Tuesday, March 6, 2007
IN A DIM auditorium at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center yesterday, Maj. Gen. George W. Weightman, the recently ousted commander of the facility, turned and apologized directly to the maimed soldiers and their families who had assembled for a House subcommittee hearing. Once during the hearing, Lt. Gen. Kevin C. Kiley, Army surgeon general and former Walter Reed commander, tried to frame the situation as a failure of lower-ranking personnel and characterized an article in The Post as "yellow journalism." Gen. Kiley has reason to be defensive -- he is arguably more to blame for the miserable outpatient conditions described in a recent Post series than is Gen. Weightman but still serves as the Army's top doctor. Nevertheless, he, too, apologized, and he acknowledged that he is ultimately responsible for outpatient facilities. And Gen. Kiley, along with Gen. Richard A. Cody, the Army's vice chief of staff, and Maj. Gen. Eric B. Schoomaker, the new head of Walter Reed, assured the subcommittee that thorough reviews of outpatient facilities will lead to significant reform.
Also encouraging was Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates's swift firing of Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey on Friday after Harvey nonsensically removed Gen. Weightman from his position and placed Gen. Kiley temporarily in charge. Mr. Gates seems to be holding upper tiers of Army management to account.
Being sorry is only the first step, however. Since the series was published, Post reporters have received hundreds of accounts of appalling conditions and management practices at both Army outpatient facilities and Department of Veterans Affairs facilities across the country. One mother complained that a room assigned to her son, who had an open wound, was infested with fruit flies and contained overflowing trash and a syringe. A soldier said that wounded veterans had to sign waivers attesting that they understood that their living conditions were below minimum governmental standards. Most disturbing are reports of Army medical review boards trying to pay wounded soldiers as little as possible in disability benefits, sometimes adjudicating veterans' claims while they were heavily medicated and unable to argue their cases effectively.
Fixing veterans' outpatient care will take a lot more than putting a new roof on Walter Reed's Building 18. It means revamping buildings and bureaucracies across the country. The generals who testified yesterday made an excellent point: More injured soldiers survive now than ever before because of the quality of the Army's inpatient medicine, and the nature of their physical and psychological wounds often makes those injuries difficult to diagnose and treat. Since American action began in Afghanistan, this country has taken on a large responsibility to care for its wounded service members, for life if needed. It may be expensive, but these men and women deserve clean accommodations and straightforward assistance -- not adversity -- from administrators. If the accounts The Post has received over the past couple of weeks are true, then the Army and Veterans Affairs are both far from achieving that goal.