WASHINGTON -- Every day for weeks, injured Army pilot Joseph Luciano talked to an answering machine at Walter Reed hospital, trying to get an appointment for a heart scan.
Then he called the Army's new Wounded Soldier and Family Hotline. Within six hours, he got the appointment -- along with an apology from the colonel who heads Walter Reed Army Medical Center's radiology department.
The hot line has logged more than 3,500 calls since it was set up three months ago following revelations that Walter Reed outpatients were languishing in shoddy housing and suffering bureaucratic delays in getting additional care, evaluations, and compensation for wounds, mental problems, and other health issues.
"It's totally needed," said Luciano, a 59-year-old Army National Guard Black Hawk helicopter pilot from Carlisle, Pa. "There are . . . plenty of soldiers who just don't know which way to turn when they've run into a frustrating problem."
It solved Luciano's problem. "Totally," he said.
The hot line -- 1-800-984-8523 -- is staffed 24 hours a day, every day, by 100 employees on three shifts.
They aim to get an answer for every caller within three business days -- not solving the problem themselves, but channeling it to the person or agency that can. The operation essentially cuts through red tape like no average caller could. "We cut through it and get [the request] in the proper hands so people understand there is a sense of urgency," said Colonel Robert Clark, deputy director of the call center.
Callers have included soldiers, their relatives, veterans, and members of other services. They call about missing records, questions over treatment, requests for surgery, and help with the complicated evaluation process that judges their ability to continue in service and decides disability payments.
Though the hot line program was planned as a medical help line -- and more than half of calls are on that subject -- the issues are wide-ranging. Callers want financial counseling, help finding a lawyer, or information on why they didn't get a promotion or award they believe they earned in their time overseas.
Some want simple information like phone numbers to call, directions to the hospital, or websites to consult.
One soldier noticed money was being subtracted from his pay and wanted to know why. The call center tracked it down as deductions for a student loan.
Callers are "going to get an answer," Clark said, though it may not be the one they want.
A wife asked how to serve her soldier husband with divorce papers while he's at war. She was advised she couldn't, since he can't come home to represent himself in the case.
Another was ill and wanted her husband home from assignment in Europe. The hot line passed that on, and he got a two-week leave, but not a permanent homecoming.
To get the hot line up and running quickly, officials used borrowed space with staff borrowed from various offices, and so there is no figure yet on the cost of operating it, they said.
It is one piece in a broad effort the Army has scrambled to make across its health system since problems at Walter Reed surfaced in February.
In March, President Bush ordered creation of a presidential commission to investigate care given to wounded troops and apologized to some of them in person during a visit to Walter Reed. He visited the hospital again yesterday.
"There has been some bureaucratic, you know, red tape issues in the past that the military is working hard to cure," Bush told reporters there. "But when it comes time to healing broken bodies, this is a fabulous place."
A panel of Army officials reported to Congress last week on what progress has been made to upgrade military hospital care. They said work has been done toward repairing buildings, increasing funding, hiring more psychiatrists and other staff, improving training, mobilizing lawyers, and assigning new teams to advocate for troops and their families.