About Me

My photo

A man of many words. Profane, profound, loyal to a fault and a right rat bastard. I love the finer things in life: expensive cigars, cheap women and all the salted, cured meats I can eat. A friend to dogs, lover of humanity and despiser of people. If I were King the world would be a better place, because, well...I would be King! Oh, and I like ice cream.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Read This Then Please Tell Me What The Hell We are Doing in Iraq.

The Hotel Aftermath
Inside Mologne House, the Survivors of War Wrestle With Military
Bureaucracy and Personal Demons


By Anne Hull and Dana Priest
Washington Post
February 19, 2007


The guests of Mologne House have been blown up, shot, crushed and shaken,
and now their convalescence takes place among the chandeliers and wingback
chairs of the 200-room hotel on the grounds of Walter Reed Army Medical
Center.


Oil paintings hang in the lobby of this strange outpost in the war on
terrorism, where combat's urgency has been replaced by a trickling fountain
in the garden courtyard. The maimed and the newly legless sit in
wheelchairs next to a pond, watching goldfish turn lazily through the
water.


But the wounded of Mologne House are still soldiers -- Hooah! -- so their
lives are ruled by platoon sergeants. Each morning they must rise at dawn
for formation, though many are half-snowed on pain meds and sleeping pills.


In Room 323 the alarm goes off at 5 a.m., but Cpl. Dell McLeod slumbers on.
His wife, Annette, gets up and fixes him a bowl of instant oatmeal before
going over to the massive figure curled in the bed. An Army counselor
taught her that a soldier back from war can wake up swinging, so she
approaches from behind.


"Dell," Annette says, tapping her husband. "Dell, get in the shower."


"Dell!" she shouts.


Finally, the yawning hulk sits up in bed. "Okay, baby," he says. An
American flag T-shirt is stretched over his chest. He reaches for his dog
tags, still the devoted soldier of 19 years, though his life as a warrior
has become a paradox. One day he's led on stage at a Toby Keith concert
with dozens of other wounded Operation Iraqi Freedom troops from Mologne
House, and the next he's sitting in a cluttered cubbyhole at Walter Reed,
fighting the Army for every penny of his disability.


McLeod, 41, has lived at Mologne House for a year while the Army figures
out what to do with him. He worked in textile and steel mills in rural
South Carolina before deploying. Now he takes 23 pills a day, prescribed by
various doctors at Walter Reed. Crowds frighten him. He is too anxious to
drive. When panic strikes, a soldier friend named Oscar takes him to
Baskin-Robbins for vanilla ice cream.


"They find ways to soothe each other," Annette says.


Mostly what the soldiers do together is wait: for appointments,
evaluations, signatures and lost paperwork to be found. It's like another
wife told Annette McLeod: "If Iraq don't kill you, Walter Reed will."


After Iraq, a New Struggle


The conflict in Iraq has hatched a virtual town of desperation and
dysfunction, clinging to the pilings of Walter Reed. The wounded are socked
away for months and years in random buildings and barracks in and around
this military post.


The luckiest stay at Mologne House, a four-story hotel on a grassy slope
behind the hospital. Mologne House opened 10 years ago as a short-term
lodging facility for military personnel, retirees and their family members.
Then came Sept. 11 and five years of sustained warfare. Now, the silver
walkers of retired generals convalescing from hip surgery have been
replaced by prosthetics propped against Xbox games and Jessica Simpson
posters smiling down on brain-rattled grunts.


Two Washington Post reporters spent hundreds of hours in Mologne House
documenting the intimate struggles of the wounded who live there. The
reporting was done without the knowledge or permission of Walter Reed
officials, but all those directly quoted in this article agreed to be
interviewed.


The hotel is built in the Georgian revival style, and inside it offers the
usual amenities: daily maid service, front-desk clerks in formal vests and
a bar off the lobby that opens every afternoon.


But at this bar, the soldier who orders a vodka tonic one night says to the
bartender, "If I had two hands, I'd order two." The customers sitting
around the tables are missing limbs, their ears are melted off, and their
faces are tattooed purple by shrapnel patterns.


