For eleven years during the Vietnam War, Major then Lieutenant Colonel John J. Ward served as the registrar--or chief administrative officer--of Walter Reed Army Medical Center. He was the person responsible for making sure everything ran smoothly and according to code. I was born in the old hospital and put to bed to the sweet lullaby of Army regulations and manuals describing a thousand and one proven methods to strip, dessicate, burn, uproot and eradicate English ivy.
Why was waging all-out war on a vine my father's personal obsession? It looked so pretty growing up the hospital's red brick walls. It reminded Little Me of pictures I'd seen of Williamsburg and Monticello--like a big house in the country with rolling lawns all around.
But, as my father patiently explained, the purpose of a hospital isn't to look pretty on the outside. The purpose of a hospital is to help people--especially people wounded in the service of their country--get better. To do that it has to be clean and solid. Ivy tendrils poke holes in the brick Rainwater seeps through the holes into the walls, growing molds and fungi that make even well people sick. Squirrels and birds, rats and mice make their homes in the leaves, and climb through the windows into the soldiers' rooms.
Are encouraged to climb into the windows by recovering soldiers bored out of their minds and desperate for a friendly face. Even if it's furry. Even if it only wants their scraps. Even if it carries fleas and ticks and other things that hurt people who are already hurt.
My dad didn't just oversee the ivy's removal. He ensured the workmen obliterated every scrap of ivy protein from within seeding distance of the old hospital. He established a defensive perimeter of concrete at the foundations and deployed exterminators to wipe every trace of vermin--fungal, vegetal, arthropoidal, avian or mammalian--from within the hospital walls. At home in "Splinter Village"--the old wooden housing units left over from World War I--we fought a never-ending war against the cockroaches breeding in the crumbling drywall. But that state of affairs wasn't acceptable at the hospital. Not for him. Not for the base commander. Not for the surgeon general of the Army.
It's not acceptable now. It's a shame and a disgrace. But it's only the latest atrocity in a criminally long tally.
But I digress.
Towards the end of his life, my dad turned into a knee-jerk conservative/control freak. (Yeah, he was all that before, but only on the job. At home he was human. Mom had him trained.) He died in 2002, and I often wondered if 9/11 wasn't part of what killed him. I saw firsthand the effect the Pentagon attack had on friends in the military. It was like the very roots of their world had been torn out from under them. They recovered their footing. My dad was 87. He couldn't regroup.
When The Washington Post finally, finally broke the scandal that's had those of us associated with the human side of America's military grinding our teeth for years, my first reaction was totally petty. I wished my dad had lived to see what his precious Republicans had done to the hospital he helped make a model of the best and brightest American medicine had to offer. My knee-jerk reaction, if you will, followed quickly by profound gratitude he didn't live to see it. The suffering and neglect of his comrades in arms would've burned through his soul like acid.
But as the administration has spun out their denials and Congress slowly, slowly lumbers off its collective ass to "study the problem", I've decided I wish something else entirely. I wish the ghost of my father, in the form of the angry cornered tiger of an old man he became or, better yet, as he is now--jaw hanging slack in his decomposing face, blue dress uniform in tatters on his skeletal form--would rise up from his grave to seek out every one of the damned vermin who allowed this to happen and terrorize them into making it right.
Then I wish him the peace of another job done right.