Apologies, Anger at Walter Reed Hearing
Tuesday, March 6, 2007
Senior commanders of the Army offered profuse apologies yesterday for the poor treatment accorded many soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, but lawmakers expressed skepticism that the generals had been unaware of the problems until they were spotlighted by the media two weeks ago.
Congress opened a round of investigative hearings into the Walter Reed scandal only days after a major shakeup at the Army that followed Washington Post reports about squalid living conditions and bureaucratic tangles for soldiers receiving outpatient care. Walter Reed's commander, Maj. Gen. George W. Weightman, and Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey lost their jobs, and the Bush administration has established several panels to investigate the care being provided to wounded soldiers.
Senior commanders sounded more contrite yesterday than they did when the scandal first broke. At one point during several hours of hearings in the auditorium at Walter Reed, Weightman turned to the soldiers and families behind him and apologized "for not meeting their expectations, not only in the care provided, but also in having so many bureaucratic processes."
"I promise we will do better," Weightman said.
Lawmakers -- Democrats and Republicans alike -- seemed receptive to the candor voiced at the hearing of a panel of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, but they also cited earlier warnings from internal memos, government audits and news reports.
"I have to tell you, the first thing that pops into my mind is: Where've you been? Where has all the brass been?" said Rep. John F. Tierney (D-Mass.), who convened the hearing as chairman of the national security and foreign affairs subcommittee. "All the things that [were] heard, read about and heard earlier today, clearly, this can't all be pushed down at the lower level. Clearly this is not some junior officer's responsibility that nobody else has to claim anything for."
Army Chief of Staff Peter J. Schoomaker told the committee that the reports and audits did not come to his attention, but he said it is now clear that there is a much bigger problem in military health care. "I couldn't be madder, and I couldn't be more embarrassed and ashamed of the kinds of things that have turned up, because clearly it's not what my impression would have been based upon the feedback that I've gotten as I've talked to soldiers and the family," he said.
Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (Va.), the ranking Republican on the committee, cited an Oct. 12, 2006, Army memo indicating that a review team found problems with billeting, staffing and other issues at Building 18, the outpatient residential facility whose substandard conditions have been at the heart of the recent scandal. Both Weightman and Lt. Gen. Kevin C. Kiley, the Army surgeon general, who previously commanded Walter Reed, acknowledged under questioning that they had been briefed on the findings.
"You knew these were problems," Davis said. "You may not have known specifically what it looked like, and you may not have been able to put faces and stories behind it, but there was an ongoing concern."
Kiley told Davis that his staff "informed me that the Walter Reed staff was working it, that they recognized that there were issues, and that they were taking action."
Kiley came in for tough criticism yesterday for his roles as commander of Walter Reed from 2002 to 2004, when problems were developing at the facility, and as surgeon general since 2004, with responsibility for the Army medical command. Kiley accepted responsibility but defended his motives. "I've spent my entire life taking care of patients, training doctors to take care of patients. And I'm committed to Army medicine and committed to taking care of soldiers and their families," he said.
The comments from Davis and other GOP lawmakers underscored the bipartisan nature of the criticism yesterday in the first of what is likely to be a string of hearings probing problems at Walter Reed and in military health care more broadly. With anger building among military families and veterans groups, Republicans have seemed less reluctant to criticize the administration, and the White House is moving to try to get ahead of the political furor by naming a bipartisan commission to examine the care received by soldiers wounded in Afghanistan or Iraq.