Most everyone has a story about the day they blew up: the sucking silence
before immolation, how the mouth filled with tar, the lungs with gas.


"First thing I said was, '[Expletive], that was my good eye,' " a soldier
with an eye patch tells an amputee in the bar.


The amputee peels his beer label. "I was awake through the whole thing," he
says. "It was my first patrol. The second [expletive] day in Iraq and I get
blown up."


When a smooth-cheeked soldier with no legs orders a fried chicken dinner
and two bottles of grape soda to go, a kitchen worker comes out to his
wheelchair and gently places the Styrofoam container on his lap.


A scrawny young soldier sits alone in his wheelchair at a nearby table, his
eyes closed and his chin dropped to his chest, an empty Corona bottle in
front of him.


Those who aren't old enough to buy a drink at the bar huddle outside near a
magnolia tree and smoke cigarettes. Wearing hoodies and furry bedroom
slippers, they look like kids at summer camp who've crept out of their
rooms, except some have empty pants legs or limbs pinned by
medieval-looking hardware. Medication is a favorite topic.


"Dude, [expletive] Paxil saved my life."


"I been on methadone for a year, I'm tryin' to get off it."


"I didn't take my Seroquel last night and I had nightmares of charred
bodies, burned crispy like campfire marshmallows."


Mologne House is afloat on a river of painkillers and antipsychotic drugs.
One night, a strapping young infantryman loses it with a woman who is high
on her son's painkillers. "Quit taking all the soldier medicine!" he
screams.


Pill bottles clutter the nightstands: pills for depression or insomnia, to
stop nightmares and pain, to calm the nerves.


Here at Hotel Aftermath, a crash of dishes in the cafeteria can induce
seizures in the combat-addled. If a taxi arrives and the driver looks
Middle Eastern, soldiers refuse to get in. Even among the gazebos and
tranquility of the Walter Reed campus in upper Northwest Washington,
manhole covers are sidestepped for fear of bombs and rooftops are scanned
for snipers.


Bomb blasts are the most common cause of injury in Iraq, and nearly 60
percent of the blast victims also suffer from traumatic brain injury,
according to Walter Reed's studies, which explains why some at Mologne
House wander the hallways trying to remember their room numbers.


Some soldiers and Marines have been here for 18 months or longer. Doctor's
appointments and evaluations are routinely dragged out and difficult to
get. A board of physicians must review hundreds of pages of medical records
to determine whether a soldier is fit to return to duty. If not, the
Physical Evaluation Board must decide whether to assign a rating for
disability compensation. For many, this is the start of a new and bitter
battle.


Months roll by and life becomes a blue-and-gold hotel room where the
bathroom mirror shows the naked disfigurement of war's ravages. There are
toys in the lobby of Mologne House because children live here. Domestic
disputes occur because wives or girlfriends have moved here. Financial
tensions are palpable. After her husband's traumatic injury insurance
policy came in, one wife cleared out with the money. Older National Guard
members worry about the jobs they can no longer perform back home.


While Mologne House has a full bar, there is not one counselor or
psychologist assigned there to assist soldiers and families in crisis -- an
idea proposed by Walter Reed social workers but rejected by the military
command that runs the post.


After a while, the bizarre becomes routine. On Friday nights, antiwar
protesters stand outside the gates of Walter Reed holding signs that say
"Love Troops, Hate War, Bring them Home Now." Inside the gates, doctors in
white coats wait at the hospital entrance for the incoming bus full of
newly wounded soldiers who've just landed at Andrews Air Force Base.


And set back from the gate, up on a hill, Mologne House, with a bowl of red
apples on the front desk.


Into the Twilight Zone


Dell McLeod's injury was utterly banal. He was in his 10th month of
deployment with the 178th Field Artillery Regiment of the South Carolina
National Guard near the Iraqi border when he was smashed in the head by a
steel cargo door of an 18-wheeler. The hinges of the door had been tied
together with a plastic hamburger-bun bag. Dell was knocked out cold and
cracked several vertebrae.


