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Murray: Much Still Needs to be Done to Improve Care for Wounded Troops

Feb 28 2008

As Senate debates Iraq, Murray says we can't forget the toll the war has taken on our troops

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(WASHINGTON, D.C.) – Today, U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) spoke on the Senate floor about the need to continue improvements in the care for wounded troops.  

A year ago, The Washington Post uncovered the depths of problems facing service members being treated at Walter Reed.  Murray said that thanks to the scrutiny by Congress and others, improvements have been made.  But she added that much still needs to be done.

“I’m proud of the way Congress – led by Democrats – moved to address the problems facing our returning service members, which clearly wasn’t a priority for the Bush Administration.  We said:  ‘Not on our watch.  Not any more,’” Senator Murray said.  “But we can’t let this issue fade away.”

Murray said that many of the improvements are being made thanks to the Wounded Warriors Act, which was signed into law this year and requires the Defense Department and VA to improve treatment for Traumatic Brain Injury and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  Congress also directed the military and the VA to fix the frustrating bureaucracy that troops have struggled with.  

Murray added that progress is being made at facilities across the country, including Fort Lewis, which is working hard to help service members and their families understand the benefits available to them.  

But Murray said the military and the VA must make improvements in three areas:

  • They must reduce the amount of frustrating red tape facing troops as they transition to the VA.
  • They must focus attention on treating TBI and other injuries.
  • And they must change military culture regarding mental health care.

“We still have a long way to go to provide our service members with the care they deserve,” Murray said.  “And some of these changes are going to require a cultural transformation within the military.  We have to be sure we keep our eyes on the ball.”

Senator Murray's remarks follow:

Mr. President, our service members in Iraq are fighting under incredibly stressful conditions each day.  Many have returned with terrible injuries that need specialized care.  And yet there have been too many examples that show the Bush Administration was caught unprepared to treat them.

So as we continue to talk about Iraq, I think it’s important that we also talk about the toll that this war is taking on our troops and our veterans.  And I want to focus on the need to ensure our injured service members and veterans can get the care they need and deserve by reminding you of what has happened in just the last year – and how much we still must do. 

Walter Reed was a Watershed Moment

Just a year ago this month, the Washington Post published a story that uncovered the depths of the problems facing service members being treated at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.  

The Post reported that service members were living in rooms with moldy walls, and broken ceilings while they waited to get care.  And it found that many service members and their families felt trapped in a bureaucratic Catch-22 as they fought to get disability benefits.

The news of the extent of the squalid conditions was a watershed moment in the care of our military men and women.  It focused the attention of the American people on the needs and treatment of our injured service members and veterans.  And it put the spotlight on the frustrating red tape facing service members as they transition out of the military and into the VA.

I’m proud that Congress – led by Democrats – moved quickly to investigate the problems throughout the military and VA systems, and to take action.  Shortly after the Washington Post story ran, the Democratic leaders went to Walter Reed and met with our injured service members.  The Veterans’ Affairs Committee and the Armed Services Committee joined together in a historic partnership to address the problems we saw there and at military and VA facilities across the country.  

Many of us have continued to go up to Walter Reed and other facilities on a regular basis – as we had even before the stories ran.  I was just there to tour the mental health ward and learn about what efforts are being made to decrease stigma and improve care.

Mr. President, as a result of the action we took, our country has made a lot of changes in its care for service members and veterans.  One of the most significant was the Wounded Warriors Act, which was included in the Defense Authorization bill.  With the Wounded Warriors Act, we laid out a clear path directing the Defense Department and the VA to address shortfalls in the care of our injured service members.

And so, a year after the Walter Reed reports, we’re requiring the Defense Department and the VA to work together to develop a comprehensive plan to prevent, treat, and diagnose TBI and PTSD.  And we’ve directed the Defense Department to create centers of excellence for TBI and PTSD to improve our understanding of these devastating injuries.

We’re addressing the frustrating bureaucracy that our troops have struggled with.  We’ve directed the VA and the Defense Department to develop a joint electronic health record.  And we’re requiring the military and the VA to work together on disability ratings.  

The Defense Department is investing in new technology, more equipment, and state-of-the-art treatment to better care for injured soldiers at Walter Reed.

And facilities across the country are making similar improvements.  In my home state of Washington, Fort Lewis has taken great strides in its treatment of the wounded service members recovering there.   In just one example, leaders there are working hard to help service members and their families understand the benefits available to them.  

There is Still Much to be Done

So, Mr. President, I am optimistic that the action we took is changing the way our military and the VA operate.  But as I talk to you today, there is still much left to be done.  

Yesterday the GAO reported to Congress that the Army has significantly improved its support for service members at Walter Reed and other military hospitals.  According to the Washington Post today, Army officials say they have transformed the way they care for soldiers and families.

But the GAO also says there are still shortages of staff and other gaps.  One third of warrior transition units are still understaffed and – that raises concerns about the progress of a streamlined disability ranking system.  So we still have a long way to go to provide our service members with the care they deserve.  And some of these changes are going to require a cultural transformation within the military.  We have to be sure we keep our eyes on the ball.  

Rory Dunn

Mr. President, I got a personal reminder of this when I reconnected recently with Army Retired Specialist Rory Dunn, a young man from Renton, Washington.  Rory was horribly injured when his humvee was hit by a roadside bomb outside Fallujah in 2004.  His skull was crushed from ear to ear.  He has lost one eye, his sense of smell, and much of his hearing.  And he still has shrapnel in his brain.

