Behind The Shabby Treatment Of Wounded Veterans: Information Systems

By Deborah Gage  |  Posted Friday, February 23, 2007 19:02 PM

Don't miss the Washington Post's series this week on veterans who were wounded in Iraq and are now languishing as outpatients at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Two of the best journalists working today--Dana Priest, who won a Pulitzer Prize for exposing the CIA's worldwide network of secret prisons for suspected terrorists, and Anne Hull, a Pulitzer finalist known for her fine writing--spent four months at Walter Reed, without the Army's permission, interviewing veterans and their families and documenting the dreadful conditions under which some of these men and women and their families live.

They found soldiers with brain injuries who waited for weeks for appointments because their paperwork had disappeared and there was no one to help them; injured soldiers who disappeared from the hospital without the hospital knowing it; and one soldier who had to show his Purple Heart to get his bloodied uniform replaced because his paperwork had disappeared and the hospital didn't know he had served in Iraq. One building, Building 18, was infested with mold, mice and cockroaches.

A big contributor to this misery is the Army's stove-piped information systems, coupled with a bureaucracy that requires soldiers to file 22 forms with eight separate commands to enter or exit outpatient treatment, according to the Post. "Sixteen different information systems are used to process the forms, but few of them can communicate with one another," the Post says. "The Army's three personnel databases cannot read each other's files and can't interact with the separate pay system or the medical recordkeeping databases.

"The disappearance of necessary forms and records is the most common reason soldiers languish at Walter Reed longer than they should, according to soldiers, family members and staffers."

Outdated computers and software figure in several of the military's recent problems and appear in some cases to be a threat to national security. Several of the military's departments have been attacked by young men wielding bots--see Baseline's stories here and here--which exploited unpatched holes in Microsoft software. The Chinese have also been targeting military computers with systematic, multipronged attacks that deploy spear phishing and malware, according to a story this month in Federal Computer Week.

But the Post's stories are the saddest of the lot. They show the human toll of poor information management on frontline soldiers--young men and women who served their country and deserve to be treated better.

Since the stories started running, the Army began cleaning up Walter Reed. Rep. Tom Davis, R-VA, a member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, has asked for a hearing and some members are considering legislation.

Let's hope the military's computer systems are included in any reforms.

UPDATE: The Army's surgeon general has now characterized the Post's stories as factual, but one-sided. His comments are written up by the Post here.

UPDATE 2: Defense Secretary Robert Gates has ordered an independent investigation. The GAO claims it was already investigating.

UPDATE 3: The Army surgeon general has stepped down.