For Lt. Peterson, a True ‘Nightmare’ at Walter Reed

Posted December 18, 2007 at 5:35pm

On Dec. 5, 2005, Army Lt. Terrance J. Peterson III was in a convoy escorting VIPs to the American Embassy in Baghdad. He was in the back seat of a humvee, passenger side, when an IED ripped through the vehicle on his side. Shrapnel tore through the artery in his upper left arm and took away tissue and bone in the lower arm. His left foot was fused to the bottom of the vehicle. The captain sitting next to him took the strap from his gun and put a tourniquet on Terry’s arm so that he would not bleed to death. The soldier in the front passenger seat was killed, and others were injured. [IMGCAP(1)]

His arm was devastated, knuckles of several fingers on both hands blown out. He had huge shrapnel wound on his left quadriceps, and his left foot was shattered. He was taken to a medical unit, where he got blood transfusions, and was soon sent to Germany to ward off infections. After less than 48 hours in Germany, he was transferred to Walter Reed, where the real nightmare began.

I do not have the space to cover even a fraction of the horrors Terry and his family encountered over the next two years, as he went through at least 23 separate surgeries, but let me give a few lowlights. Many of them are built around a loving family, without ample means and with broken promises of military financial assistance. They tried to be with their son and help him recover and get through the process, but were constantly stymied by callous bureaucrats, indifferent or hostile military personnel, know-nothing liaison people, and utterly contradictory orders and advice. He was also hindered by missing paperwork from the time he was transferred from Germany to Walter Reed — as if a largely unconscious, seriously wounded soldier who had barely escaped death should have been responsible for taking charge of his own papers!

On a cold, snowy day in February 2006, three months and several operations after his arrival at Walter Reed, a wheelchair-bound Terry Peterson was told without warning that he was going to be discharged immediately and made an outpatient. It was totally up to him to get all of his personal belongings out of the hospital room within four to six hours, with no place provided by the military for him to go, no car and no assistance. Fortunately, with the help of friends, he found space at Fisher House on the other side of the Walter Reed campus. But he still had to get there. His sister, with the help of my friend Mike, who rushed out there in a cab, had to move things mainly by hand over several trips, up a major hill in winter.

As an outpatient, he had to make all of his own appointments and follow up, with his 75-year-old grandmother often the one to wheel him up and down the hill. He was naturally rather depressed — and of course, there was virtually no mental health evaluation or follow-up. Terry’s family got a personal trainer to take him to the base fitness center by the hospital; the trainer would pick him up and wheel him there, and assist his transfer to and from weight machines. Then army personnel told him he could not work with an outside trainer — and they had no one who would help him get to the fitness center. So he gave that up.

More surgeries, a few convalescent leaves, a three-month stint where there was no room for him anywhere at Walter Reed, and he had to go to a hotel, paying his own expenses with the promise that the Army would reimburse him — but through a horribly cumbersome and notoriously slow reimbursement process that still has not come through with the $10,000-plus he and his family paid out-of-pocket.

His experiences through this time with the medical bureaucracy — what is called “Med Hold” — were horrific. The family made repeated efforts to get him transferred out and eventually he was able to get to his unit at Fort Stewart in Georgia, where he received the remainder of his care at Winn Parish Medical Center in Louisiana, far from his family home.

Now imagine the same kind of experience for a kid without a large, warm and supportive family to help him cope with the military bureaucracy, or with a family that lacked any means to travel across the country to Washington and set up residence for months or years to help out, without sophisticated friends who know the political ropes to intervene. And recognize that there are many of them out there suffering more at home than they did on the battlefield.

Terry Peterson is soon going to look for a new career, and still wants to serve his country, but this time in a place like the CIA, the Secret Service or the FBI.

Here is a part of what his mother sent in a recent e-mail:

“Ever since Terry has been a small boy he had wanted to serve his country. He went to a military high school and graduated from the Citadel with the dream to serve his country in the US Army. We could not have been prouder and supported him every way that we could. Unfortunately, after our time in the system I feel guilty for supporting my son with his choices of an Army career. Walter Reed especially Med. Hold broke his spirit and ours — in less than a year a dedicated young officer and his family were transformed from proud, gung-ho members of the US military to totally disillusioned people who could not wait to get as far from the military and the [Defense Department] as possible.”

Many of the people Terry Peterson and his family encountered were terrific, including the dedicated medical personnel who treated him when he was hit and who participated in his many operations. By the family’s account, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and his staff were also extraordinarily helpful. But an out-of-control system and a bunch of people with no concern at all for wounded warriors still made his experience an excruciating one, and have done great damage to our country.

I do not know Terry Peterson or his family. I heard about him at a holiday party from friends who are old Washington hands. The Petersons were connected to them through a relative; with no family living in Washington, they asked Mike and Janet to help out here, and they ended up deeply engaged in his case. The more they told me, the sicker and more outraged I got — especially since I am sure it has been repeated, in even more nightmarish form, for hundreds or thousands of our most noble Americans, those who put their lives on the line for us, got the worst of it, and have been treated like dirt since their triage and evacuation from the war zone.

Thank God for the efforts of former Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.), Donna Shalala and their fellow commissioners who worked quickly after the Walter Reed scandal broke and who focused on a problem-solving approach. Their common-sense recommendations have started to be implemented, although far more in the executive branch than in Congress.

But the story of Lt. Terrance J. Peterson III, recounted to me by his mother via my friends, and reinforced by their own direct accounts, serves as a reminder that even with the Dole-Shalala commission recommendations on the way or in place, huge problems remain that are a giant blight on America.

Why write this story now, and why in Roll Call? Because the work of the Dole-Shalala commission to ameliorate the kinds of problems Peterson had is not done — and because the two Veterans’ Affairs committees in Congress are showing none of the signs of urgency needed to get them done.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.