WASHINGTON -- Wounded soldiers and veterans poured out their frustrations with the military health care system yesterday, telling a presidential commission that they had often had difficulty getting care because military doctors were overwhelmed by the needs of service members injured in Iraq.
Speaking from experience, the soldiers and veterans described the military health care system as a labyrinth, said their families had been swamped with paperwork and complained that some care providers lacked compassion.
Marc A. Giammatteo, who has undergone more than 30 operations to repair a leg torn apart by a rocket-propelled grenade in Iraq, said the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, in Washington, had been inundated with wounded members of the armed forces whose numbers surpassed its capacity.
Giammatteo, a West Point graduate and former Army captain, said he had observed a "lack of caring or compassion in some of the work force" at Walter Reed.
"On several occasions," Giammatteo said, "I, and others I have spoken to, felt that we were being judged as if we chose our nation's foreign policy and, as a result, received little if any assistance. Some individuals, most of whom are civilian workers and do not wear the uniform, judge the wounded unfairly and treat them similarly, adopting a 'Can't help you, you're on your own' attitude."
Giammatteo, a member of the commission, testified at the first meeting of the panel yesterday.
President Bush created the nine-member panel March 6 to investigate the care that wounded troops receive when they return from the battlefield. Former Sen. Bob Dole, a Republican, and Donna E. Shalala, who was secretary of health and human services in the Clinton administration, are co-chairmen of the panel, known officially as the President's Commission on Care for America's Returning Wounded Warriors.
The panel plans to hold several hearings around the country and is supposed to issue its report, with recommendations, by June 30. The deadline can be extended to July 31 if necessary.
John H. Chiles, a retired colonel who was chief of anesthesiology at Walter Reed and chief of staff at the U.S. Army hospital in Baghdad, said the military medical system was "underfunded, understaffed and overwhelmed."
Jose R. Ramos, a hospital corpsman who lost his arm in combat in Iraq, said he received first-class care at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda. But he said he had often been frustrated in seeking care at Walter Reed and at a local veterans' hospital.
Ramos, a commission member, said he had been thwarted by the "military bureaucracy."
At Walter Reed, Ramos said, he experienced long delays because of "the sheer numbers of patients each doctor must keep track of."
"It was rare that I ever saw the same doctor," Ramos reported. "I constantly had to re-explain my symptoms and medical history."
Moreover, Ramos said, the transition from Walter Reed to the Department of Veterans Affairs was a struggle.
"Three different times, I had to gather all my medical information and resubmit a package because three different times the VA managed to lose it," Ramos said. "Even after I was medically retired, the VA had no idea that I was an amputee."
Richard F. Weidman, executive director of Vietnam Veterans of America, a nonprofit group with 60,000 members, said, "What happened at Walter Reed was not an aberration." It resulted, he said, from a policy of "taking care of our soldiers on the cheap."