Rory has visibly sacrificed for his country – he nearly lost his life.  When he returned to the U.S., Rory was sent to Walter Reed, where the Army tried to discharge him before he had completely recovered.

Mr. President, for me, Rory is the face of this war.  We have to ensure that the changes we are making to improve conditions for service members and veterans like Rory aren’t just a flurry of action while the cameras are rolling.  We have to ensure that action doesn’t drop off once the media has moved on.

We Must be Vigilant on Three Fronts

So, Mr. President, I believe we must remain vigilant on three specific fronts if we’re going to bring about real change for our troops and veterans.

1. We Must Reduce the Red Tape

First, we must ensure we cut through the bureaucracy between the military and the VA.  It’s simply unacceptable that after fighting for our country, our service members have had to return and fight against our government for the care they deserve.  

Thanks to the Wounded Warrior Act, we have started a pilot project to work out ways to make the Defense Department and VA disability rating systems compatible.  This is the first step toward bridging the gap between the VA and the Defense Department.  But it’s only a pilot right now.  We have a lot more to do to ensure those two agencies can work together.  Congress will have to keep a close watch to make sure the Defense Department and the VA are meeting the goals we’ve set out. 

2. We Must Focus Attention on Treating TBI and Other Injuries

Second, we must focus our attention on treating the new injuries our service members are suffering in Iraq and Afghanistan – particularly Traumatic Brain Injury.  TBI is the signature wound of this war, but we have only just begun to understand how to treat it.  Congress has authorized millions of dollars for research.  We must ensure we get results from that research, and take action based on what we learn.

I am extremely disappointed that the President seems to have lost sight of this already.  He proposed an 8 percent cut for VA medical and prosthetic research in his FY ’09 budget.  This is an incredibly shortsighted cut, and he can be sure I will fight it every way I can.

3. We Must Change Military Culture Regarding Mental Health Care

Finally, we must change a military culture in which service members are told that mental illness is an excuse for their pain, and which fails to recognize that psychological wounds can be more serious than physical injuries.  

Congress has given the military hundreds of millions of dollars to improve its mental health care system.  And we have pushed through legislation requiring the military and the VA to de-stigmatize mental health treatment, to increase the awareness of the symptoms of PTSD, and to do further research into Traumatic Brain Injury.

But recent reports show that the Army’s suicide-prevention efforts need more work.  The numbers of suicides have risen since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began.  Last year, as many as 121 soldiers committed suicide, a nearly 20 percent increase over the year before.

A recent report by the Associated Press was a stark reminder of how serious this issue is.  That article reported on a VA study, which found that more than half of the veterans who took their own lives from 2001 to 2005 were members of the National Guard or Reserve, even though the Guard and Reserve have made up less than a third of the U.S. force in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Prolonged deployments are stretching our troops to the breaking point.  Earlier this week, General Casey acknowledged his concern about the strain on our military.  He told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Army is under so much stress from extended deployments that we must reduce the length of combat tours as soon as possible.

Mr. President, many of our service members have seen their best friends killed and other untold horrors, yet we still expect them to head back to the battlefield – and back home – unaffected by their experiences.  We must ensure that the military takes action to ensure our troops are getting the psychological care they need.  We need to see a change in culture.  And that change must be more than just a talking point.  

Senior military leaders have pledged to do more, but they must ensure their words and programs are being executed in the field.  They have to work to break down the stigma associated with seeking mental health treatment.  They have to ensure that troops have psychiatrists and psychologists to talk to – and they must ensure that those who seek help aren’t penalized.

We have to find ways to reach out to service members who are discharged and aren’t seeking care from the VA.  This is especially important for members of our Guard and Reserves, who often-times don’t think of themselves as veterans, and who return from war and try to go back to their civilian jobs without getting help.  In my home state of Washington, over 10,200 Guard and Reserve members have served in Iraq and Afghanistan since the wars started.

Our troops and veterans are heroes who are sacrificing for our nation.  It’s time for our government to wake up and provide them with the care they need.

We Have Made Progress, but There’s Still More to be Done

Mr. President, I voted against going to war in Iraq.  But I’ve said consistently that no matter how you feel about the war, we have an obligation as leaders to make sure that our men and women who fight for us get the care they deserve.

I’m proud of the way Congress – led by Democrats – moved to address the problems facing our returning service members, which clearly wasn’t a priority for the Bush Administration. 

We said:  “Not on our watch.  Not any more.” 

A year after the Walter Reed story drew attention to the treatment of our service members, we have made progress.  But we can’t let this issue fade away.  And Mr. President – after examining the President’s VA budget proposal – I have to tell you that I’m disappointed that the Administration still doesn’t seem to get it.

In his State of the Union address this year, President Bush said he was dedicated to providing for our nation’s veterans.  But at a time when thousands of new veterans are entering the VA system with serious medical needs as a result of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Administration is underestimating the cost of medical care, and it is cutting funding for construction and medical and prosthetic research.  And at a time when older veterans are seeking care in record numbers, the President is proposing fees and co-pays that will shut the door to thousands of patients.  

Mr. President, that is just wrong, and I’ll be working hard this year to ensure those misguided proposals don’t become reality.  The same is true as we address the budget for caring for our troops.  Our service members risk their lives for our security every day.  They have done everything we’ve asked.  We must live up to our commitment to them.  Thank you.