WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Robert Gates named an independent review panel Friday to investigate what he called an “unacceptable situation” in outpatient care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and he said that some soldiers “most directly involved” in the problems have been removed from their positions.
Speaking to reporters during a visit to the Army hospital in the District of Columbia, Gates also warned that senior military leaders could be disciplined based on the findings of the review group.
“We empower commanders with responsibility, authority and resources necessary to carry out their missions. With responsibility comes accountability,” Gates said. “Accordingly, after the facts are established, those responsible for allowing this unacceptable situation to develop will indeed be held accountable.”
The Senate Armed Services Committee has tentatively scheduled hearings on the facility for March 6, said a spokeswoman for the panel’s chairman, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich. Sen. John Warner, R-Va., the ranking minority member of the committee, toured the facility Friday.
The actions came after stories in the Washington Post last weekend that revealed that wounded soldiers recuperating at Walter Reed often become mired in red tape as they seek further treatment or decisions about whether they will stay in the military. The articles also disclosed poor living conditions – including mold, filth and leaks – in Building 18, an Army facility that houses recovering troops.
In his first public remarks addressing the situation, Gates said he was grateful to the reporters who brought the problems to light and said he was disappointed that the Defense Department had not found the problems earlier. He promised that he would hold accountable the people who allowed the problems to occur in outpatient care at Walter Reed.
The Defense secretary’s tone was in sharp contrast to comments Thursday by Lt. Gen. Kevin C. Kiley, the Army surgeon general, who challenged the Post report as a “one-sided representation.” Kiley, who used to command Walter Reed and oversees the hospital as head of Medical Command, said there was no “failure of leadership.”
Gates did not criticize Kiley, but he said he was upset by the original articles and had not learned anything from Army officials that caused him to believe the articles were wrong.
The eight-member review group appointed by Gates has been charged with taking a broad look at all rehabilitative care and administrative procedures at Walter Reed and the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.
Panel members “will be given free and unrestricted access” to visit medical facilities and interview personnel, Gates said.
The group will be co-chaired by Togo West, who was secretary of Veterans Affairs and secretary of the Army during the Clinton administration, and by John “Jack” Marsh, who was secretary of the Army under President Reagan and a former member of Congress from Virginia. Other members include two former members of Congress, three retired senior military officers and a retired command sergeant major. Their report is due within 45 days and will be made public, Gates said.
Gates said he had no information suggesting there are problems at Bethesda similar to those at Walter Reed, but he said the naval facility is being included because “we need to know the scope of this problem.”
There is rare unanimity in Washington on the need to treat wounded soldiers well, Gates said, “and so we’re determined to fix it and fix it fast.”
He described the medical care itself at the hospital as “unsurpassable” and said the shortcomings were confined to “the outpatient aspect of this.”
During his visit, Gates met a group of five soldiers being treated at the facility who spoke of a frustrating administrative bureaucracy at the hospital.
“They battled our foreign enemies; they should not have to battle an American bureaucracy,” Gates said.
Gates said caseworkers are “overwhelmed” by the numbers of patients they are assigned, and he indicated more workers would be soon assigned to the hospital.
“There’s just too much work for the number of people that are available,” he said. “So that’s one thing that can be addressed pretty quickly.”
Gates added that troops who had been wounded in service “should not have to recuperate in substandard housing.”
The Army declined to identify publicly the personnel who have been moved to different positions at the hospital. Speaking on background, an Army official said they included several soldiers involved in supervising facilities at Walter Reed, including Building 18.
Gates met with President Bush on Friday morning to brief him on the actions. “He is, understandably, concerned and emphatic in wanting the best possible care for our wounded soldiers and for their families,” Gates said.