When Annette learned that he was being shipped to Walter Reed, she took a
leave from her job on the assembly line at Stanley Tools and packed the
car. The Army would pay her $64 a day to help care for her husband and
would let her live with him at Mologne House until he recovered.


A year later, they are still camped out in the twilight zone. Dogs are
periodically brought in by the Army to search the rooms for contraband or
weapons. When the fire alarm goes off, the amputees who live on the upper
floors are scooped up and carried down the stairwell, while a brigade of
mothers passes down the wheelchairs. One morning Annette opens her door and
is told to stay in the room because a soldier down the hall has overdosed.


In between, there are picnics at the home of the chairman of the Joint
Chiefs of Staff and a charity-funded dinner cruise on the Potomac for
"Today's troops, tomorrow's veterans, always heroes."


Dell and Annette's weekdays are spent making the rounds of medical
appointments, physical therapy sessions and evaluations for Dell's
discharge from the Army. After 19 years, he is no longer fit for service.
He uses a cane to walk. He is unable to count out change in the hospital
cafeteria. He takes four Percocets a day for pain and has gained 40 pounds
from medication and inactivity. Lumbering and blue-eyed, Dell is a big ox
baby.


Annette puts on makeup every morning and does her hair, some semblance of
normalcy, but her new job in life is watching Dell.


"I'm worried about how he's gonna fit into society," she says one night, as
Dell wanders down the hall to the laundry room.


The more immediate worry concerns his disability rating. Army doctors are
disputing that Dell's head injury was the cause of his mental impairment.
One report says that he was slow in high school and that his cognitive
problems could be linked to his native intelligence rather than to his
injury.


"They said, 'Well, he was in Title I math,' like he was retarded," Annette
says. "Well, y'all took him, didn't you?"


The same fight is being waged by their friends, who aren't the young
warriors in Army posters but middle-age men who left factory jobs to deploy
to Iraq with their Guard units. They were fit enough for war, but now they
are facing teams of Army doctors scrutinizing their injuries for signs of
preexisting conditions, lessening their chance for disability benefits.


Dell and Annette's closest friend at Mologne House is a 47-year-old Guard
member who was driving an Army vehicle through the Iraqi night when a flash
of light blinded him and he crashed into a ditch with an eight-foot drop.
Among his many injuries was a broken foot that didn't heal properly. Army
doctors decided that "late life atrophy" was responsible for the foot, not
the truck wreck in Iraq.


When Dell sees his medical records, he explodes. "Special ed is for the
mentally retarded, and I'm not mentally retarded, right, babe?" he asks
Annette. "I graduated from high school. I did some college. I worked in a
steel mill."


It's after 9 one night and Dell and Annette are both exhausted, but Dell
still needs to practice using voice-recognition software. Reluctantly, he
mutes "The Ultimate Fighting Challenge" on TV and sits next to Annette in
bed with a laptop.


"My name is Wendell," he says. "Wendell Woodward McLeod Jr."


Annette tells him to sit up. "Spell 'dog,' " she says, softly.


"Spell 'dog,' " he repeats.


"Listen to me," she says.


"Listen to me." He slumps on the pillow. His eyes drift toward the
wrestlers on TV.


"You are not working hard enough, Dell," Annette says, pleading. "Wake up."


"Wake up," he says.


"Dell, come on now!"


For Some, a Grim Kind of Fame


No one questions Sgt. Bryan Anderson's sacrifice. One floor above Dell and
Annette's room at Mologne House, he holds the gruesome honor of being one
of the war's five triple amputees. Bryan, 25, lost both legs and his left
arm when a roadside bomb exploded next to the Humvee he was driving with
the 411th Military Police Company. Modern medicine saved him and now he's
the pride of the prosthetics team at Walter Reed. Tenacious and
wisecracking, he wrote "[Expletive] Iraq" on his left leg socket.


