Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, chairman of the subcommittee on cefense, Senate Committee on Appropriations, asks questions March 7 during a hearing on military medical programs on Capitol Hill. Much of the hearing was spent discussing the state of outpatient care in the military medical system. (Sheila Vemmer / Staff)
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Medal of Honor recipient Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, said Wednesday that he was "horrified" by conditions of outpatients at Walter Reed Army Hospital, in part because his considers extensive treatment by the military after World War II to be one of the highlights of his life.
Inouye, chairman of the Senate defense appropriations subcommittee, spoke about his treatment at a hearing where the services' top health care officials testified about the 2008 budget.
"Certainly, times are different and culture isn't the same, but my 21 months were nothing like this," he said.
Inouye was a lieutenant with the highly decorated 442nd Regimental Combat Team when he was shot in the abdomen, with the bullet exiting through his back, according to his official biography. Despite the wound, he attacked a machine gun nest that was pinning down his men, tossing two grenades before his right arm was shattered by an enemy grenade. He still didn't stop, throwing a third grenade with his left hand before finally being stopped by a bullet in the leg. He lost his right arm.
Discharged in 1947 as a captain, Inouye received a Distinguished Service Cross, the nation's second highest award for valor. It was later upgraded to a Medal of Honor, the nation's highest award, which he received June 21, 2000.
Inouye said the 21 months he spent recuperating from his wounds in an Army hospital "were my most enjoyable moments in my life. ? I had a ball."
"Times were different," he said. "The president of the United States in my time, World War II, was very popular. The people were almost 100 percent in favor of the war. Veterans were treated like gods. We'd go into a restaurant and, ‘Anything you want, fellow.' "
Inouye said his surgery took place in Atlantic City, N.J. One of the highlights of his hospitalization was when the Miss America pageant, suspended for World War II, started again. "We got the front rows," he said. "Although I don't have a leg injury, I asked the surgeon to put a cast on because I wanted to get in a wheelchair to sit up front."
Inouye said his treatment was different than that of wounded service members today. "The average G.I. spends five months in surgical medical and then he's an outpatient," he said, noting he had seven months of surgery and 14 months of rehabilitation.
Rehabilitation, he said, was a mix of skills. "They taught us self-defense. They taught us how to dine, how to dress, how to dance."
A group of carpenters came to give them classes. "I built my own desk," Inouye said. Plumbers and electricians came, too, "so that we won't be afraid to fiddle around with electrical wiring."
Patients had to play sports, he said. "We had a choice," he said. He dropped out of golf when his scores were too high, and took up swimming and basketball instead.
"When we learned how to swim — we were all required to swim — it was not in the hospital pool, it was in the public lake. So you had to swim in the presence of normal people," he said.
The Army taught him to drive. That was a treat, he said. "I never drove before I got in the service."
Because each state had different driving laws, the Army provided a certificate that allowed him to drive in all U.S. states, territories and possessions.
The Army also expected him to play a musical instrument. "Before the war, I played a saxophone and the clarinet, but that was impossible" with only one arm, he said. He tried a trumpet, and when that didn't work, switched to piano. He recalls telling himself, "You must be out of your mind," but he passed the test.
At the end of his reminiscence, Inouye said he does not blame the surgeons general for how things have changed with the care and treatment of combat veterans. "The culture is different," he said. "As far as I'm concerned, you people are doing the utmost you can."