Hospital Investigates Former Aid Chief

Michael J. Wagner, center, ran the Medical Family Assistance Center  at Walter Reed until resigning last month. He has been criticized as uncaring by some soldiers' family members, including Mendez.
Michael J. Wagner, center, ran the Medical Family Assistance Center at Walter Reed until resigning last month. He has been criticized as uncaring by some soldiers' family members, including Mendez. (Michel Du Cille - The Washington Post)
By Dana Priest and Anne Hull
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, February 20, 2007

For the past three years, Michael J. Wagner directed the Army's largest effort to help the most vulnerable soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. His office in Room 3E01 of the world-renowned hospital was supposed to match big-hearted donors with thousands of wounded soldiers who could not afford to feed their children, pay mortgages, buy plane tickets or put up visiting families in nearby hotels.

But while he was being paid to provide this vital service to patients, outpatients and their relations, Wagner was also seeking funders and soliciting donations for his own new charity, based in Texas, according to documents and interviews with current and former staff members. Some families also said Wagner treated them callously and made it hard for them to receive assistance.

Last week, Walter Reed launched a criminal investigation of Wagner after The Washington Post sought a response to his activities while he ran the Army's Medical Family Assistance Center, a position he left several weeks ago. Maj. Gen. George W. Weightman, the commander at Walter Reed, said the probe by the Criminal Investigation Command (CID) "reflects the seriousness with which we take these allegations."

Weightman's legal adviser, Col. Samuel Smith, said that "it would clearly be a conflict of interest" prohibited by federal law, Army regulations and Defense Department ethics rules if Wagner used his position to solicit funds for his own organization.

The saga of the Medical Family Assistance Center is just one example of the problems at Walter Reed, where nearly 700 soldiers and Marines from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan live as outpatients while recuperating. Some families are happy with the help they received from Wagner and his office, and many soldiers and their families applauded the dedication of workers there. Others said that they had problems with Wagner and that the center seemed chaotic and disorganized.

"We had many family members who came to me because they couldn't get a respectful and compassionate response from Dr. Wagner," said Peggy Baker, director of a charity that helps wounded soldiers, Operation First Response.

Wagner, who has a doctorate in education, resigned his position last month to work full time on his Military, Veteran and Family Assistance Foundation, based in Dallas. The foundation includes the Phoenix Project, which runs marriage retreats for soldiers returning from combat. According to its Web site, the foundation is supported by several corporations, other foundations and individuals.

In a phone interview, Wagner denied he had solicited funds or made contact with donors during office hours. "It's just not true," he said. "I intentionally stayed out of that. I couldn't do that. I couldn't do both." He said he is not paid by the foundation. The documents that would verify that have not yet been filed with the Internal Revenue Service.

Wagner said his superiors "knew of my involvement right from the beginning." Weightman said the command had been unaware of Wagner's Texas charity until recently.

Wagner defended his work at the center. "My only purpose and my priority 12 to 19 hours a day was to assist the families of the wounded," he said. "I saw 6,000 people coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan. I did my best, but I'm not God. What I did there was a job that was superhuman."

Wagner said that the charity was founded by his brother and that he did not officially become its executive director until he left Walter Reed. But fundraising documents from early January, before he resigned, list him as the director, and the organization's Web site called him its executive director months before he resigned.

In a fundraising letter he signed shortly before he quit the Medical Family Assistance Center, Wagner referred to his work at Walter Reed. As head of the center, he wrote, "I have had over a thousand citizens in this great country asking what they might be able to do at Walter Reed for our wounded troops and their families. I found myself telling them that Walter Reed was blessed with the outpouring of the goodness and generosity of the American public and that if they were really interested in assisting, they should look within their own communities."

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