Reporting on care of troops inspires outcry for change

The Baltimore Sun

It's a rare moment in journalism when a story triggers a public outcry loud enough that it leads to promises of dramatic change in public policy. But that's what happened when The Washington Post published its two-part report last month on the dreadful living conditions of Iraq war veterans at an outpatient facility at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

The articles sparked a series of resignations among the Army's top medical officers, the creation of a presidential investigative commission and pledges from the military medical system to make significant changes in the care of wounded soldiers. The Post's work and subsequent reporting by other news organizations are challenging the Bush administration's and the military's claims of unconditional support for American troops.

An article by Sun reporter Robert Little in the March 11 Ideas section indicated that the military's medical problems were more widespread and serious than suggested by some Army and political observers. Little's article was based on his extensive coverage of the Army's treatment of wounded soldiers beginning at the scene of the fighting - before they reached Walter Reed or other military hospitals.

Little's 2006 series "Dangerous Remedy," about the use of experimental drugs to treat injured soldiers in the field, recently won the prestigious George Polk Award for medical reporting.

His latest piece, "Flawed Jewel: Problems with care casualties don't stop at Walter Reed's doors," was designed to put the Walter Reed story in perspective and to challenge the hyperbole often found in discussions of complicated medical care, particularly in the military. Little noted that the military's medical system - and Walter Reed in particular - is often held up as the reason that the death rate for soldiers serving in Iraq is at a historic low. Even the initial Washington Post article said that doctors inside Walter Reed were performing "miracles."

Little pointed out, however, that the death-rate figure is mostly driven by changes in front-end medical treatment, improvements in medical equipment and life-saving techniques, and the use of body armor. He noted that the rate at which wounded soldiers are dying in military hospitals actually has increased since the Vietnam War and has been rising since the start of the current Iraq conflict.

"This doesn't mean that the medical care for wounded soldiers is bad, because virtually everyone agrees it is not," Little told me last week. "But it doesn't suggest it is miraculous either."

Government and military leaders should be subjected to even more serious questioning about medical and rehabilitative care provided to wounded soldiers at Walter Reed and other military hospitals, Little believes. "But many of those questions don't get asked as long as people are certain that the system is the best in the world," he said, referring to recent glowing comments by Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman and others about the military's medical system.

Little also brought another perspective to his recent article - the case of Pfc. Caleb Lufkin. The reporter met Lufkin when the wounded soldier was being lifted off a helicopter in Baghdad; Lufkin died at Walter Reed three weeks later. Little attended his funeral, interviewed his colleagues and family members, and looked at some of his medical records.

Little's interview with Lufkin's mother, Marcy Gorsline, provided much of the article's excruciating detail about the quality of care her son received at the main hospital at Walter Reed - the "crown jewel" of the Army's medical system. Gorsline, a registered nurse, described the filthy conditions in her son's room and a lack of high-quality care and attention.

Reader Barbara Blumberg had this reaction: "When [someone] is told the hospital doesn't have enough sheets and blankets, and gets an attitude as well, where are our leaders and representatives? Little's article was heart-wrenching, alarming and frustrating."

Said Tony Reichart: "The details in Mr. Little's article, especially about the shoddy care of Pfc. Lufkin, shines another light on this terrible situation. This moves it from the outpatient buildings to inside Walter Reed itself. Despite what some are calling just 'an outpatient problem,' it seems very likely it is much more pronounced than that."

Various unexplained circumstances in the Lufkin case make Little suspect that the medical care Lufkin received was a factor in his death. "Of course, patients die even in the finest hospitals in the world," Little said. "But the Army medical system has never attempted to explain to Lufkin's family what killed him."

The Washington Post's articles, reports by ABC newsman Bob Woodruff, New York Times articles and Little's piece show that in-depth reporting can focus attention and inspire change in situations that should matter to all of us.

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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