We speak with journalist Mark Benjamin about the hidden casualties of the Iraq war: wounded U.S. soldiers. We look at how injured soldiers evacuated to the U.S. never arrive in the light of day as well as how veterans suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome receive inadequate and ineffective psychiatric care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
Among the stories that are rarely heard in the corporate media's coverage of Iraq are what some are calling the hidden casualties of war: wounded U.S. soldiers.
We are joined in our DC studio by Mark Benjamin. As the UPI investigations editor — Mark Benjamin closely covered the stories of wounded American soldiers.
He was awarded the 2004 American Legion's top journalism award for his reporting last Fall on the plight of hundreds of sick and injured soldiers at Fort Stewart, Georgia.
Mark Benjamin is now a national correspondent for Salon.Com — where he continues to write about the war wounded.
His latest article is an investigation that reveals government efforts to limit pictures of wounded soldiers returning from Iraq.
The article details how planes carrying the wounded — fly into the U.S only at night.
Mark Benjamin reports that the Pentagon has refused to go on record with an explanation of these nighttime arrivals — even though they deny that there is policy in place.
His other recent article reports on what he says is the inadequate — and ineffective — psychiatric care, provided to soldiers at the Army's top hospital — Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
This report was the result of spending one year following and interviewing wounded soldiers at Walter Reed.
Mark Benjamin joins us now from Washington. Welcome, Mark Benjamin.
Thank you for having me.
It’s good to have you with us. Let's start on this issue of the nighttime flights into the U.S. of wounded soldiers. How does it work?
Well, the way it works is soldiers are flown out of Iraq on giant gray jet planes called C-141 Starlifters.
They land at the – a large air base in Germany, Ramstein Air Base. From there, they're taken by bus to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, the military's biggest hospital outside of the United States.
From there, they're stabilized for a few days and then they’re flown from Germany into the United States.
Now, all of the wounded that are coming from the war land at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, just out of Washington.
Some of the most severely wounded from there are taken by bus or ambulance from Andrews to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, which is in Washington, D.C., or Bethesda Naval Medical Center (that’s for the Marines) that’s just outside of Washington
What is interesting about this whole process is that all of the flights of wounded into the United States are scheduled to land at night.
The wounded are arriving under the cover of darkness.
Also, at least at the two hospitals, Walter Reed Army Medical Center and Bethesda Naval Medical Center, photographers and the press are barred from seeing, watching, or taking photos of the wounded arriving.
So, if you take those two facts, the fact that the wounded are only arriving at night at Andrews Air Force Base, and you take the fact that we in the press are not allowed to see them when they go to the two main hospitals here, we have a situation where we're several years into the war now, and we've seen essentially no reporting or no images of these wounded arriving; and to give you just a idea of the scope of this situation, if you take the wounded soldiers and then you add in the number of hurt soldiers that the Pentagon doesn't generally report (in other words, soldiers that are hurt in vehicle accidents and so on) we have 25,000 soldiers who have been flown out of the battlefields, mostly from Iraq, some from Afghanistan.
Most of those come back to the United States — 25,000 — and images or reporting on them arriving in the United States is almost unheard of.
Yet you were able to see one of these shipments of wounded soldiers. Can you describe your experience and how you went about it?
I saw several shipments of these soldiers, actually, at Walter Reed Army Medical Center coming in. This was without the army's consent.
The army said I was not allowed to see the arrival of soldiers to protect their privacy. However, I didn't know who these soldiers were, and I even obtained some images of the soldiers arriving, and I just made sure that their identities were not clear in the photos that I obtained.
It's a pretty shocking process, to give you an idea of what it looks like.
One night I was very close to the delivery of wounded at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and two soldiers, just as an example — the soldiers arrive, as you can imagine, on stretchers.
They’re unloaded out of these buses.
They’re white buses that stack the wounded in the back on stretchers.
They also arrive in ambulances, sometimes even in unmarked black vans, which is a very strange twist.
One night, for example, I saw two soldiers unloaded from these vans that were apparently intubated, meaning they could not breathe on their own.
They were sort of swollen looking, very young.
I mean, to me they looked like kids, of course, and they — in other words, there's a large machine strapped over the top of their bed and a tube into their mouth.
They looked like they were totally unconscious.
One of them looked like there might have been — could have been blood in a urine bag on the side of the bed.
I mean, these soldiers were in very, very bad shape.
I didn't even know that they could transport people overseas that couldn't even breath on their own.
So we’re talking about very, very seriously wounded people coming into the United States, and we just — we don't see them.
You work for U.P.I., which is a newswire and people will see the reports if they actually get published in the newspapers or the networks that subscribe to U.P.I. How often did your stories get published?
Well, they — I mean, relatively frequently. It would depend on the story. Of course, now I'm working at Salon, so anybody can go to Salon and read my stories there. They're getting a lot more exposure.
If what you’re getting at is: Has there been a lot of coverage of these issues, or has there been a lot of pickup on these stories?
Not as much as I would have liked.
We're talking to Mark Benjamin, who has written a series of pieces on wounded soldiers, one called "Behind the Walls of Ward 54."
It begins, “Before he hanged himself with his bathrobe sash in the psychiatric ward at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Specialist Alexis Soto-Ramirez complained to friends about his medical treatment.
He had been flown out of Iraq five months before.”
Can you tell us about Alexis and also about Ward 54?
Well, Soto-Ramirez was a soldier who had served in Iraq and, like a really unknown number of thousands of soldiers, appeared to have been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
PTSD is what they call it, that were what the doctors call it.
And it’s an incredibly – it can be an incredibly debilitating mental trauma from the war.
They used to call it shell shock after World War I, for example.
And Soto-Ramirez was in what they call Ward 54, which is the lockdown psychiatric ward at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, so this is the army's top medical facility.
And I'd found two soldiers who were visiting him in Ward 54.
(I've been in there myself, by the way.
It's a pretty stunning experience.)
And these two soldiers, who I interviewed separately, both had the same account, which was that Alexis Soto-Ramirez was extremely concerned about what he said was a lack of care for his body and for his mind; and what eventually happened after about three weeks of staying in Ward 54, which is again a very secure psychiatric ward at the army's top medical facility, where essentially you’re on 24-hour suicide watch, he still was able to hang himself.
Apparently with his bathrobe and — with the sash on his bathrobe.
And what was most stunning to me about Soto-Ramirez's death is that his experience, not necessarily the suicide, but his concern about his treatment seems to be very widespread at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
And so what I found over a year — I tracked 14 soldiers, not all of them for a year, but some of them — what I found was that at Walter Reed there’s an interesting thing going on, and this seems to be the case at other military facilities.
Soldiers from this war who suffer acute wounds, amputees, head injuries, bullet wounds, you know, people that are blown up by roadside bombs, get excellent, excellent medical care, or that's what they report to me.
They get off those battlefields very, very quickly.
They’re bought back to Walter Reed.
You’ll see them — you will see their good news stories on TV where reporters are allowed to see them rehabilitating there at Walter Reed.
What is interesting about that is that soldiers who are hurt in their mind, soldiers who have debilitating, really scary post-traumatic stress disorder — we’re talking about people that are acutely homicidal, acutely suicidal after what they've seen or had to do in Iraq — their treatment, the way they describe their treatment at Walter Reed is extremely substandard.
They don't get the kind of therapy they deserve.
They don't get one-on-one therapy.
They don't – they’re treated by not even doctors, they're medical students, and the entire time that they are at Walter Reed, the army seems to be more bent on trying to determine that their problems were not, in fact, caused by the war and that, in fact, these soldiers were just crazy of their own accord.
The reason why, the soldiers say, is because if the army can make a determination that a soldier's problems are not caused by combat, then the army or the Pentagon does not have to pay, in other words have to pay medical care for those people or money to those people, remuneration to those people for the rest of their lives.
In other words, it looks like it could be a money saving maneuver, sadly.
And you write about Soto-Ramirez saying that when he came back with his unit of the Puerto Rico National Guard and he was assessed by a doctor, the doctor said, “Clearly the psychiatric symptoms are combat-related and he just needs good care,” when he sent him up to Walter Reed.
That's correct. And, unfortunately, of course, he ended up killing himself.
There was — of the 14 soldiers that I tracked over one year, two of them I know or said reported suicide attempts over that year.
Of the 14 soldiers that I tracked, all of them rated — after being at Walter Reed for usually at the very least months — said they were either the same or worse off psychologically after getting what Walter Reed calls treatment there, which I do not think was an encouraging trend.
And of the soldiers that were put out of the army and handed off to the veterans’ — Department of Veterans' Affairs, which is, of course, separate from the Pentagon, those soldiers were found – the army found that their problems were not related to combat.
In other words, the army found that they had other problems, preexisting conditions, in most cases, anyway, which is a disturbing trend because these are people that the army found fit for service.
The army seemed to think they were psychologically in good enough shape to go to war and later on seemed to find out that their problems were their own.
Mark Benjamin, I want to thank you very much for joining us.
Mark Benjamin's pieces can be found at Salon.com.
He won the top awards from the American Legion for his reporting on U.S. soldiers wounded and sick and how they're treated in this country.