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Painting Over the Problems at Walter Reed's Building 18

By Dana Milbank
Friday, February 23, 2007

It's not every day one gets to witness a whitewash in action, but Walter Reed Army Medical Center provided just such an opportunity yesterday.

In Sunday's Washington Post, Dana Priest and Anne Hull described the woeful conditions of Room 205 in Walter Reed's Building 18: "Behind the door of Army Spec. Jeremy Duncan's room, part of the wall is torn and hangs in the air, weighted down with black mold. When the wounded combat engineer stands in his shower and looks up, he can see the bathtub on the floor above through a rotted hole."

The Army mobilized. Painters were deployed to cover the offending wall with a fresh coat of white semigloss. And television crews were invited in to inspect the result.

"Some of the paint is still wet against that wall, so be careful," Walter Reed public affairs officer Donald Vandrey, standing on the bed in his socks, advised the film crews. "They just finished repainting it about 10 minutes ago."

Mission accomplished?

Lt. Gen. Kevin Kiley thought so. After the media tour of Building 18, the Army's surgeon general gave a news conference. "I do not consider Building 18 to be substandard," he said of a facility Priest and Hull found full of "mouse droppings, belly-up cockroaches, stained carpets, cheap mattresses" and other delights. "We needed to do a better job on some of those rooms, and those of you that got in today saw that we frankly have fixed all of those problems. They weren't serious, and there weren't a lot of them."

Kiley might have had a stronger case if men wearing Tyvek hazmat suits and gas masks hadn't walked through the lobby while the camera crews waited for the tour to start, or if he hadn't acknowledged, moments later, that the entire building would have to be closed for a complete renovation. The general also seemed to miss a larger point identified by other officials: Walter Reed's problem isn't of mice and mold but a bureaucracy that has impeded the recovery of wounded soldiers.

The Army's vice chief of staff, only 24 hours earlier, decried "a breakdown in leadership" for the conditions in the place. And Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) noted that "you could put all the wounded soldiers in the Ritz-Carlton, and it wouldn't fix the personnel management and recordkeeping problems that keep them languishing in outpatient limbo out there for months."

"We're not letting soldiers languish," came Kiley's reply.

For all the stagecraft, there was still broken glass in the driveway of Building 18 yesterday, a banana peel on the steps and an empty Budweiser can in the shrubbery. There were signs of hasty repairs: a plumber's truck outside, dust masks and spray cleaners on window sills, rat poison outside the dumpster, and a discarded box proclaiming "Emergency Exit Lighting Fixture." Construction workers came and went.

The base's public-affairs crew arrived 25 minutes late for the tour but got right to work. "Some of these people are not on our list and are not coming in," announced Lori Calvillo, Walter Reed's chief spokeswoman. "C-SPAN, you're not on the list. You're not coming in." She then attempted to evict a Washington Post reporter, who appealed, loudly, to Kiley.

The tour began in the game room, where soldiers shot pool and watched a plasma TV. From there, the tourists climbed a stairwell smelling of chlorine bleach to a floor smelling of fresh paint.

"In the next room, there's a little water drop on the ceiling; you can get a nice shot of it," Kiley joked. Inside Room 416, there was indeed some rainwater dripping into a wastebasket, a missing lampshade, some loose wallpaper and a mirror on the floor -- but neither rodents nor fungus were visible.

Then it was down to Room 205, crammed with Tilex, sealant, paint rollers, a dropcloth and ceramic tiles. Spokesman Vandrey spoke like a real estate agent: "There was no plumbing leakage in the bathroom. That was all condensation." Outside the room, a man spoke urgently into his cellphone: "The drywall has to dry before they can paint."

A few doors down was Spec. Duncan, in his new room. "Unfortunately, I had to stand up and tell them, 'Hey, the room is messed up,' " he told a Voice of America camera. "I got my point across."

He sure did -- and that's why Kiley, who was the commander at Walter Reed before assuming his current role in 2004, found himself staring into a bank of 12 cameras yesterday. Missing was Maj. Gen. George Weightman, the current Walter Reed commander -- "called away to important business," Kiley explained.

At times, Kiley appeared to acknowledge a systemic problem. He promised to "go at this thing soup to nuts," adding: "We're gonna get at it real quickly." But then he quibbled with the scope of the problem. "Some of this bureaucracy, as much as it frustrates us, I'm not sure that's a breakdown in leadership," he reasoned.

He then attacked the "one-sided representation" of the Post reporting. "I do not think that Building 8" -- he apparently meant 18 -- "is emblematic of a process of Walter Reed that has abandoned soldiers and their families," Kiley said. "I want to reset the thinking that while we have some issues here, this is not a horrific, catastrophic failure at Walter Reed."

Back in Room 205, the whitewash was almost dry.

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