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Commission on military health care discusses medical system

WASHINGTON—The leaders of a presidential commission on military health care Saturday promised pointed fixes to a medical system described by wounded soldiers and the wife of a service member as rife with bureaucratic bungling, delays and indifference.

Witnesses also told the panel—appointed by President Bush in the wake of reports that returning war veterans faced poor outpatient conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center—that the medical system can't keep up with the influx of wounded soldiers and the paperwork and bureaucracy is burdening military families.

Tammy Edwards, who said she faced an "ongoing battle with paperwork" to help get care for her husband, Army Staff Sgt. Christopher Edwards, who was severely burned in Iraq two years ago, urged more attention for families. At one point, she said, her husband was not receiving any mental health services and the pain from the burns he suffered was so intense he "would often ask me why we didn't let him die in the first place.

"Caregivers face many challenges on so many different levels and they are often overlooked in the grand scheme of things," she said.

Co-chair Bob Dole, who was badly wounded in World War II and who was a longtime Republican senator from Kansas, vowed "not a witch hunt or a whitewash," but fixes for an overburdened system.

He said he and co-chair Donna Shalala, president of the University of Miami, "made it clear to the president we did not want to just be on a commission. "Our objective is to make it easier for our returning veterans," Dole said as the panel opened its first hearing.

With the commission among at least nine panels examining shortcomings in health care provided to soldiers from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, veterans groups and some members of Congress have said they fear the plethora of panels may only produce a shelf of unheeded reports.

"I welcome any and all input . . . but we really can't afford to wait around 90 more days" for a commission report the president "will likely" throw in the trash can, said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., a member of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee.

Bobby Muller, president of Veterans for America, suggested the group has an "impossible task.

"You've got to take on a mammoth bureaucracy—the Department of Defense—and try to decipher what went wrong," Muller said. "It's an extraordinary challenge."

Muller suggested the department was already "blowing smoke" by downplaying the extent of traumatic brain injuries.

"They didn't recognize the needs of my generation and the exact same dynamic is happening again," the Vietnam veteran said.

Several speakers testified to a growing need to spend more money on research into traumatic brain injuries—described as the "signature wound of this war" by former Army secretary Togo West, who headed an independent review ordered by Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

West also said several recommendations in his group's report had been made four or five times in the past 10 years.

Commission member Marc Giammatteo, a former Army captain whose leg was seriously injured during a rocket-propelled grenade attack in Iraq, said he underwent more than 30 surgeries at Walter Reed, where he said the medical teams "perform medical miracles everyday."

But he and other veterans described a recovery process hampered by excessive paperwork, not only at Walter Reed, but within Veterans Affairs and Defense departments.

He noted that the process for a medical discharge is expected to take two months but said, "sadly," seven months "was not enough time for the Army to medically discharge me." Giammatteo continues to have problems with his military and disability pay.

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SOLDIERS' STORIES SOUGHT

Soldiers and family members are encouraged to share their stories at the group's Web site, www.pccww.gov.

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For more information on veterans and military health issues, see McClatchy Newspapers' "Wounded Warriors" blog: http://washingtonbureau.typepad.com/veterans/

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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