THE BLOG
02/20/2007 05:26 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In This Case, A Soldier Was Treated Beautifully at Walter Reed

So there's a website kerfuffle between National Review Online's Jonah Goldberg and Salon' s Glenn Greenwald about Dana Priest's Washington Post investigative reports which revealed conditions of dire neglect for injured and inform U.S. soldiers at Walter Reed Hospital. Goldberg said he doesn't particularly trust Priest's reporting and thinks her paper (and the New York Times) has an "agenda" -- presumably, making the Bush administration look bad. NRO readers have written in to Goldberg, agreeing with him: saying Priest went out of her way to find an army hospital with "the crappiest conditions," etc.

But there was a case -- in 2000 -- in which Walter Reed Hospital went out of its way to give a catastrophically ill servicewoman -- a beautiful 27-year-old Navy lieutenant with a radiant smile and blazing red hair -- expensive, state-of-the-art care, including a round the clock private nurse. The young woman had acquired (right after receiving her fourth -- mandatory -- anthrax shot) a shockingly precipitous mystery disease, eventually diagnosed as a bizarrely speeded-up form of ametropic lateral sclerosis -- she lost in three months the amount of muscle function a middle aged ALS sufferer would lose in four years. During one of the rare moments that the round-the-clock nurse wasn't at her bedside, the patient whispered to a confidante the opinion she dared not reveal more widely: "The anthrax vaccine did this to me."

Flash back to the year 2000: There was a groundswell in the military, and among military doctors, against the mandatory status of the anthrax vaccine, which had been FDA-approved for experimental use only, but which every service man and woman had to take, under threat of court martial. One military doctor, Air Force captain John Buck, chose a court martial (and a $21,000 fine) rather than submit to the vaccine; he'd seen too many people get sick after taking the shot and felt the mandatory status for an experimental vaccine was a violation of servicepeople's rights. That documented number has since been shown to have increased. I spent five months investigating the vaccine's hitherto unreported disproportionate risk to women (a concern that was privately raised by the chief of the allergy-immunology department at Walter Reed at a private Pentagon conference of military doctors, the transcripts of which were leaked to me). There were a lot of stories of direly sick women that I could tell, in the pages of the magazine I was writing for, but one story I couldn't tell, because the sick young Navy lieutenant's mother was fearful that her round-the-clock care might be taken away if it was revealed that her daughter believed that the vaccine had made her sick. While I was researching the story, I received many phone calls from people who visited the sick young woman. These bedside visitors were: a former Army Top Gun (herself made seriously ill, probably by the vaccine); a Gulf War fighter pilot and Pentagon policy analyst; a Naval Reserve lieutenant colonel; and the ill young woman's mother's best friend. All of these four sources told me that they thought the family was gratefully accepting this level of care for her...essentially in return for keeping quiet. A daily visitor to the young woman's bedside was the wife of government official who had a lot to do with military medical research. The official's wife became a close friend of the young woman's mother -- she was at the patient's bedside almost every day. Now of course, the friendship may have been completely sincere and coincidental -- no one knows otherwise.

When the young woman died, no one at her funeral (which I attended) talked of her belief that the vaccine had made her sick. No one mentioned that people close to her strongly believed that the level of extraordinary medical care and the personal attention of official's wife at Walter Reed might have been a subtle quid pro quo for her keeping quiet about her fear about the source of her terminal illness. In her private room at Walter Reed, on her oscillating bed, tracheotomy and ventilator, she was as vulnerable as a human being can be -- she had to be suctioned every few minutes or else she could suffocate on her own mucuous and spittle; how on earth could she afford to say anything bad about the military? And how could her grieving mother? So they said nothing, and she received wonderful care. And then she was dead.

So that's an excellent-care-at-Walter Reed Hospital story that went untold. Ironic, in terms of it, that the issue of care at Walter Reed and politics and saying good things or bad things about military health care for political reasons should come up now --- the anthrax vaccine (after being not mandatory to our fighting men and women for years) has, just last week, been made mandatory again.