Wounded Soldiers Detail Poor Care
In contentious hearings at the Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, members of Congress reacted with dismay today to the stories of wounded soldiers and one wife about the excruciating red-tape-delayed medical attention for outpatients and terrible living conditions they have been subjected to. Legislators then peppered the two previous commanders of the medical facility, Maj. Gen. George Weightman and Lt. Gen. Kevin Kiley, with questions about why they had not spotted and corrected those problems.
"The bottom line is our system of care for our wounded soldiers is inefficient and insufficient," committee member Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican, told U.S. News after the hearing. "The complicated bureaucracy hampers the quality of care, access to what patients need when they need it, and the speed of treatment."
Noting that Congress received testimony on many of the same problems two years ago, Rep. Tom Davis, a Virginia Republican, asked, "What will transform this dysfunctional, uncaring arrangement into the compassionate, effective medical and military operation wounded soldiers deserve?"
Among the problems and system failures highlighted at the hearing:
- Rep. Henry Waxman, a California Democrat who heads the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, cited a March 2006 report by the Government Accountability Office, Congress's investigative arm, which he said found that "a quarter of the active-duty soldiers and more than half of reservists and guardsmen do not get their cases adjudicated according to Pentagon guidelines."
- The 2007 defense bill called for Physical Evaluation Board members to document their disability ratings with medical evidence rather than issuing summary judgments that soldiers had preexisting conditions, but this measure did not become law.
- The Army's own inspector general is currently conducting an investigation that has already turned up 87 problems with the medical evaluation system.
- The Army puts far fewer of its wounded soldiers on its permanent and temporary disability retirement lists (19 percent) than either the Navy (35 percent, including Marines) or Air Force (24 percent). "It's a massive difference," said Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Stephen Lynch. "It can't be just random."
- Walter Reed is one of the military installations slated for closure ,and many personnel jobs have been outsourced. According to D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, that created little incentive for fixing the problems in any long-term way.
Last week, heads rolled over the medical care scandal, but at today's hearings some of the wounded soldiers suggested that the wrong individuals may have been punished. Maj. Gen. George Weightman was relieved of command at Walter Reed and his predecessor, Kiley, installed as the temporary replacement. Since Kiley's tenure at Walter Reed from 2002 to 2004 and his role as commander of the Army Medical Command is also the object of many complaints, that decision, and what Defense Secretary Gates called a failure to respond more adequately, cost Army Secretary Francis Harvey his job last Friday. In addition, a number of lower-ranking employees at Walter Reed have been relieved of duty.
Staff Sgt. Dan Shannon, one of the wounded soldiers who testified, said that he did not believe that the first sergeant of the medical holding company, who was fired after the Washington Post stories, should have been let go.
"He's gone to bat for us on a daily basis," Shannon said. And the wife of Spc. Dell McLeod testified that she felt Weightman, recently appointed commander of Walter Reed, should not have been fired either.
"He was just shoved into a situation that was already there, and because somebody had to be the fall guy, he was there," Annette McLeod testified.
Among those who feel that Kiley shares more of the blame for failing to fix the problems at Walter Reed during his tenure there is former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Roger Pardo-Maurer, who is a reservist currently serving in Iraq. He E-mailed U.S. News from Iraq with his recollections of having brought problems to Kiley's attention in 2003. Pardo-Maurer recalls: "When I visited Walter Reed in 2003 and saw a soldier on crutches pushing a soldier in a wheelchair through the mud, because there were no handicapped ramps, I knew something was deeply wrong and brought it directly to General Kiley's attention. What astounded me at the time was that he wasn't aware there was a problem with the ramps, even though it was right in front of him."
At the hearings today, Kiley said: "Simply put, I am in command. And as I share these failures, I also accept the responsibility and the challenge for rapid corrective action."