Swift Action Promised at Walter Reed

Building 18, a former hotel across Georgia Avenue from Walter Reed, now serves as overflow housing for the medical center.
Building 18, a former hotel across Georgia Avenue from Walter Reed, now serves as overflow housing for the medical center. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
By Dana Priest and Anne Hull
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The White House and congressional leaders called yesterday for swift investigation and repair of the problems plaguing outpatient care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, as veterans groups and members of Congress in both parties expressed outrage over substandard housing and the slow, dysfunctional bureaucracy there.

Top Army officials yesterday visited Building 18, the decrepit former hotel housing more than 80 recovering soldiers, outside the gates of the medical center. Army Secretary Francis Harvey and Vice Chief of Staff Richard Cody toured the building and spoke to soldiers as workers in protective masks stripped mold from the walls and tore up soiled carpets.

At the White House, press secretary Tony Snow said that he spoke with President Bush yesterday about Walter Reed and that the president told him: "Find out what the problem is and fix it."

Snow said Bush "first learned of the troubling allegations regarding Walter Reed from the stories this weekend in The Washington Post. He is deeply concerned and wants any problems identified and fixed." The spokesman said he did not know why the president, who has visited the facility many times in the past five years, had not heard about these problems before.

Walter Reed's commander, Maj. Gen. George W. Weightman, said in an interview that the Army leadership had assured him that all the staff increases he had requested would be met. "This is not an issue," he said. "This is their number one priority."

He said the Army has agreed to fund what he called a "surge plan" that has been designed for the likelihood that the 21,500-person troop increase underway in Iraq will result in more casualties.

Weightman said case managers have been ordered to call each of the 700 outpatients to ask about problems they may be encountering. He has also put half a dozen senior enlisted officers from the hospital in charge of the outpatients' companies normally in the hands of lower-level platoon sergeants. Also, a medic will be stationed 24 hours a day at the Mologne House, the largest residence on the 113-acre post, to help soldiers with medical or psychological problems.

Harvey said he was surprised and disappointed by the conditions and the bureaucratic delays. "In the warrior ethos, the last line says you should never leave a fallen comrade, and from that facility point of view we didn't live up to it . . . and it looks to me we may have not lived up to it from a process side," he said, adding that conditions at the building are "inexcusable."

"It's a failure . . . in the garrison leadership . . . that should have never happened, and we are quickly going to rectify that situation," he said.

"We had some NCOs [noncommissioned officers] who weren't doing their job, period," Harvey said. He said he and Cody will report regularly to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates on a plan to fix the conditions.

The Post series documented tattered conditions at Building 18, including mold, rot, mice and cockroaches, but also a larger bureaucratic indifference that has impeded some soldiers' recovery.

At Building 18 yesterday, platoon sergeants with clipboards went from room to room inspecting for mold, leaks and other problems. A broken elevator was repaired, and snow and ice were cleared from the sidewalks.

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