Government Contracting

Bush Orders Review of Service Members' Care

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 2, 2007; 6:10 PM


Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey resigned today amid a burgeoning scandal over the treatment of wounded outpatient soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and President Bush ordered a "comprehensive review" of care for the nation's war wounded, as the administration sought to deal with growing anger in Congress and among the public over the issue.

A visibly angry Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates announced the resignation in a brief statement this afternoon, saying he was "disappointed" by the Army's response to disclosures of inadequate outpatient care at Walter Reed and bureaucratic inertia in dealing with wounded soldiers.

In a separate development, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform said it is issuing a subpoena to compel Maj. Gen. George W. Weightman, who was fired as commander of Walter Reed yesterday, to appear at a hearing on Monday to testify about a controversial privatization effort at the Washington, D.C., hospital complex.

The committee chairman, Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), said the effort to privatize support services "led to a precipitous drop" in the number of personnel providing facilities management and other services at Walter Reed and may have been responsible for some of the problems there.
Appearing before reporters at the Pentagon, Gates indicated that he was dissatisfied with Lt. Gen. Kevin C. Kiley, the Army surgeon general, who was named by Harvey as a temporary replacement for Weightman.

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

He added, "Also I am concerned that some do not properly understand the need to communicate to the wounded and their families, that we have no higher priority than their care and that addressing their concerns about the quality of their outpatient experience is critically important. Our wounded soldiers and their families have sacrificed much, and they deserve the best that we can offer."

Expressing confidence in the staff at Walter Reed, Gates said, "From what I have learned, the problems at Walter Reed appear to be problems of leadership. The Walter Reed doctors, nurses and other staff are among the best and most caring in the world."

Although Gates did not mention Kiley by name, he was apparently referring to comments last week in which the three-star Army general played down the problems at Walter Reed, saying that squalid living conditions at a facility for wounded outpatient soldiers "weren't serious" and that a Washington Post series documenting that situation and other issues was "a one-sided representation."

Shortly after Gates spoke today, the Army announced that Maj. Gen. Eric R. Schoomaker, currently the commanding general of the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command at Fort Detrick, Md., would become the new commander of Walter Reed and of the North Atlantic Regional Medical Command.

Schoomaker "has the right blend of leadership, professional expertise and personal experience for this position," Gen. Richard A. Cody, vice chief of staff of the Army, said in a statement.

According to the Democratic leadership of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Weightman is being subpoenaed to appear at Monday's hearing because the Army refused to allow him to go ahead with scheduled testimony after his removal as commander of Walter Reed.


In a statement, Waxman, the committee chairman, and Rep. John F. Tierney (D-Mass.), chairman of the subcommittee on national security and foreign affairs, said, "The Army was unable to provide a satisfactory explanation for the decision to prevent General Weightman from testifying."

The hearing of the national security subcommittee is scheduled for 10 a.m. Monday at Walter Reed, affording lawmakers an opportunity to meet wounded soldiers there as they "investigate allegations of unacceptable care and living conditions" at the complex, a news release said.

The committee also released a letter to Weightman, dated today, describing complaints about the privatization effort at Walter Reed, notably a five-year, $120 million contract awarded under suspicious circumstances to a company called IAP World Wide Services for support services, including facilities management.

"IAP is one of the companies that experienced problems delivering ice during the response to Hurricane Katrina," the letter signed by Waxman and Tierney said. "The company is led by Al Neffgen, a former senior Halliburton official who testified before our committee in July 2004 in defense of Halliburton's exorbitant charges for fuel delivery and troop support in Iraq."

The letter also said committee members wanted to ask Weightman about a September 2006 internal memorandum complaining that the privatization effort was causing "an exodus of high skilled and experienced personnel" from Walter Reed. As a result, the memo said, Walter Reed's "base operations and patient care services are at risk of mission failure."

Waxman and Tierney told Weightman in the letter, "The conditions that have been described at Walter Reed are disgraceful. Part of our mission on the Oversight Committee is to investigate what led to the breakdown in services. It would be reprehensible if the deplorable conditions were caused or aggravated by an ideological commitment to privatize government services regardless of the costs to taxpayers and the consequences for wounded soldiers."

The presidential commission inquiry announced today by Bush is the third official review to be set in motion since The Post reported on the conditions for outpatient soldiers at Walter Reed last week and documented a larger bureaucratic labyrinth that ensnares many wounded veterans, frustrates their families and impedes the soldiers' recovery.

The White House said the membership and other details of the new commission would be announced soon. It said the panel would have a "broader" mandate than an "independent review group" formed last week by the Pentagon. Separately, the Army announced yesterday that shortcomings in the care of soldiers at Walter Reed and throughout the Army also would be examined and addressed by a new "Army Action Plan."

In his Saturday radio address, a transcript of which the White House released in advance today, Bush will say he was "deeply troubled by recent reports of substandard conditions" at Walter Reed, and he will echo his defense chief's comment last week that the situation is "unacceptable."

