Army Secretary Ousted
Saturday, March 3, 2007
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates fired the secretary of the Army yesterday and President Bush vowed to investigate allegations of substandard treatment of wounded soldiers as the administration scrambled to contain fallout from the scandal over squalid housing and bureaucratic delays in outpatient care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
The Army named Maj. Gen. Eric B. Schoomaker as the new commander of Walter Reed only a day after picking Lt. Gen. Kevin C. Kiley, who had previously commanded the medical center, as the temporary chief. Kiley's selection had angered soldiers and family groups -- and, more important, Gates -- because of their belief that he had been aware of problems at the hospital and done little to address them. Kiley is the current Army surgeon general.
Gates made little secret of his dismay when he appeared before reporters yesterday to announce the resignation of Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey. Pentagon officials indicated that Harvey was forced to resign because Gates was angry with how the Army handled allegations of poor care detailed in a series of Washington Post reports. The facility's commander, Maj. Gen. George W. Weightman, was dismissed this week, and a captain and several lower-level soldiers were reassigned.
"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."
Later, in an interview, an emotional Harvey appeared both apologetic and defensive. "It's unexcusable to have soldiers in that type of building," he said, explaining why he resigned.
But he also said that the Post stories lacked balance. "Where's the other side of the story?" he asked, his voice rising. "Two articles in your paper have ruined the career of General Weightman, who is a very decent man, and then a captain . . . and the secretary of the Army. If that satisfies the populace, maybe this will stop further dismissals."
In a sign of the seriousness with which Bush takes the situation, the White House announced that he will soon name a commission to look into whether there are similar problems at other military and veterans hospitals. Administration officials took the unusual step of releasing early the text of Bush's regular Saturday radio address, in which the president will vow to ensure that the government meets the physical and mental health needs of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Most of the people working at Walter Reed are dedicated professionals," Bush will say, according to the text. "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."
Taken together, the developments yesterday highlighted the anger at the highest levels of the administration over the problems at Walter Reed, as well as the political danger for the White House. Veterans groups remain among the few strong supporters of the war and have been an important part of the president's political base, yet they -- along with military families -- have been outraged since the problems first became public two weeks ago.
Joe Davis, a spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said that the reports have angered members across the country and that the group hopes Vice President Cheney will address the issue when he speaks to its legislative conference on Monday. "Nobody would believe the military would do this to their wounded," Davis said. "We want accountability."
Democrats in Congress, meanwhile, have strongly denounced the administration for what they call insufficient attention to the needs of returning soldiers. At least two committees are mobilizing to investigate the Walter Reed situation. The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform issued a subpoena yesterday to compel Weightman to testify at a congressional hearing Monday.
The committee also released an internal Army memorandum reportedly written in September in which the Walter Reed garrison commander, Col. Peter Garibaldi, warned Weightman that "patient care services are at risk of mission failure" because of staff shortages brought on by the privatization of the hospital's support workforce.