Senators re-examine help for veterans

WASHINGTON — Four years after a scandal exposed shortcomings in the treatment of America's wounded soldiers, top officials with the Defense Department and the Department of Veterans Affairs sought to assure Congress on Wednesday that vast improvements have been made. But it was a tough sell.

Democrat Patty Murray of Washington state, the chairwoman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, said the U.S. must step up its care for wounded soldiers returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, including those most at risk of suicide and the hundreds who've had limbs amputated.

"After a decade of continuous conflict, I am concerned that the nation is becoming desensitized to the physical and psychological wounds of war," Murray said. "While those watching on the nightly news may feel as though they have seen many such injuries, we can never forget how truly devastating some of these injuries are, and what an overwhelming impact they have on a service member or veteran's life, as well as on their family."

North Carolina's Richard Burr, the top Republican on the committee, said he was uncertain that much had changed since the scandal at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.

"It has been four years since the issues at Walter Reed came to light, and I cannot help but wonder if what we have done is to just create more bureaucracy," Burr said.

The hearing, the first of two parts, followed a critical report that the Government Accountability Office released last week. It found that the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs have failed to streamline services and share records, wasting hundreds of millions of dollars. The report also said the departments lacked specific plans and time frames to correct the situation.

But Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn told the committee that the two departments "have established a programmatic cohesion" that's better than ever before.

Scott Gould, the deputy secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, said the two departments "have made major strides" in the last two years in sharing health and benefits data, which is leading to better care.

When the hearing resumes next week, Murray said, she plans to bring in veterans to share firsthand accounts of trying to navigate the bureaucracy.