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Vets say visits restricted to U.S. wounded

From Dick Uliano

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- One of the nation's leading veterans' service organizations accuses the Pentagon of "severely restricting" its counselors from visiting wounded and injured service members at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

As of January 7, the Pentagon said 2,431 military personnel have been wounded in action and an additional 383 wounded in non-hostile incidents in Iraq.

Most service members severely wounded in Iraq and returned to the United States are treated at Walter Reed.

In a letter sent this week to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Dave Gorman, executive director of Disabled American Veterans, complained that the DAV is being blocked from carrying out its congressionally chartered mission.

Gorman questioned measures that require hospital pre-screening and approval of all visits, and full-time escorts during those visits, according to the letter a copy of which CNN obtained. Gorman said because of those escorts there is a lack of privacy over matters the counselors discuss with patients and their families at Walter Reed.

He said the monitoring of these conversations "is particularly unnerving and inappropriate as all conversations between a representative and client are confidential in nature."

An Army public affairs spokesman Wednesday had not seen the letter and would not comment directly on the complaint.

A Pentagon official said Rumsfeld had not yet received the letter but "promised to look into" the points raised. Another Defense Department official said it would be "unusual" for such close scrutiny of accredited DAV visitors, unless broader security concerns required it. Officials at Walter Reed were unavailable for comment.

Gorman, in his letter to Rumsfeld, noted that for more than six decades DAV representatives have visited combat casualties at U.S. military hospitals to counsel them on veterans' benefits and health care.

Last fall, National Guardsmen and reservists returning from Iraq complained to the media about a lack of timely medical care and substandard living conditions at Fort Stewart, Georgia. (Full story)

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