By Josh White and Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, March 9, 2007
A combat-arms brigadier general from Fort Knox will take over as deputy commanding general of Walter Reed Army Medical Center, a move that Army officials said yesterday will allow medical commanders to focus on health care while battle-hardened field officers work to regain the trust of wounded soldiers.
Gen. Richard A. Cody, the Army's vice chief of staff, announced that Brig. Gen. Michael S. Tucker will come to Washington as part of a leadership restructuring at Walter Reed that will include the creation of a brigade focused on helping wounded outpatients navigate a treacherous bureaucracy. Cody, speaking to reporters at Walter Reed, said the changes are designed to attack problems and lapses exposed in a series of Washington Post articles and to ensure that veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan receive the care and respect they deserve.
Cody said he believes that new leadership is key to fixing problems that let outpatient soldiers fall through the cracks.
"He understands soldiers. He understands leading in combat. He understands how to run large organizations," Cody said of Tucker. "He's going to be the guy that we look to to be the soldiers' and families' advocate as they go through inpatient and outpatient, but also he's going to be the bureaucratic buster . . . and take on this bureaucracy that at times frustrates our soldiers."
Tucker said in an e-mail yesterday that he is "honored" to have been chosen for the position.
Cody's move will inject a battlefield perspective into what has traditionally been a solely medical operation, and he has dispatched teams to numerous Army hospitals around the country to identify any similar problems. Cody also handpicked Col. Terrence J. McKenrick to lead the newly formed Wounded Warrior Transition Brigade, a unit that will help outpatients navigate a confusing world of paperwork, appointments and readjustments to civilian life.
An infantry officer with special operations experience, McKenrick recently returned from his second tour in Iraq, where he was a senior staff officer under Lt. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli. Instead of taking command of an infantry brigade, he will be placed at the center of overhauling Walter Reed's outpatient services -- a high-profile job as Congress monitors progress over the coming months.
McKenrick said he is bringing in three company commanders, all with combat experience in Iraq, and his command sergeant major, Jeffrey S. Hartless, has already joined him at Walter Reed. Hartless was wounded while serving in Afghanistan and was treated at Walter Reed.
"It's an honor to get chosen to do this," Hartless said, adding that combat-arms noncommissioned officers are in the business of taking care of soldiers. "We can take care of the problems and let them worry about getting well."
Maj. Gen. Eric B. Schoomaker, Walter Reed's new commander, said the medical community needs help from combat-tested troops in the wake of the scandal. "There is a sense of distrust in the system," Schoomaker said. "They are going to help us reestablish that trust with the very people we are pledged to support."
Army officials said they are undertaking a number of internal reviews to identify other potential problems, and Cody is expected to hold a video teleconference with hospital commanders from around the country today to pinpoint deficiencies.
Lawmakers from both parties yesterday pressed Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Army leaders to take action against those responsible for the poor care of wounded outpatients at Walter Reed, with some calling for the Army's surgeon general, Lt. Gen. Kevin C. Kiley, to be relieved of command.
Kiley and a string of other senior Army and Pentagon officials reiterated their accountability for the problems at a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee yesterday, but their reassurances failed to satisfy some members.
"You've got a management problem," Rep. Robin Hayes (R-N.C.) said to Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker. "Should not General Kiley be relieved from duty because of what has happened here?"
"I prefer not to say it here," Schoomaker replied, saying he will make his recommendations to the "appropriate authority." "But I can promise you that this is being investigated, and I can assure you that the proper action will be taken," he said. Schoomaker has been recused from decisions on the Walter Reed leadership because his brother has been named to head the hospital.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) filed a bill yesterday that would reverse the planned closure of Walter Reed. Under a law passed in 2005, the hospital is to be closed in 2011 and its services merged with the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda. Norton said problems at the hospital cannot be fixed if the threat of closure hangs over the facility, because many skilled personnel will refuse to work there.
Norton, who said she has received backing from Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), chairman of the Appropriations defense subcommittee, asked Congress to "reverse the madness of closing the nation's best and most vital military hospital in the middle of a shooting war and the war on terrorism."
Staff writer Steve Vogel contributed to this report.