Tuesday, March 6, 2007

A version of the following essay appeared on Progress Notes. I made some revisions and shipped it off to several newspapers and NPR. So far one paper in Massachusetts has published it. Here it is.

Does This Story Have Legs?

By Terrence McCarthy

The Washington Post is gettng rave reviews for its stories about the deplorable conditions at Walter Reed Hospital's Building #18. Instead of giving the paper credit, I'm wondering: What took them so long?Mice. Cockroaches. Mold. Holes in their walls and in their ceilings. Is this the way we Americans treat wounded troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan?

These conditions have been known about for three years. The miltary brass knew. Wounded troops' families knew. Walter Reed isn't located in some far away place with a strange sounding name. It has the same zip code as The Washington Post. Papers like the Post have bureaus and correspondents all over the world, yet this is a story that's been unfolding in a place that's a short cab ride from the Post's newsroom.So I'm not jumping on the Praise the Post bandwagon just yet.As I read the stories, and see how the cable news guys are picking it up, I can't help but recall how Geraldo Rivera made a name for himself. Geraldo Rivera in 1972 won an Emmy for his report of neglect and abuse at a Staten Island facility for the mentally retarded. More than thirty years later, you look up " Tabloid TV " in the dictionary, Geraldo's mug shot is right over there in the margin.

How far he, and we, have come. Yeah, right.Still. Where was Geraldo, or his journalistic heir or heiresses apparent two or three years ago, when this story should have been broken?Yes, I'm happy to see the morons responsible for this outrage exposed. I'm pleased that the Secretary of the Army was fired. I'm hopeful that conditions at Building # 18 will improve faster than you can say, " Cover your butt. " But beyond that nothing much is going to happen. It's just another case of a bureaucracy doing what it does best. Screwing up, then when it's caught doing that, doing as little as humanly possible to patch things up. Look what happened with Katrina. One minute Mike Brown's getting patted on the back ( " Heck of a job, Brownie. " ) The next minute he's canned and a new boss, same as the old boss, is sitting in that big corner office.

With a Cuban cigar stuck between his lips. Blowing even more smoke than the guy whose butt was warming the seat before his.

That's just one, very visible, example of how it works. As Kurt Vonnegut has reminded us:

So it goes.

And goes, and goes...

I'm familiar with the sorry ways large organizations do business. I know how bureaucracies work and how they don't. I've been there. Done that. Been done to, too.

I'm an Air Force veteran. I graduated from a large state university ( UMass ) . Worked for a large teaching hospital. ( Baystate Medical Center ) .

All these places in which I was a small cog in a large machine had one thing in common. Bureaucracies were the crazy glue that held things together.

Will Walter Reed survive this? You better believe they'll survive. That's what bureaucratic institutions do best. They're the exact opposite of the Hummers lacking needed armor in Iraq.

Large organizations, protected by their bureaucracies, have very thick skins.

Walter Reed? Sure, heads are rolling. Military careers are shot. Individuals are taking some hits. But the Big Picture will remain pretty much unchanged.

Does this story the Washington Post broke have legs? No, it does not. It has one leg, and is missing an arm, and nobody will care come next Tuesday.

Terrence McCarthy, an Easthampton native, is a writer who lives in Rhode Island

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