WASHINGTON – Top officials at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, including the Army’s surgeon general, have heard complaints about outpatient neglect from family members, veterans groups and members of Congress for more than three years.
A procession of Pentagon and Walter Reed officials expressed surprise last week about the living conditions and bureaucratic nightmares faced by wounded soldiers staying at the Washington, D.C., medical facility. But as far back as 2003, the commander of Walter Reed, Lt. Gen. Kevin Kiley, who is now the Army’s top medical officer, was told that soldiers who were wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan were languishing and lost on the grounds, according to interviews.
Steve Robinson, director of veterans affairs at Veterans for America, said he ran into Kiley in the foyer of the command headquarters at Walter Reed shortly after the Iraq war began and told him that “there are people in the barracks who are drinking themselves to death and people who are sharing drugs and people not getting the care they need.”
“I met guys who weren’t going to appointments because the hospital didn’t even know they were there,” Robinson said. Kiley told him to speak to a sergeant major, a top enlisted officer.
A recent Washington Post series detailed conditions at Walter Reed, including those at Building 18, a dingy former hotel on Georgia Avenue where the wounded were housed among mice, mold, rot and cockroaches.
Kiley lives across the street from Building 18. At a news conference last week, Kiley, who declined several requests for interviews for this article, said that the problems of Building 18 “weren’t serious and there weren’t a lot of them.” He also said they were not “emblematic of a process of Walter Reed that has abandoned soldiers and their families.”
But according to interviews, Kiley, his successive commanders at Walter Reed and various top non-commissioned officers in charge of soldiers’ lives have heard a stream of complaints about outpatient treatment over the past several years. The complaints have surfaced at town hall meetings for staff and soldiers, at commanders’ “sensing sessions” in which soldiers or officers are encouraged to speak freely, and in several inspector general reports detailing building conditions, safety issues and other matters.
Retired Maj. Gen. Kenneth L. Farmer Jr., who commanded Walter Reed for two years until last August, said that he was aware of outpatient problems and that there were “ongoing reviews and discussions” about how to fix them when he left. He said he shared many of those issues with Kiley, his immediate commander. Last summer when he turned over command to Maj. Gen. George Weightman, Farmer said, “there were a variety of things we identified as opportunities for continued improvement.”
In 2004, Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Fla., and his wife stopped visiting the wounded at Walter Reed out of frustration. Young said he voiced concerns to commanders over troubling incidents he witnessed but was rebuffed or ignored. “When Bev or I would bring problems to the attention of authorities of Walter Reed, we were made to feel very uncomfortable,” said Young, who began visiting the wounded recuperating at other facilities.
Beverly Young said she complained to Kiley several times. She once visited a soldier who was lying in urine on his mattress pad in the hospital. When a nurse ignored her, Young said, “I went flying down to Kevin Kiley’s office again, and got nowhere. He has skirted this stuff for five years and blamed everyone else.”