I went up to Seattle a few days ago to investigate claims of crumbling buildings and other poor living conditions for wounded soldiers recovering at the Fort Lewis Army base. In the days prior, there had been reports of soldiers being exposed to asbestos and lead paint there. We thought these reports needed to be checked after all that's been learned about the ugly conditions at Walter Reed.
Sensing the PR implications, Fort Lewis commanders made a decision to hold a news conference and offer a tour to those who might be interested. They were basically saying, "Hey, we've got nothing to hide. Why don't you guys come and have a look yourself."
Not to be a cynic, but it's been my experience that these press tours sometimes amount to a "dog and pony show," meaning you're only shown the good parts, and the officials handpick soldiers they know will only say positive things. Although CNN did send a crew to the media event, my crew and I chose a different strategy to report the story. The general public is not allowed on an Army base without proper escort, so we hooked up with a soldier's spouse. She has the ability to bring guests onto the base.
We took a small DV cam with us, so we wouldn't attract a lot of attention. I consulted with a CNN lawyer to make sure we weren't breaking any laws.
Here's what we found: While some of the buildings are a bit old, they appeared to be clean and safe. We did notice some cracks in some asbestos pipes, but there were no obvious hazards. The Army assured us that those pipes are safe.
The real story is difficult to capture on camera. That's the story of the day-to-day care and treatment for injured soldiers. Many complained to us about the inefficiencies and red tape associated with getting their disability compensation. While a few talked to us on camera, several told us they were afraid of doing so in fear of retaliation from their superiors.
As for the Army's press tour, it turned out a bit differently than we might have expected. One of the handpicked soldiers spoke about the difficulties in his recovery. He complained as well about the bureaucratic headaches and the long wait time in getting his benefits.