The scandal of neglected outpatients at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., was a turning point in the care of veterans across the United States, the national commander of the American Legion said Friday.
Because of the story that broke in February 2007, wounded soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are receiving much better treatment, David K. Rehbein told an audience of about 300 veterans and their families in a church hall.
Rehbein, of Ames, Iowa, wrapped up a visit to the American Legion's 8th District, which covers eight Western New York counties, with an address in the St. John de LaSalle Center on Buffalo Avenue, a block from LaSalle Post 1142, American Legion.
An Army veteran of the Vietnam era, Rehbein said the shock of conditions at Walter Reed not only resulted in improved medical care for servicemen and women nationwide, but also prompted Congress to increase funding for the Department of Veteran Affairs.
"The Walter Reed story touched the conscience of everyone involved," he said. "The military has been doing a much better job in the past two years."
Looking after wounded servicemen and women when they return home is one of the most crucial and sensitive roles of government, he said.
"There's a very vulnerable period when you get out of the military, traditionally in the first 90 days," Rehbein said. "If you don't get the support system you need, you can start on a downward spiral from which there may be no recovery."
Touching the collective conscience with the Walter Reed story also translated into more money for the VA, Rehbein added.
"We were always in Washington asking for more money," he said. "There was never enough to run the department, but now we have what we've been asking for all along."
A new GI bill that will take effect next August will pay tuition and housing allowances for servicemen and women and their families, without the previous co-pay requirements.
Rehbein, a scientist at the University of Iowa in Ames, has served on several veteran affairs and foreign affairs commissions.
He was elected commander of the American Legion in August.
Western New York is part of his ongoing national tour.
In addition to the 2.7 million Legion members nationwide, Sons of the American Legion and its auxiliary, the Daughters of the American Legion, have 1.3 million members.
The American Legion, a nonpartisan organization, doesn't take political positions, but Rehbein urged the members to get out and vote.