Amputees are the first to receive celebrity visitors, job offers and
extravagant trips, but Bryan is in a league of his own. Johnny Depp's
people want to hook up in London or Paris. The actor Gary Sinise, who
played an angry Vietnam amputee in "Forrest Gump," sends his regards. And
Esquire magazine is setting up a photo shoot.


Bryan's room at Mologne House is stuffed with gifts from corporate America
and private citizens: $350 Bose noise-canceling headphones, nearly a
thousand DVDs sent by well-wishers and quilts made by church grannies. The
door prizes of war. Two flesh-colored legs are stacked on the floor. A
computerized hand sprouting blond hair is on the table.


One Saturday afternoon, Bryan is on his bed downloading music. Without his
prosthetics, he weighs less than 100 pounds. "Mom, what time is our plane?"
he asks his mother, Janet Waswo, who lives in the room with him. A movie
company is flying them to Boston for the premiere of a documentary about
amputee hand-cyclers in which Bryan appears.


Representing the indomitable spirit of the American warrior sometimes
becomes too much, and Bryan turns off his phone.


Perks and stardom do not come to every amputee. Sgt. David Thomas, a gunner
with the Tennessee National Guard, spent his first three months at Walter
Reed with no decent clothes; medics in Samarra had cut off his uniform.
Heavily drugged, missing one leg and suffering from traumatic brain injury,
David, 42, was finally told by a physical therapist to go to the Red Cross
office, where he was given a T-shirt and sweat pants. He was awarded a
Purple Heart but had no underwear.


David tangled with Walter Reed's image machine when he wanted to attend a
ceremony for a fellow amputee, a Mexican national who was being granted
U.S. citizenship by President Bush. A case worker quizzed him about what he
would wear. It was summer, so David said shorts. The case manager said the
media would be there and shorts were not advisable because the amputees
would be seated in the front row.


" 'Are you telling me that I can't go to the ceremony 'cause I'm an
amputee?' " David recalled asking. "She said, 'No, I'm saying you need to
wear pants.' "


David told the case worker, "I'm not ashamed of what I did, and y'all
shouldn't be neither." When the guest list came out for the ceremony, his
name was not on it.


Still, for all its careful choreography of the amputees, Walter Reed offers
protection from a staring world. On warm nights at the picnic tables behind
Mologne House, someone fires up the barbecue grill and someone else makes a
beer run to Georgia Avenue.


Bryan Anderson is out here one Friday. "Hey, Bry, what time should we leave
in the morning?" asks his best friend, a female soldier also injured in
Iraq. The next day is Veterans Day, and Bryan wants to go to Arlington
National Cemetery. His pal Gary Sinise will be there, and Bryan wants to
give him a signed photo.


Thousands of spectators are already at Arlington the next morning when
Bryan and his friend join the surge toward the ceremony at the Tomb of the
Unknowns. The sunshine dazzles. Bryan is in his wheelchair. If loss and
sacrifice are theoretical to some on this day, here is living proof --
three stumps and a crooked boyish smile. Even the acres of tombstones can't
compete. Spectators cut their eyes toward him and look away.


Suddenly, the thunder of cannons shakes the sky. The last time Bryan heard
this sound, his legs were severed and he was nearly bleeding to death in a
fiery Humvee.


Boom. Boom. Boom. Bryan pushes his wheelchair harder, trying to get away
from the noise. "Damn it," he says, "when are they gonna stop?"


Bryan's friend walks off by herself and holds her head. The cannon thunder
has unglued her, too, and she is crying.


Friends From Ward 54


An old friend comes to visit Dell and Annette. Sgt. Oscar Fernandez spent
14 months at Walter Reed after having a heart attack in Afghanistan. Oscar
also had post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD, a condition that worsened at
Walter Reed and landed the 45-year-old soldier in the hospital's
psychiatric unit, Ward 54.


