Politics & Government

Money for Fort Benning hospital in Iraq supplemental bill

WASHINGTON -- Tucked into the hotly debated Iraq war emergency spending bill is roughly $1 billion for four of the nation's aging military health facilities -- places that some Democratic House leaders have said do not meet current standards for medical care and need immediate attention in order to prevent the types of problems that faced Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.

Fort Benning, Ga., Camp LeJune, N.C., Fort Sam Houston, Texas, and Fort Riley, Kan. -- bases in states with members on the powerful House Appropriations Committee -- will receive a boost in funding if the domestic spending portion of the Iraq war supplemental is adopted. Martin Army Community Hospital at Fort Benning is slated to receive $350 million to rebuild.

The money would provide long awaited relief for places like Fort Benning as the Columbus area braces for the addition thousands of additional personnel because of Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) decisions and the return from Iraq of Benning's 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team.

"The quality of patient care remains high, but we want to make sure we don't have a Walter Reed situation," said Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Ga., who helped push for the hospital funding and recently toured the hospital along with Maj. Gen. Walter Wojdakowski, Fort Benning's commander. "A few of our military hospitals, including Martin at Fort Benning, are simply just too old to provide the modern, state-of-the-art infrastructure necessary for high-quality medical care."

At Martin Army Community Hospital, one of the nation's oldest Army hospitals, at least once a month corroding and antiquated pipes force the facility to shut down the entire plumbing system. If the water is out for longer than a day, patients are forced to bathe in portable showers.

The roof needs replacing. The electrical system is at capacity, making it difficult to add additional circuits, hospital officials said. The heating and cooling systems are so old that temperatures cannot be adjusted in individual rooms.

"With the influx of BRAC we really need a new hospital," said Terry Beckwith, a hospital spokeswoman.

The hospital is looking to build a traumatic brain injury clinic, in anticipation of the increased number of soldiers who may return from the field with those types of injuries.

"We owe it to our soldiers, our veterans, and their families to provide access to a modern medical facility that is not susceptible to water shutoffs, power outages or drainage problems, and that ensures patients' rooms stay cool in the summer and warm in the winter," Bishop said. "This is a hospital at home and not on the field, and our soldiers deserve the best of care."

Though the Army has longed identified both the hospitals at Fort Benning and Fort Riley as high priorities, the Iraq war funding has been routinely redirected to such places as Aberdeen Proving Grounds to deal with effects of chemical warfare and other war on terrorism-related threats, Bishop said.

"In recent years, the services have identified billions of dollars in recapitalization requirements for which current budgetary allotments are insufficient, but which desperately need funding due to the condition of the facilities," said Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Texas, chairman of the appropriations subcommittee on military construction and veterans affairs. "The funding problems will be exacerbated in the immediate future as installations like Fort Benning add thousands of personnel, dependent families, and departments due to BRAC, and as more wounded soldiers return from service in Iraq and Afghanistan."

Congress has also directed the Department of Defense to develop a comprehensive master plan for construction and renovation of medical treatment facilities, according to the House Appropriations Committee. The Pentagon will have to provide a comprehensive priority list of projects for each branch of the armed services, a cost estimate for each project, supply data on the current state of medical facilities and disclose the projected change in demand for services due to military growth to the appropriations committees no later than Dec. 31.