YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Wounds Of War

With the number of casualties from Iraq growing, Walter Reed and other military hospitals have been transformed.

November 09, 2003|Esther Schrader | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The physical therapists on the fifth floor of Walter Reed Army Medical Center have a bulletin board they call their Wall of Heroes. It is crammed with photos of young soldiers in their care -- soldiers wounded in the war in Iraq.

The images of the amputees and burn victims stand out, a tragic irony of an important advance in military protective gear.

The new armored vests that soldiers are wearing in this war protect the human torso and have saved countless lives, but often at a terrible price. One day last week, all but 20 of the 250 beds at the center were taken up with casualties of the war. Fifty of them have lost limbs, often more than one. Dozens more suffer burns and shrapnel wounds that begin where their armored vests ended.

On average, they are 23 years old.

Many would have died except for their Kevlar vests, which stopped rounds from a Kalashnikov rifle, a 9-millimeter handgun or fragments from a grenade. There have been more wounded -- and over a longer period -- than the hospital expected.

"We didn't start [the bulletin board] when the war began because we didn't have any idea," said Maj. Mary Hannah, a physical therapist. "Even the most experienced people here -- it is beyond their imagining. These are our babies. And they just keep coming, coming, coming."

As the U.S.-led coalition forces battle an increasingly fierce insurgency in Iraq, the military's medical system is waging its own war -- and Walter Reed, its premier medical center, is in the thick of it.

The world-renowned teaching and research hospital, which opened in 1909, has treated presidents and senators. Since World War I, Walter Reed has been a crucial, and often a long-term, stop for the most seriously wounded in war. Last week, more than a dozen survivors of the Chinook helicopter shot down by insurgents in Iraq Nov. 2 were carried in on stretchers. They entered a hospital transformed over the last seven months by the first big wave of combat casualties since the Vietnam War.

Since April, when the first casualties began arriving, more than 1,875 have been treated at Walter Reed, an average of about 10 a day, 300 a month. On any given day during that time, the hospital has had about 50 inpatients and 180 outpatients from the war.

The number of amputees and burn patients is still small compared with that during height of the Vietnam War, in which far more soldiers fought for far longer. But in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, just 10 amputees were treated at Walter Reed compared with the 50 in this war.

"The number is big to me now, bigger than anything I've seen since Vietnam," said Jim Mayer, 57, who lost both legs in that war and now volunteers at the hospital several days a week helping amputees. "When we see each other here, me and the other volunteers, our line to each other is, 'They just keep coming and coming.' "

In Ward 57, orthopedic surgeons work day and night. In the physical therapy rooms, young men missing limbs lie side by side and head to toe on mats, lifting weights. Hospital staffers come in on their days off, bringing pizza to the wounded soldiers, taking those who are well enough out to the movies. One physical therapist took a recovering "green card" soldier to the Immigration and Naturalization Service to pick up his U.S. citizenship papers.

A half hour away, at Andrews Air Force Base, the tennis court and gymnasium of the fitness center have become a medical staging facility for those evacuated from the war zone. More than 7,500 have come through since April.

In addition to the nearly 1,900 who have gone on to Walter Reed, 1,500 have been sent to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., which treats the injured from the Navy and Marines. Several thousand less seriously wounded soldiers have been sent directly to some of the military's dozens of smaller hospitals and clinics around the country.

After reports surfaced last month that the level of care being given at one of those smaller facilities was substandard, the Army took steps to improve services there and began an evaluation of the care at other regional hospitals.


The grounds at Walter Reed are crammed with recuperating soldiers and their families. There are so many spouses, parents and children that the more than 600 rooms in guest houses on the hospital grounds are not enough to hold them. Some are doubling up in single rooms. Hundreds are staying, at Pentagon expense, in hotels nearby. Hospital officials plan to lease space at a military housing complex four miles away to handle the overflow.

At least one mother has finagled a bed down the hall from her son's hospital room.

"I have to," says Joyce Gray, mother of Roy, an Army corporal whose leg was torn open by a mortar round as he was climbing into his truck. "My son has nightmares."

Los Angeles Times Articles