Walter Reed Scandal: Congressional Hearings to Test Bush Administration

As the scandal surrounding substandard conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center continued to unfold this week, the damage control mode of the Bush administration hit full swing.

Two weeks ago, the Washington Post broke the story on conditions at Building 18 of the US military’s premier medical facility in Washington DC, where soldiers needing continuing outpatient treatment are housed after being released from the main hospital. The reports included details of rodent and roach infestations, rat droppings, plumbing leaks and a range of moldy and unsanitary building conditions. Soldiers also complained of understaffed services, inordinate delays in obtaining appointments and psychological evaluations, and having to share pain medication.

These revelations come at an extremely sensitive time for the Bush administration, already embroiled in a public relations nightmare over the deeply unpopular war in Iraq and the recent announcement that an additional 21,500 US troops will be sent to Iraq, and a further 3,500 troops to Afghanistan. Recent debates over the Iraq war and resolutions in the US Congress have also made clear the paramount importance of “supporting the troops”.

Yesterday, this was precisely the message of President Bush’s weekly radio address. “Some of our troops at Walter Reed have experienced bureaucratic delays and living conditions that are less than they deserve. This is unacceptable to me, it is unacceptable to our country, and it’s not going to continue,” said Mr Bush. “I’m announcing that my Administration is creating a bipartisan Presidential Commission to conduct a comprehensive review of the care America is providing our wounded servicemen and women.”

During the week, new Defense Secretary Robert Gates also had the opportunity to distinguish himself from his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, who vigorously pushed responsibility for wrongdoing down the ranks when the Abu Graib prisoner abuse scandal broke, despite several investigations confirming that prisoner abuse had been encouraged by higher-ranking officials.

In contrast, Mr Gates told the a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on Tuesday that he was “very concerned” about the conditions at Walter Reed and assured the committee that “accountability on this will not be limited to a couple of [noncommissioned officers] and a junior officer once we know the facts.”

Mr Gates also presided over the dismissal of three high-ranking military officials this week as punishment for their poor management and unresponsive approach to the breaking scandal. First came the order for Major General George Weightman to walk the plank on Thursday. Having served as Commander of Walter Reed since August 2006, Gen. Weightman took the fall for the facility’s current state of disrepair.

Then on Friday, Mr Gates summoned Army Secretary Francis Harvey from his visit to Fort Benning, Georgia to explain why he had named Lieutenant General Kevin Kiley as acting commander, when Gen. Kiley (who previously served as commander) had known about the poor conditions for years but did nothing to improve them. Gen. Kiley waved off the Washington Post reports as “one-sided” and said, “While we have some issues here, this is not a horrific, catastrophic failure at Walter Reed.” Mr Gates immediately accepted Mr Harvey’s resignation. Gen. Kiley has been replaced by Major General Eric Schoomaker, head of Army Medical Research and Material Command at Fort Detrick, Md.

“I am disappointed that some in the Army have not adequately appreciated the seriousness of the situation pertaining to outpatient care at Walter Reed,” said Mr Gates. “Some have shown too much defensiveness and have not shown enough focus on digging into and addressing the problems.”

Major problems at Walter Reed do appear to go back some time. A series of reports published by last year revealed a systemic failure to diagnose and treat unseen but serious injuries such as those caused by brain trauma.

More soldiers are suffering brain trauma in Iraq and Afghanistan than in previous wars because bombs are the predominant weapons used by the insurgents and terrorists (instead of bullets), and improved body armor and helmets are now enabling soldiers to survive attacks that would otherwise have killed them.

Salon’s reports featured interviews with several soldiers suffering (now-confirmed) brain injuries who said they were forced to prove their injuries to doctors who labelled them malingerers and suggested they were suffering hereditary brain dysfunction. This caused the soldiers and their families enormous stress as they fought numerous hurdles to get medical treatment and disability benefits.

This is despite the fact that Walter Reed has a program, established in 1992, which is dedicated to identifying and treating brain-trauma patients. Its purpose is to prevent brain-injured soldiers from going undiagnosed and properly treated in the critical period immediately following injury.

President Bush was quick to commend Mr Gates for “holding people accountable, including relieving the general in charge of the facility”. Yet apart from poor management, the contribution of systemic issues to the long-running deterioration of standards at Walter Reed will soon be the subject of Congressional hearings.

Representative Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), who chairs the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, released a September 2006 memo by Colonel Peter Garibaldi, Walter Reed’s garrison commander. In the memo, Col. Garibaldi warns that the Army’s decision to privatize some jobs had cost Walter Reed 60 skilled staff. “We face the critical issues of retaining skilled personnel,” said the memo, “and patient care services are at risk of mission failure.”

Mr Waxman and Rep. John Tierney (D-Mass.), who heads the committee’s national security subcommittee, subpoenaed Gen. Weightman and other top officials in the Army medical corps for a hearing on the privatization of services at Walter Reed and its impact on conditions.

“The living conditions and outpatient services that have been described at Walter Reed are deplorable,” wrote Reps. Waxman and Tierney in a letter to Gen. Weightman. “It is our job … to ask what happened and how the problems can be prevented in the future.”

The hearings will convene on Monday.


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