Uncovering Misery at Walter Reed
Lori Robertson (email@example.com), a former AJR managing editor, is a senior contributing writer for the magazine.
In a two-part series in February, Washington Post reporters Dana Priest and Anne Hull wrote about what they called "The Other Walter Reed"--a tale of the dilapidated living conditions and bureaucratic nightmares endured by about 700 outpatients at the medical center in Washington, D.C. The articles--at once hard-hitting investigation and lyrical description of the emotional toll weathered by soldiers and their families--provoked a quick response. Within weeks of publication, the Army secretary and the commander of Walter Reed Army Medical Center were fired, the Army surgeon general stepped down, multiple government investigations were launched, and Priest and Hull were flooded with thousands of readers' phone calls and e-mails.
Some of the outpatients, veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, resided among cockroaches, rodents and black mold. Others waited for up to two years for word from the military as to where they would go next. Numerous media outlets, as well as the Post, have followed the story, as more tales of poor treatment and mismanagement at VA hospitals emerge. AJR senior contributing writer Lori Robertson spoke with Priest and Hull about the series.
Q: Can you talk just a little bit about when and how this story began?
Dana Priest: We got a tip from someone that neither one of us knew and went out to an initial meeting with this person. And the person had had contact with some families at Walter Reed, and those families had told the person about their story.... And then it evolved like really any kind of basic investigative stuff does. You create a net; the net grows. Those initial families put us on to other families and other families and soldiers along the way and eventually staff members and former staff members.
Anne Hull: The net just kept growing, and we interviewed dozens and dozens of people, and only a fraction appear in the stories. Each individual story was its own sad, heartbreaking scenario with its own complications.
Priest: One turning point was getting in contact with some government investigators who had looked at this issue [or something similar] the year before... I remember walking out of that meeting and thinking, 'Yep, they have just given back to us 99.9 percent of the things we heard.'.. They were kind of reaffirming some of the things that we had discovered.
The reporters spent about four months visiting the outpatient sections of Walter Reed without the knowledge of officials there. They say they didn't ask permission before they began reporting but never lied about who they were. They won't elaborate.
Q: How difficult was it to gain the trust of soldiers, to get them to talk, and to really essentially complain, about the military on the record?
Hull: I think people were so frustrated that they were willing to kind of circumvent the culture--and that is to ask permission--and they wanted to be heard. They had complained to commanders and had not been heard.
The reporters were concerned that the Army might retaliate against those who spoke out. But time helped: Either the veterans were out of the system by the time the story was going to be published, or something happened to make the soldiers feel they wouldn't be punished.
Priest: To me the big lesson in how you do stories like this is time. You can't push people too quickly; you can't really expect to see things so deeply and understand them in a way that you can authoritatively write about them unless you have time on your side.
Q: You must have had a tremendous amount of material for this. Can you talk a little bit about the writing process?
Hull: I watched [Dana] ruminate and ruminate and ruminate... You can always kind of feel her thinking and then she writes fairly fast. And I'm much more the tortoise. But we're both organized in the way we do our reporting, and we decided from the start she would do the global overview story..and I would sort of do the more micro approach.
Priest: Which really played to both of our strengths, and I think that's why the package was more powerful than if I had done it by myself.
Priest is a national security and intelligence reporter with an investigative bent; Hull is a feature writer who spends days with her subjects to describe their lives. They sit on opposite sides of the newsroom and had never worked together on a story before. Priest got the initial tip. Concerned that she wouldn't be able to fully capture the emotion of the families' stories, she asked Hull for help.
Priest: My favorite term of hers was to 'unpack it.' I have been a deadline writer for years and have tried to cram so much into a lead, and that's why it was so interesting to work with Anne, because, you know, she's trying to unpack the leads to make them more readable.
Hull: For me the big difference in this story, and I think it's probably changed my approach forever: Usually I write to illuminate, and this time I wrote to prove something.
Q: You used some interesting phrases and words in the story – "yawning hulk," which I think is just a beautifully descriptive phrase, and you invented the word "gorked," as in "gorked out on pills." What led you to use that word specifically, and what types of discussions did you have on word choice?
Hull: Doctors use that; they say 'snowed' or 'gorked.' And at 5 in the morning, Dell McLeod is a yawning hulk.
Hull read that description and this one--"Lumbering and blue-eyed, Dell is a big ox baby."--to McLeod and his wife, Annette, to make sure they weren't offended. Annette's response, says Hull: "You captured him."
Q: How surprised are you about the swiftness of the response, and is it the type of response you had hoped for?
Priest: I think we were very surprised..about how it all has unfolded and the speed, but also the steps that they've taken in terms of relieving a commander. I mean, there were no generals relieved for Abu Ghraib and yet they relieved a 2-star general here. I think that speaks in a large extent to the timing.
This story may have reverberated so strongly, Priest and Hull say, because of a confluence of factors: the waning support for the war but continued support for the troops; the realization that the government wasn't adequately prepared for the war; a critical Democratic Congress; a possible increase in troop levels; and a new defense secretary who reacted to this series with a thank you.
Priest: So all of those things converged to give us this amazing hurricane of reaction.
Hull: It's been a hurricane. It's a good way to describe it. I don't even think we're able to absorb it yet. But in the midst of reporting..I never thought, 'God we've got a hell of a story.'.. You're just quietly out there reporting, and you're just most fixated on how do you tell this person's story most accurately.
Q: I've heard people in grocery stores and my local coffee shop talking about this story, which does not happen very often. Is this a reaffirmation of the power of newspaper journalism?
Priest: I've never, ever received the sort of e-mail, and it's not just the hundreds of e-mails every day, it's that they're not organized... It's been an eye opener, or a reminder I guess, for other people that this is what we can do when we have this forum.
Hull: Well, you know, people are still reading newspapers, and they're still reading long stories in the newspaper, and actually, they're still reading long stories on the Web, and that's a good thing for people who care about telling stories... And hopefully this will be some kind of subtle message to other newsrooms that if you can spare the time and the resources to turn a reporter loose for a good bit of time, then something good might happen. ###