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Lawmakers get an optimistic view at Walter Reed

WASHINGTON—Before he joined the Army and shipped off to Iraq, Pete Richert was probably the best cross-country runner on his school team. He was planning to compete professionally once his service was over.

But that dream was shattered last month when a bomb blast south of Baghdad tore off the lower part of his right leg and peppered his body with shrapnel.

Most people would be devastated. But not Richert. Surrounded by loved ones, including 9-month-old daughter Lindsey, the 23-year-old Hillsboro, Kan., native was recuperating Friday in the occupational therapy ward at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, learning how to move on with his life.

His daughter sat on a table in front of him, playing with a candy wrapper, as Richert, seated in a wheelchair, lifted hand weights, trying to regain upper body strength. He grimaced as he went through the repetitions. His wife, Krista, and other relatives stood nearby.

"We're just so thankful that he's alive, so she'll have a father to grow up with," said father-in-law Jeff Owen, 46, of Cherryville, Kan. "The care these guys are getting here at Walter Reed is just phenomenal."

That spirit of optimism wasn't uncommon as a couple of Georgia lawmakers visited with wounded troops in the physical and occupational therapy wards of Walter Reed.

The hospital was rocked by scandal last month after The Washington Post published a series of stories detailing substandard living conditions, shoddy treatment and poor accountability of wounded outpatients. Several top officials were later ousted, including Walter Reed's commander, the Army's top medical officer and the Army secretary.

After such bad press, officials at the hospital were eager to let the two Georgia lawmakers take a look around, albeit under closely supervised conditions. The lawmakers' visit was limited to one hour, and they were allowed to visit only two wards, but they said that the rehabilitative care at Walter Reed is the best the military can offer.

Already in Washington to meet with Pentagon officials on a separate issue, state Rep. Allen Freeman and state Sen. John Douglas came to the hospital hoping to visit with Georgia troops. But some didn't want visitors and others weren't available because of scheduling problems, so the lawmakers met with other servicemen who'd been wounded in Iraq.

All of them were missing one or more limbs. They were among nearly 100 amputees undergoing care at Walter Reed and a relative handful of the nearly 8,200 battlefield casualties from Iraq and Afghanistan who've been treated at the 98-year-old facility. It was sobering look at a side of the war that's rarely seen publicly.

"To be honest, it's pretty shocking to walk in at first, but once you hear them talk and you see their demeanor, it's a lot more comforting," Freeman said. "It's comforting to see them making progress."

It's also comforting, Army officials say, to see things getting back to normal at Walter Reed, the Army's top hospital and one of the primary medical facilities that treat wounded troops returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

President Bush has appointed a bipartisan commission to look into the medical care troops receive after they leave the battlefield.

"We're trying to restore them not just to function, but also to do what they used to do" before they were wounded, said Col. Charles Callahan, the hospital's top doctor for clinical services. "These soldiers are professional athletes, so we want to restore them as professional athletes."

Building 18, the dilapidated housing facility that's been the target of much of the outrage, has been closed for repairs. Abrams Hall, with 272 beds, is getting $4 million in upgrades. New caseworkers have been hired. Although Walter Reed is slated for closure in 2011, some members of Congress are pressing to keep it open.

Soldiers and Marines undergoing treatment at Walter Reed said they had little to complain about.

"It's wonderful; it's great care here," said Josh Bleill, 30, a Marine sergeant from Greenfield, Ind., who lost both legs when a bomb exploded under his Humvee, killing two other Marines. "There's been some bad flak, but I haven't experienced any (problems). They treat us really well here."

Approximately 563 servicemen and women have lost limbs in Iraq or Afghanistan. They can undergo months of rehabilitative care. Much of that time is spent adjusting to new prosthetic limbs. Basic tasks, such as walking or picking up a soda can, have to be mastered again. Troops who've suffered brain trauma, a common injury in Iraq, often have to relearn things as simple as how to turn on a television set or VCR with a remote control.

In the occupational therapy ward, Spc. Darrell Salzman, 27, an avid fly fisherman from Hayward, Wis., was tying handmade flies with his prosthetic arm.

Salzman lost his right arm and a finger on his left hand after a bomb struck his vehicle last year near Camp Anaconda, north of Baghdad. His artificial arm was covered in an orange and blue flame pattern that resembled an elaborate tattoo. Decorative patterns on prostheses are popular with many soldiers.

Salzman said he looks forward to returning to his favorite pastime.

"I'm definitely going to catch some fish," he said.


For more information on veterans and military health issues, see McClatchy Newspapers' "Wounded Warriors" blog:


(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.


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