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."
But, his letter continued, "I realized they were not working with their local communities so . . . I decided to found the Military, Veteran and Family Assistance Foundation to do just this, to do what I am able to help our soldiers reenter their home and local community."
Wagner included an ambitious business plan to take the charity from a $237,000 pilot project in the first year, which ended in August 2006 -- while he was working at Walter Reed -- to a $145 million foundation by 2011. He signed the letter "Executive Director and Founder."
Leita Sosin, an 11-year Army veteran who worked in Wagner's office for two years, said she complained to him and to co-workers about his involvement with the charity. "It really broke me to see what he was doing," said Sosin, 29, a former Army operating-room technician. "Instead of working with the families at Walter Reed and with us, he spent all his time putting together the Phoenix Project."
Moscow Spencer, a case manager fired by Wagner in October, also complained to her co-workers. "All day long he'd work on his program," she said. "If someone came in to donate money, he would talk to them about his project."
Sosin said the office was overwhelmed by the number of families who needed assistance and who were confused by the complex bureaucracy. "Everyone needed help, but you couldn't get them the help as fast as they needed it," she said. "Someone like me could scream all day about how it was broken, but no one wanted to take the time to fix it."
She also said Wagner was arrogant toward some staff members and families. "People got hurt in the process, whether it be financially or because he promised a lot of things he never followed up on," she said.
In April, Sosin said, she laid out her concerns in a three-page letter to her superiors. She received no response and resigned. Wagner said that Sosin never complained to him and that he had no idea why she quit.
Poverty among soldiers returning from war is not uncommon. While they continue to live on the Army payroll until they return to active duty or are discharged, some experience a substantial decrease in pay when combat pay or hazard pay disappears.
Some Army families breach the poverty line when a spouse quits a job to help the soldier recuperate; mortgage payments don't stop, and they still need to feed their children. Many turn to the generosity of Americans eager to prove they have not forgotten the troops' sacrifices. While staff members and soldiers acknowledge that some families take advantage of the plentiful freebies at Walter Reed, many others ask for help only as a last resort.
The assistance center is supposed to be the connection between a soldier's family and private donors. Until recently, it did not accept cash contributions but instead matched families' needs -- for bus or plane tickets, clothing, emergency food vouchers, grants for mortgages or living expenses -- with organizations set up to help.
According to Walter Reed, 14 families on average seek assistance from the center each day. Although it is difficult to quantify the value of donations, the center received $4,500 worth of phone cards in 2006 and handled $1.9 million worth of donated plane tickets. Weightman said the center's staff was recently increased from five to nine employees, with two people assigned to keeping track of the donations, and training has been improved.
The system for receiving donations is often confusing, even for the staff, Weightman said. "There's too much for any one person to know, but depending on the question, they may know [the answer] or direct you to the person who does know it."
Some soldiers go directly to the many volunteer organizations set up to help the wounded. Last year, Wagner began an effort to funnel all requests and donations through the family assistance center. It was a good idea, said Sosin and others, but because Wagner seemed preoccupied, a bottleneck of requests resulted.
"It was really all at the expense of the service member," said Sandra Butterfield, who worked at Walter Reed as an ombudsman for a Defense Department-funded relief organization. "He decreed that everything had to go through him," and it didn't seem to matter if that slowed the process. Officials, she said, "don't understand what it meant to have no money. Family members changed the sheets, empty the bedpan. But they are leaving their homes across the country. . . . Every day I came home angry."
Some families were also angered by the way Wagner treated them.
"The patient care was absolutely wonderful, but the administration was horrible, especially Dr. Wagner," said Maria Mendez, whose 25-year-old nephew, Spec. Roberto Reyes Jr., suffered severe brain and limb damage when a mine exploded near him outside Baghdad. "It was like running around in circles. He was never around."
"They were unprofessional, discourteous and uncompassionate all in one," Mendez said. "I was very surprised. You figure any family who's gone through such devastation, then faces this, to be treated with such unprofessionalism . . . it's like you're putting salt on the wounds."
Frustrated, Mendez set up an account for her sister, Aida Rivera, Reyes's mother, to pay for her stay at Walter Reed. Rivera eventually got financial assistance from the Army and outside organizations, but she also received a $3,519 bill from Mologne House, a hotel at Walter Reed, for her stay as her son's nonmedical attendant.
Staff members from other offices also complained to the command about Wagner, according to memos obtained by The Post. In one, an employee, who asked not to be named, questioned why a soldier's mother "who had subsisted on dried soups . . . due to her lack of funds" could not get help. Four months after approaching the center, the memo said, the mother had not received the per diem owed her as her child's nonmedical attendant "and has no cash for essentials nor emergencies."
A wife who accompanied her wounded husband, who was based in Germany, said Wagner asked her repeatedly why she did not return to Germany so she could continue working. The woman "reported she felt harassed and bullied but that she held her ground," the employee's memo states.
Wagner said families were often angry at his office, not because it failed them but because they were distraught over their situation. "Their true need is an emotional one. They're going to be angry at somebody. . . . I did my best; no, more than my best."
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.