Walter Reed's doctors, nurses, therapists and other "dedicated professionals" work hard to care for wounded soldiers, Bush says in the transcript. "Yet 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."

Bush adds, "As we work to improve conditions at Walter Reed, we're also taking steps to find out whether similar problems have occurred at other military and veterans hospitals. So 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. This review will examine their treatment from the time they leave the battlefield through their return to civilian life as veterans, so we can ensure that we are meeting their physical and mental health needs."

In a news briefing this morning, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Bush will name the commission members and set a deadline for a report with recommendations "in the coming days."

According to the transcript, Bush will tell his Saturday radio audience, "One of my most solemn experiences as president is visiting men and women recovering from wounds they suffered in defense of our country. Spending time with these wounded warriors is also inspiring, because so many of them bring the same courage they showed on the battlefield to their battle for recovery."

Gates, whom Bush directed last week to assess the situation and report back, "confirmed that there are real problems at Walter Reed, and he has taken action to hold people accountable, including relieving the general in charge of the facility," Bush will say.

The commission's recommendations will be used "as part of our ongoing effort to improve our service to our nation's veterans," the transcript says.

Bush also will emphasize in the address that more than 1 million veterans have been brought into the Veterans Administration health care system since 2001 and that his fiscal 2008 budget proposal includes a request for more than $86 billion for veterans' services, representing a 77 percent increase since he took office.

Asked why Bush considers it necessary to form another review commission, Perino said the aim of the latest panel is "to look forward -- to look at the range of health care and mental health care and other needs, in terms of helping the whole person for veteran care when they return. . . . I know that there is a desire to really focus on the global war on terror veterans."

Clarifying that answer, the White House later said that Gates "established the Independent Review Group (IRG) to conduct an assessment of outpatient treatment" at Walter Reed in Northwest Washington and the nearby National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. "The group will provide recommendations regarding any critical shortcomings and opportunities to improve rehabilitative care, administrative processes and the quality of life of patients at those facilities. The scope of the presidential commission will be broader, including the transfer of discharged servicemen and women from [Defense Department] facilities into the Veterans Affairs system, and other military and veterans hospitals."

However, when Gates announced the review group Feb. 23, he told reporters that the panel would "take a broad look at all our rehabilitative care and administrative processes" at Walter Reed, the National Naval Medical Center "and any other centers they choose to examine."

He said that while he had no indication of problems comparable to those at Walter Reed at facilities elsewhere, the review group would be empowered to investigate wherever it wanted because "we need to know the scope of this problem."

Speaking after a visit to Walter Reed and a dilapidated building for outpatient soldiers just outside the hospital compound, Gates said he found an "unacceptable situation" with outpatient care, and he vowed that those responsible would be held accountable.

The defense chief named eight military, medical and political leaders to the review group, including two co-chairmen: Togo D. West Jr., former secretary of veterans affairs and secretary of the Army under President Bill Clinton, and John O. "Jack" Marsh Jr., former secretary of the Army under President Ronald Reagan and a former member of Congress from Virginia. Other members include two other former members of Congress from the Republican and Democratic parties, three retired senior military officers and a retired command sergeant major. The group is to report on its findings within 45 days.

In announcing the firing of Weightman yesterday, the Army said it was "moving quickly to address issues regarding outpatient care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center." An Army statement said senior service leaders had "lost trust and confidence" in Weightman and that he was being replaced temporarily by Kiley, the surgeon general of the Army and commander of the U.S. Army Medical Command.

Kiley formerly served as Walter Reed commander for two years until he became surgeon general in 2004. Weightman held the post for a little more than six months before he was relieved yesterday. The decision to fire Weightman and replace him with Kiley surprised some Defense Department officials because soldiers, family members and veterans' advocates have complained that Kiley was long aware of Walter Reed's problems and did not act to improve its outpatient care.

Pressed on this point and whether Bush believes the Army made the right move, Perino said today, "The president has confidence in Secretary Gates that he made the right decision." She noted that Kiley's appointment "is temporary."

Perino also said Bush was unaware of the problems at Walter Reed before they were detailed in news reports. The Post reported on the problems in a two-part series published Feb. 18 and 19.

Asked how Bush feels about finding out about problems at a place that he has visited many times and "used as a symbol for his concern for the troops," Perino said, "Well, I think regardless of whether he'd been there or not, if the veterans aren't getting the care that they need and deserve, and that we owe them, that he's unhappy about that, and he wants to make sure that action is being taken to rectify it. I don't know if he ever visited that particular building, but you're right, we go to Walter Reed often."

She referred to Building 18, a decrepit former hotel just across Georgia Avenue from Walter Reed. There, the Post found outpatient soldiers living in quarters plagued by mold, rot, mice and cockroaches, often languishing as the Army bureaucracy tried to figure out what to do with them.

Staff writer Steve Vogel contributed to this report.