients in the notorious Building 18 at Walter Reed where the mold was on the walls and rat droppings were everywhere and so forth.
The soldiers, according to a report in the newspaper The Army Times, have to be ready for inspection at 7 o'clock in the morning, everything spick-and-span, and they're forbidden to speak to the media. MARK BENJAMIN: I don't know whether that's true, but it wouldn't surprise me one bit. When I first wrote my story back in 2003 at Fort Stewart, Georgia, a very similar thing happened. The day after I wrote that the, you know, troops were being held in squalor and not given proper medical care, the entire, you know, the battalion is stood up in the middle of a field and told to shut up, essentially, and threatened. BOB GARFIELD: And further, in terms of managing the story, I noticed that big brass stood up and said, yes, it's, you know, deplorable, there are mice droppings and mold on the walls - focusing on the aspects of this story that are easily cleaned up, but focusing away from the underlying bureaucracy, the neglect, and maybe, even worse, an actual financial conflict of interest on the part of the Pentagon. Can you tell me about it? MARK BENJAMIN: What is happening in this story is that the Army is doing two things simultaneously and they're working at cross-purposes. On the one hand, the Army is trying to give these people outpatient therapy, whether that's somebody, you know, trying to learn to use their prosthetic leg or somebody getting treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, in other words, from a counselor.
At the same time, the Army is trying to decide how much the military is going to pay those soldiers in benefits for the rest of their lives. So you've essentially got a conflict of interest in the Army. They can either pay these guys benefits for the next 50 years, and if they do that, they're going to take money away from more bullets and bombs. BOB GARFIELD: In the wake of the Walter Reed scandal, do you think that overall the press' attention is still being diverted to deplorable physical conditions and still not focused on the underlying structural problems? MARK BENJAMIN: I think that reporters have figured out that mice and mold in a building off, you know, the campus of Walter Reed, while very disturbing, is not really what the story is about. What I think reporters are going to start figuring out, or what I hope they're going to start figuring out, is that this is very widespread. It's not just at Walter Reed. It's at Fort Stewart, it's at Fort Carson, it's at Fort Benning, and it's a systemic breakdown.
And I think that reporters will start to figure that out. To a certain extent, though, I think there are a lot of reporters that are just sort of trying to figure out exactly what they're dealing with. BOB GARFIELD: Okay, Mark. Thank you very much. MARK BENJAMIN: Thank you. BOB GARFIELD: Mark Benjamin is a national correspondent for salon.com. You can link to his ongoing coverage of the war wounded at onthemedia.org.