WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The collection of old red-brick buildings and a big 1970s concrete structure on the edge of Washington does not usually make headlines like the White House or the Capitol, half a dozen miles away.
That changed a year ago after reports that wounded soldiers were living in rat-infested housing and facing a nightmarish bureaucracy while being treated at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, America’s flagship military hospital.
The shocking Washington Post stories prompted a flurry of sackings, investigations and promises of change. A year later, wounded soldiers and hospital staff report big improvements but the battle for disability claims still causes frustration.
“The biggest thing is the bureaucracy, the red tape,” said 34-year-old Army Sgt. Maurice Burden, sitting on the bed in his room at Walter Reed. “It just seems to take so long.”
Burden has been at the hospital since soon after a bomb blast in Iraq tore off half his left leg in September 2005, undergoing treatment and trying to navigate a labyrinth of paperwork to leave the Army and determine the compensation he will receive.
The scandal at Walter Reed was never really about the immediate medical care for troops, which has been widely praised. Living conditions were sometimes poor, particularly in one building, but seem to have proved relatively easy to fix.
The heart of the problem was a system overwhelmed by the number of soldiers wounded in Iraq. Thanks to modern medicine and swift evacuation from the battlefield, more soldiers are surviving their wounds than ever before.
Walter Reed has treated more than 7,400 troops wounded in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Many needed long-term outpatient care and the hospital struggled to keep track of them, get them to appointments, and guide them through the bureaucracy.
Burden, who shows his prosthetic limb of plastic and metal while he speaks to a visiting reporter, a hospital press officer and the sergeants who follow his case, hopes to start a security company after he finally leaves Walter Reed.
When the hospital was struggling, his paperwork was lost. He disappeared from the system and no one seemed to notice.
“It’s this thing of ‘the squeaky wheel gets the oil’,” said Burden, of Goldsboro, North Carolina, who served with the U.S. Army’s 3rd Infantry Division.
“I wasn’t squeaky enough.”
Burden and others live in a residence hall previously used by hospital staff. Their rooms have flat-screen TVs and Apple computers. No one lives now in run-down Building 18, across the road from Walter Reed, which featured in the Washington Post stories.
In another room in the same hall, where electric guitar music echoes along the white and orange corridor, Specialist Joshua Nielson says one unimpressive sergeant used to be responsible for keeping track of many outpatient soldiers.
Compassion and common sense were also in short supply.
“I could barely put my clothes on but there was a big issue with me not wearing a uniform,” said 22-year-old Nielson of Manzanola, Colorado, who lost an eye and had an arm shattered by a bomb in Iraq in January 2007.
In response to the criticism last year, the Army created a brigade dedicated to helping the outpatients. Many of its soldiers are not medics but they are responsible for the wounded troops’ welfare and guide them through the system.
“It’s improved a lot in the last year,” said Nielson, a quietly spoken soldier with metal-rimmed glasses who has now recovered enough to wear his green combat fatigues.
The brigade has more soldiers to keep track of outpatients and boasts many combat veterans, in the hope that their experience will help them bond with their charges.
Sgt. Andrew Buchanan, 25, recalls getting little guidance when he arrived at the hospital after being wounded in a bomb blast in Iraq in May 2006.
“I used to run around this hospital on my crutches before and I had no idea who to go see,” said Buchanan, of Watertown, Wisconsin. “I would end up stopping at five different clinics before I found out where I needed to go.”
Buchanan now has a trio of people — a staff sergeant, a nurse and a doctor — to oversee his case. And the hospital has a gleaming new clinic for wounded warriors. Photographs of the different U.S. states adorn its walls.
The clinic is a symbol of the resources the Army has poured into the care of wounded soldiers in the past year but what about the bureaucracy at the heart of the original scandal?
The image of soldiers, both psychologically damaged and physically wounded, living in limbo for months or years as they try to get a ruling on their future status and compensation was one of the most troubling in the Washington Post series.
The Pentagon has started a pilot program to standardize and speed up disability evaluations. But its target of 245 days to complete the process still seems a long time to wait.
Col. Chuck Callahan, deputy commander at Walter Reed, said the Army had substantially reduced the backlog of disability evaluation cases but acknowledged there were still problems.
The Pentagon, Army and Department of Veterans Affairs, which provides healthcare to ex-soldiers, have electronic record systems that cannot talk to each other, he said.
“It is a long time and I think that’s one of those things that we’re going to just see if we can improve on,” he said.
Reporting by Andrew Gray; Editing by Eddie Evans