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 Reporters were instrumental in uncovering poor conditions at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
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Date published: 3/19/2007

PHILADELPHIA--Revelations about broken bureaucracy, insufficient care and poor living conditions at Walter Reed Medical Center's outpatient facilities have prompted a flurry of activity in Washington. These revelations should also teach us a number of lessons.

The first is that--despite everything--the mainstream media in general, and newspapers in particular, are indispensable. The Washington Post's work on Walter Reed has been thoughtful and diligent, and it helped bring attention to a situation that needed to be fixed. It took four months of on-the-scene reporting from Dana Priest and Anne Hull to expose not just the physical disrepair of Walter Reed's Building 18, but also, more important, the bureaucratic disaster.

Moldy walls and leaky ceilings pale next to the fact that the average soldier at Walter Reed was filing 22 documents with eight different commands; that paper forms were regularly disappearing; that patients were waiting for months to receive care; that some soldiers were having difficulty getting replacement uniforms for those destroyed when they were wounded in the field; and that some soldiers were at pains even to prove to the system that they were injured while serving in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Such a story can be adequately told only in print, and only newspapers and magazines remain committed to doing this kind of reporting. Remember Priest and Hull the next time a blogger complains about the uselessness of the Old Media.

Another lesson is that Walter Reed is an Army facility, not a Veterans Administration hospital. This is an important distinction, because we want to fix what's broken, not break what's working.

Unlike the outpatient system at Walter Reed, the VA system is a model of efficient care. This was not always the case. As Phillip Longman explains in his forthcoming book on the VA system, "Best Care Anywhere," that system was born into catastrophe. The first head of its forerunner, the Veterans Bureau, was Col. Charles R. Forbes. At the end of his tenure, Forbes was sentenced to jail at Fort Leavenworth for graft and waste that would equal about $2.1 billion in today's money. Matters did not improve much for the VA in subsequent decades. By the 1970s, it had become so thoroughly wrecked that the agency had to begin a complete, bottom-up transformation in 1981. The results since then have been startling.

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