Today's Article
The Army surgeon
general says the
military lacks money
 to properly take
care of its wounded
during this 'long war'.
The American Spark
Top Army Officer Says Long-Term Troop Morale A Concern

By Cliff Montgomery - Mar. 29th, 2007

The Army's new acting surgeon general told a House subcommittee Tuesday she is concerned about
long-term troop morale because the military lacks money to hire enough nurses and mental health
professionals to treat thousands of troops coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan.

"When the original plans were made, we did not take into consideration we could be in a long war," Maj. Gen.
Gale Pollock said.  

"We have not been able to do the hiring," she told a House Armed Services subcommittee.

Pollock became surgeon general earlier this month. Former surgeon general Kevin Kiley was forced to resign
the post after disclosures of poor treatment of war-wounded at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

She testified at the first of two congressional hearings Tuesday on veterans care during which lawmakers
displayed impatience with the Bush Administration's efforts, adding that years of communication gaps
between the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs (VA) remain unfixed.

Such testimonies highlight the difficulties which lie ahead for the Bush Administration in fixing problems
following reports of poor outpatient treatment and bureaucratic delays at Walter Reed, one of the Army's top
facilities for treating wounded soldiers.

Since last month's disclosures, three high-level Pentagon officials have been forced to step down. Perhaps
smelling a chance to attack, some Democrats also have questioned whether VA Secretary Jim Nicholson, a
former Republican National Committee chairman, has what it takes to revitalize the veterans care system.

Bush has made quite a show of appointing a presidential task force to study the problems, and a host of
reviews are under way by the Pentagon, VA and several congressional committees. But troops and veterans
know better, saying that these problems are well-known, and have long been known by all in the Beltway for a
while now.

Among the issues are the hardships troops and veterans face while navigating the health care system,
including shuttling from military hospitals to the VA's vast array of 1,400 clinics and treatment centers, which
currently provide supplementary care and rehabilitation to 5.8 million veterans.

Appearing before a Senate panel, Michael Kussman, executive-in-charge of the Veterans Health
Administration and Ellen Embrey, deputy assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, defended their
rather shoddy efforts to speed improved health care to injured troops and veterans.

Embrey said the departments had taken steps to improve joint committees and place each other's personnel
in Pentagon and VA-run facilities--in essence, she shuffled a few deck chairs around on the Titanic. This drew
a properly angry response from Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), who noted that earlier this month the Government
Accountability Office reported the two departments still fail to share health records electronically, despite years
of warnings.

"We're now in the fifth year of this armed conflict," replied Burr, a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs
Committee. "At what point do we actually look at what's going on and implement changes? How many real-life
experiences do we have to listen to?"

"That's a good question," responded Embrey.

She did add that the departments have begun considering ways to share inpatient records. "I think we have
the institutional structures in place, but at the individual level, some things don't happen."

Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), said the government must first provide the VA and Pentagon the money they need
to treat problems such as shell shock and traumatic brain injury. A Senate bill which provides $122 billion for
the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq includes millions to build poly-trauma centers and hire new claims processors.

"We are going to judge you by the results you get for our veterans, and we're going to hold you accountable,"
added Murray.

But Sen. Larry Craig, the Senate panel's top Republican, argued that overall the military health system works
well, and added that the VA system typically outranks the private sector in customer satisfaction.

But this is an over-generalization at best: the issue is how we are dealing with those troops who suffer from the
most serious wounds and scars of combat who need long-term care, not how the VA is dealing with the
greater number of veterans whose problems are not as severe. This is, in short, a partisan attempt to 'obscure
the trees by only glancing at the whole forest'.  

But Sen. Craig did add that he is "hopeful that the president's new interagency task force on returning global
war on terror heroes will help us determine what changes--legislative or otherwise--need to be made."

That nine-member task force, chaired by former Sen. Bob Dole, a Republican, and former Health and Human
Services Secretary Donna Shalala, a Democrat, is to begin its work in earnest next month and currently has a
June 30 deadline.