Oscar belonged to a tight-knit group of soldiers who were dealing with
combat stress and other psychological issues. They would hang out in each
other's rooms at night, venting their fury at the Army's Cuckoo's Nest. On
weekends they escaped Walter Reed to a Chinese buffet or went shopping for
bootleg Spanish DVDs in nearby Takoma Park. They once made a road trip to a
casino near the New Jersey border.


They abided each other's frailties. Sgt. Steve Justi would get the
slightest cut on his skin and drop to his knees, his face full of anguish,
apologizing over and over. For what, Oscar did not know. Steve was the
college boy who went to Iraq, and Oscar figured something terrible had
happened over there.


Sgt. Mike Smith was the insomniac. He'd stay up till 2 or 3 in the morning,
smoking on the back porch by himself. Doctors had put steel rods in his
neck after a truck accident in Iraq. To turn his head, the 41-year-old
Guard member from Iowa had to rotate his entire body. He was fighting with
the Army over his disability rating, too, and in frustration had recently
called a congressional investigator for help.


"They try in all their power to have you get well, but it reverses itself,"
Oscar liked to say.


Dell was not a psych patient, but he and Oscar bonded. They were an
unlikely pair -- the dark-haired Cuban American with a penchant for polo
shirts and salsa, and the molasses earnestness of Dell.


Oscar would say things like "I'm trying to better myself through my own
recognizance," and Dell would nod in appreciation.


To celebrate Oscar's return visit to Walter Reed, they decide to have
dinner in Silver Spring.


Annette tells Oscar that a soldier was arrested at Walter Reed for waving a
gun around.


"A soldier, coming from war?" Oscar asks.


Annette doesn't know. She mentions that another soldier was kicked out of
Mologne House for selling his painkillers.


The talk turns to their friend Steve Justi. A few days earlier, Steve was
discharged from the Army and given a zero percent disability rating for his
mental condition.


Oscar is visibly angry. "They gave him nothing," he says. "They said his
bipolar was preexisting."


Annette is quiet. "Poor Steve," she says.


After dinner, they return through the gates of Walter Reed in Annette's
car, a John 3:16 decal on the bumper and the Dixie Chicks in the CD player.
Annette sees a flier in the lobby of Mologne House announcing a free trip
to see Toby Keith in concert.


A week later, it is a wonderful night at the Nissan Pavilion. About 70
wounded soldiers from Walter Reed attend the show. Toby invites them up on
stage and brings the house down when he sings his monster wartime hit
"American Soldier." Dell stands on stage in his uniform while Annette snaps
pictures.


"Give a hand clap for the soldiers," Annette hears Toby tell the audience,
"then give a hand for the U.S.A."


A Soldier Snaps


Deep into deer-hunting country and fields of withered corn, past the
Pennsylvania Turnpike in the rural town of Ellwood City, Steve Justi sits
in his parents' living room, fighting off the afternoon's lethargy.


A photo on a shelf shows a chiseled soldier, but the one in the chair is 35
pounds heavier. Antipsychotic drugs give him tremors and cloud his mind.
Still, he is deliberate and thoughtful as he explains his path from soldier
to psychiatric patient in the war on terrorism.


After receiving a history degree from Mercyhurst College, Steve was
motivated by the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to join the National Guard. He
landed in Iraq in 2003 with the First Battalion, 107th Field Artillery,
helping the Marines in Fallujah.


"It was just the normal stuff," Steve says, describing the violence he
witnessed in Iraq. His voice is oddly flat as he recalls the day his friend
died in a Humvee accident. The friend was driving with another soldier when
they flipped off the road into a swamp. They were trapped upside down and
submerged. Steve helped pull them out and gave CPR, but it was too late.
The swamp water kept pushing back into his own mouth. He rode in the
helicopter with the wet bodies.


After he finished his tour, everything was fine back home in Pennsylvania
for about 10 months, and then a strange bout of insomnia started. After
four days without sleep, he burst into full-out mania and was hospitalized
in restraints.


Did anything trigger the insomnia? "Not really," Steve says calmly, sitting
in his chair.


His mother overhears this from the kitchen and comes into the living room.
"His sergeant had called saying that the unit was looking for volunteers to
go back to Iraq," Cindy Justi says. "This is what triggered his snap."


