07.18.10

Vet Snub Shocks Families

America's top officials were notably absent at the launch of a new veterans' center. Leslie H. Gelb talks to its chief fundraiser, Arnold Fisher, about our duty to troops with war's mental wounds.

America’s top officials were notably absent at the launch of a new veterans' center to care for brain-damaged soldiers. Leslie H. Gelb talks to its chief fundraiser, Arnold Fisher, about our duty to troops with war’s mental wounds.

It was inauguration day for the nation’s most modern facility for the treatment of active-duty soldiers and veterans suffering from brain injuries and psychological disorders—5,000 of them with families on hand. At the podium in Bethesda, Maryland, stood Arnold Fisher, the chief fundraiser for this precious center that may need to care for hundreds of thousands of victims, searching in vain for one White House official, one Cabinet officer, one member of the Joint Chiefs, one senator. He found none. And he asked again and again, “Where are they?”

“You are injured,” Fisher said. “We are all here. Where are they?”

Where were they? President Obama was in meetings and having a hamburger lunch with Russian President Medvedev. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was also at these meetings, though not at the hamburger shop in Virginia. Michelle Obama, who has made caring for military families one of her top priorities, couldn’t make it; she was said to have given her final "no" at the last minute. She was accompanying Mrs. Medvedev on a visit to the Duke Ellington School for the Arts in D.C., where they watched a dance performance. Vice President Joe Biden also met with Russians and with Israelis. Defense Secretary Robert Gates sent his deputy William Lynn III. All four Joint Chiefs sent their deputies. General Eric Shinseki, secretary of Veterans Affairs, couldn’t make it. Not one among the legions of pro- and antiwar hooting senators could find the time. Only two members of the House of Representatives found their way to the ceremony.

But there was Fisher at the podium. A corporal in the Korean War, Fisher is now a successful real-estate developer, builder, and philanthropist. He avoids confrontation and the limelight, but he could not suppress his dismay about the absences that inaugural day. “Here we are in the nation’s capital, the seat of our government, the very people who decide your fate, the people who send you out to protect our freedoms. And yet, where are they?” he asked the attendees. “And while we appreciate that much of our military leadership is present, our government should be behind this effort,” he continued. “I know these are difficult times. I read newspapers. I see the news. And still, where are they? They call you out. You are injured. We are all here. Where are they?” According to a Rand study in 2008, approximately 300,000 soldiers who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression, and 360,000 soldiers report having sustained a traumatic brain injury. The same study found that of the soldiers who seek treatment, only slightly more than half receive minimally adequate care. Rand is not Chicken Little and does not cry “the sky is falling,” unless it is. It has been over two years since that study was released, and the Army has just recorded its highest suicide rate on record, 32 during the month of June.

According to a front-page story in The Washington Post on Sunday, senior military officers are finally coming around to the seriousness and pervasiveness of these psychological disorders. “Senior commanders have reached a turning point. After nine years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq,” the Post story says, “they are beginning to recognize age-old legacies of the battlefield—once known as shellshock or battle fatigue—as combat wounds, not signs of weakness.” Tellingly, the Post story never mentions the new facility built to treat these problems. Is it possible the generals did not even know about it? Equally tellingly, the Post story relates that the generals who have seen the light about battlefield shock have not convinced their military's medical brethren.

The victims of battle shock and their families in attendance that day, June 24, needed no convincing. And without doubt, they were surprised—no, stunned—by the truancies. The absences certainly stunned members of the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund, the group that raised the $65 million for the facility. This group also funded and built another notable and unique facility, the Center for the Intrepid, in San Antonio, Texas. It was dedicated in 2007 to amputees and burn victims. A related group, the Fisher House Foundation, has funded and constructed some 45 houses around the United States and abroad that enable families of military personnel receiving treatment to stay by the sides of their loved ones. (Last year, Obama donated $250,000 of his Nobel Prize money to the Fisher House Foundation. It was his largest donation from his Nobel largesse.) Top officials from the George W. Bush administration had attended that 2007 opening. So did Senators John McCain and Hillary Clinton, who each donated to the center and were there to bless its opening.

There was also little media attention to the opening, and only Rachel Maddow of MSNBC, it seems, noted the event and Fisher’s plaintive “Where are they?” question. Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, told me this story, and I sought an appointment with Fisher. He relented and saw me last week in his office, which was festooned with patriotic memorabilia, including the framed honorary sergeant-major stripes he had been given for his work on behalf of veterans. “This is duty, not charity,” said Fisher. I got him to talk about the “Where are they?” speech, but he really wanted to talk about “Where are they now?”

The center is now entirely the responsibility of both the Department of Defense and the Veterans Administration, the former for the active-duty personnel and the latter for the vets. Fisher and the Intrepid group raised all the money privately from thousands of Americans and got the center constructed privately as well. Every dollar went to the facility; nothing for the group. The Intrepid people brooked no government interference in procurement or construction. They just got the job done. And then… they turned over the keys to the government.

The center is ready for operations. It lacks an opening date. The Pentagon has appointed a director who is slated to serve less than a year before retirement—and is therefore an odd choice to establish such a complicated operation. There has been minimal communication between Fisher’s organization and the Defense Department and Veterans Administration. And so throughout our conversation, Fisher asked aloud, once again, “Where are they now?”

If I were back at The New York Times, I would call the top officials of these government agencies and put this very question to them. Their answer would likely be—“Everything is on track.” Maybe it is even true, though their absence on June 24 does not augur well. At any rate, rather than conclude this story with official assurances to me over the telephone, I prefer to give those responsible—the Pentagon, the Veterans Administration, and indeed the White House itself—the opportunity they deserve to explain in public why they could not find a half hour on that June 24 day to attend the inaugural, and to answer Fisher’s more pressing question—“Where are they now?” in readying the trauma center to render our duty to those who rendered more than theirs.

P.S. Perhaps even the media might tear itself away from endless stories about oily pelicans in the Gulf and contestants in the November elections—and spare some time and space for the brain and trauma center in Bethesda.

Correction: There was one omission on Leslie Gelb's piece on the opening of the new brain trauma facility for soldiers and vets he is most eager to fix. Arnold Fisher, the chief fundraiser for the facility, told Gelb about the "incredibly helpful" role talk show host Don Imus played in raising millions for the new facility. And before the opening ceremonies began on June 24, Imus did his show and related interviews from the facility. The piece was about what happened at the event and after; nonetheless, Gelb would like to acknowledge Mr. Imus's critical contributions.

Leslie H. Gelb, a former New York Times columnist and senior government official, is author of Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy (HarperCollins 2009), a book that shows how to think about and use power in the 21st century. He is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.