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Many times the reality of a situation lies buried beneath pages of financial reports or hidden by those trying to appear competent.

Such could be the case in an investigation of poor conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, which has already led to the resignation of the Secretary of the Army and removal of the hospital commander, with surely more to come.

Once good enough to care for presidents but now placed on the list for closure and a merger with Maryland’s Bethesda Naval Hospital, Walter Reed Army Medical Center is one of the most widely-recognized military medical facilities in the nation.

But now, Iraq War veterans are telling the House of Representatives tales of neglect at the facility that bring to light poor conditions that some have known about for years. Nothing happened, however, until an Army specialist brought his story to the Washington Post, after his chain of command failed to help.

The acting Secretary of the Army has admitted soldiers have been “let down” and President Bush has formed a committee to look into the problem. But this, like the firing of a head coach whose team misses the playoffs, is mere window dressing.

Conscious underfunding of veterans facilities like Walter Reed is the root cause of the problem. How ridiculous is it to think that closing a veterans’ medical facility makes sense at a time when the number of wounded veterans is increasing?

To let the care of our soldiers decline smacks of the poorest of politics and shabbiest of methods to cut spending.

That approach shouldn’t be startling, however, for despite the excellence of much of the medical care given to veterans, countless numbers of former soldiers have historically either been denied entry to, or were unaware of, benefits available to them.

In the Vietnam War era soldiers from 1961 forward are eligible for VA medical care. But many suffered wounds in Vietnam as early as 1958, when politics and policy had not yet recognized the conflict.

According to reports, the commander of Walter Reed was warned about the outcome of the Army’s decision to turn over the facility’s support services to a private contractor, which led to an exodus of skilled staff and left patient care at risk. Yet Washington was no more prepared for this than they were the after-effects of declaring war on Iraq.

It is unsettling, to say the least, to read that the outgoing commander is being replaced by a predecessor who is known to have been aware of the problems while he was in charge.

Walter Reed Army Medical Center should remain open, should be updated and expanded.

Properly caring for our wounded veterans cannot be an option. Just as they were ordered into war, putting their very lives at risk, so, too, are we obligated, without question, to care for those fortunate enough to come home.

However high we think the cost of caring for these men and women is to our country, the cost to the soldiers and their families is far higher.

Their care is the sacred duty of those for whom these men and women placed their lives in harm’s way.

To do less is a national disgrace.

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