Steve woke up in the psychiatric unit at Walter Reed and spent the next six
months going back and forth between there and a room at Mologne House. He
was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. He denied to doctors that he was
suffering from PTSD, yet he called home once from Ward 54 and shouted into
the phone, "Mom, can't you hear all the shooting in the background?"


He was on the ward for the sixth time when he was notified that he was
being discharged from the Army, with only a few days to clear out and a
disability rating of zero percent.


On some level, Steve expected the zero rating. During his senior year of
college, he suffered a nervous breakdown and for several months was treated
with antidepressants. He disclosed this to the National Guard recruiter,
who said it was a nonissue. It became an issue when he told doctors at
Walter Reed. The Army decided that his condition was not aggravated by his
time in Iraq. The only help he would get would come from Veterans Affairs.


"We have no idea if what he endured over there had a worsening effect on
him," says his mother.


His father gets home from the office. Ron Justi sits on the couch across
from his son. "He was okay to sacrifice his body, but now that it's time he
needs some help, they are not here," Ron says.


Outside the Gates


The Army gives Dell McLeod a discharge date. His days at Mologne House are
numbered. The cramped hotel room has become home, and now he is afraid to
leave it. His anxiety worsens. "Shut up!" he screams at Annette one night,
his face red with rage, when she tells him to stop fiddling with his
wedding ring.


Later, Annette says: "I am exhausted. He doesn't understand that I've been
fighting the Army."


Doctors have concluded that Dell was slow as a child and that his head
injury on the Iraqi border did not cause brain damage. "It is possible that
pre-morbid emotional difficulties and/or pre-morbid intellectual
functioning may be contributing factors to his reported symptoms," a doctor
wrote, withholding a diagnosis of traumatic brain injury.


Annette pushes for more brain testing and gets nowhere until someone gives
her the name of a staffer for the House Committee on Oversight and
Government Reform. A few days later, Annette is called to a meeting with
the command at Walter Reed. Dell is given a higher disability rating than
expected -- 50 percent, which means he will receive half of his base pay
until he is evaluated again in 18 months. He signs the papers.


Dell wears his uniform for the last time, somber and careful as he dresses
for formation. Annette packs up the room and loads their Chevy Cavalier to
the brim. Finally the gates of Walter Reed are behind them. They are
southbound on I-95 just past the Virginia line when Dell begins to cry,
Annette would later recall. She pulls over and they both weep.


Not long after, Bryan Anderson also leaves Mologne House. When the triple
amputee gets off the plane in Chicago, American Airlines greets him on the
tarmac with hoses spraying arches of water, and cheering citizens line the
roads that lead to his home town, Rolling Meadows.


Bryan makes the January cover of Esquire. He is wearing his beat-up cargo
shorts and an Army T-shirt, legless and holding his Purple Heart in his
robot hand. The headline says "The Meaning of Life."


A month after Bryan leaves, Mike Smith, the insomniac soldier, is found
dead in his room. Mike had just received the good news that the Army was
raising his disability rating after a congressional staff member intervened
on his behalf. It was the week before Christmas, and he was set to leave
Walter Reed to go home to his wife and kids in Iowa when his body was
found. The Army told his wife that he died of an apparent heart attack,
according to her father.


Distraught, Oscar Fernandez calls Dell and Annette in South Carolina with
the news. "It's the constant assault of the Army," he says.


Life with Dell is worsening. He can't be left alone. The closest VA
hospital is two hours away. Doctors say he has liver problems because of
all the medications. He is also being examined for PTSD. "I don't even know
this man anymore," Annette says.


At Mologne House, the rooms empty and fill, empty and fill. The lobby
chandelier glows and the bowl of red apples waits on the front desk. An
announcement goes up for Texas Hold 'Em poker in the bar.


One cold night an exhausted mother with two suitcases tied together with
rope shows up at the front desk and says, "I am here for my son." And so it
begins.

No comments: