Media catches up to UPI's reports on vets

By DAN OLMSTED, UPI Senior Editor  |  March 7, 2007 at 4:27 PM
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WASHINGTON, March 7 (UPI) -- Recent reports on healthcare problems facing wounded U.S. soldiers may be giving some readers a sense of déjà vu. That's because UPI broke the story of substandard medical treatment and housing in 2003 in a series of award-winning articles by correspondent Mark Benjamin.

"Sick, wounded U.S. troops held in squalor" was the headline on Benjamin's Oct. 17, 2003, report from Fort Stewart, Ga.

"Hundreds of sick and wounded U.S. soldiers including many who served in the Iraq war are languishing in hot cement barracks here while they wait -- sometimes for months -- to see doctors," the story began.

"The National Guard and Army Reserve soldiers' living conditions are so substandard, and the medical care so poor, that many of them believe the Army is trying push them out with reduced benefits for their ailments," the article continued. "One document shown to UPI states that no more doctor appointments are available from Oct. 14 through Nov. 11 -- Veterans Day."

The article at first provoked an angry response from Army officials, as did a subsequent piece by Benjamin documenting similar healthcare problems at Fort Knox, Ky. A UPI photographer, Michael Kleinfeld, was briefly detained by base officials, and a top Army general complained that UPI was trespassing on military property. That accusation was later withdrawn, and the Army acknowledged there was no posted order barring journalists from the base.

Benjamin left UPI and became a national reporter for Salon.com in 2005, where in an ongoing series of articles he has documented many of the same healthcare and bureaucratic problems at Walter Reed Army Medical Center recently reported by The Washington Post. The Post's articles set off a firestorm of criticism that cost the commander of Walter Reed, and ultimately the Army secretary, their jobs, and led President Bush to order system-wide reform.

Benjamin's reporting for UPI won several awards, including the 2004 Fourth Estate Award from the American Legion and a Clapper award from the Senate Press Gallery.

Nicholas Chiaia, UPI's chief operating officer, hailed Benjamin's early reporting for UPI and said: "Our public officials must heed the voice of the independently owned media companies like UPI. Sadly, the information was available via UPI years ago, as recognized by those major awards."

Benjamin's reporting led to the promise of reform. A January 2004 story by Benjamin, headlined "Army fixing medical failure exposed by UPI," began: "Pentagon officials told a House panel Wednesday they would do whatever it takes to avoid the mistakes that last year left sick and injured troops at U.S. bases waiting weeks and months for doctors. Many had served in Iraq.

"The solutions include moving ill soldiers from steamy cement barracks without running water into nearby hotels, adding more doctors and setting aside $77 million to improve conditions.

"'We recognize that last fall, we temporarily lost sight of the situation," Daniel Denning, an assistant secretary of the Army, told the House Total Force Subcommittee Wednesday."

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