Reporters Reveal How They Broke Stories on Treatment of Vets

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By: Joe Strupp

A group of reporters who have written some of the best investigative stories about poor medical and psychological treatment of veterans urged newsroom leaders at the American Society of Newspaper Editors conference on Friday to allow such work to continue in their newsrooms, saying it takes only basic, hard-nosed reporting.

Joe Galloway, the veteran military writer and columnist for McClatchy, moderated the session. But he spoke directly to the audience for a moment, assailing the treatment veterans are receiving and urging that such coverage continue. ?These are things I would hope you would go back and look at in your communities,? Galloway told the editors. ?The bureaucracies have killed far more American veterans than any war we?ve been in and will continue to do so.?

Bob Woodruff of ABC also pushed for continued coverage. ?The DOD needs to talk more and the VA needs to study more,? he said.

But many of the reporters also warned against revealing too much of the reporting to military officials until the time is right to seek comment and reaction.

?You can talk to them, but be a skeptic,? said Jim Asher, investigative editor for McClatchy?s Washington bureau, which reported on the poor Veterans Administration treatment of soldier who return home.

Anne Hull of The Washington Post, who with Dana Priest broke the Walter Reed Hospital story about insufficient care of outpatients, echoed the view. She said when the Post sought comments from military officials days before publishing their stories, the Pentagon held a press conference about the hospital, and did not invite Post reporters to it. ?It was essentially a pre-emptive strike to what we were doing,? Hull said.

Still, those on the panel, which also included Bob Woodruff of ABC News and Lisa Chedekel of the Hartford Courant, said their reporting was, in most cases, based on basic shoe-leather and long hours of investigation.

?This was all done from Hartford, Conn,? said Chedekel, one of three reporters who wrote a series about mental illness among soldier that has received several awards and a Pulitzer finalist nod. ?We didn?t go to Iraq.? But what she and the others did was interview veterans, review military policies about mental illness and use of psychiatric drugs on soldiers, and see how the policies were being ignored.

Woodruff, whose own brain injury in Iraq and recovery earned him praise and support for not only overcoming an injury, but also pursuing the story of how others are treated, said he eventually followed just one family through its experience and found the story of how poor the system is run.

?Before this happened to me, I didn?t know much about the veterans,? he told the crowd of several hundred editors Friday morning. ?I learned that there is the medical help you receive ? doctors helping you, nurses helping you. Then you?ve got to get rehabilitated and that is when it really falls apart.?

Woodruff, who hopes to return to overseas reporting, but not in Iraq, said his investigation found that ?it was very obvious that the Veterans Administration was a really terrible situation.? He said the veteran he followed went to a small town in Texas and had difficulty getting proper treatment near home. ?This is something we need a lot more work on,? he said.

Hull said that her story began with a simple tip from a source to Priest, which prompted the pair to visit Walter Reed and simply observe and speak to patients. ?We worked very stealthly and sort of under the radar,? Hull explained, noting they never lied about who they were. ?Nobody ever asked.?

Hull and Priest spent ?hundreds and hundreds of hours inside the gates of Walter Reed without official permission,? she said, adding ?it was an amazing, messed-up world. We just watched this world for four months.?

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