By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 13, 2007
Lt. Gen. Kevin C. Kiley, the Army's surgeon general, agreed to step down from his position after weeks of intense public criticism stemming from revelations about poor conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, defense officials said yesterday.
Though there had been repeated calls for Kiley to resign as the Army's top doctor during hearings on Capitol Hill, he refused to step aside even as he was grilled about horrid living conditions and a tangled bureaucracy at the Army's flagship hospital. Kiley at first played down reports of problems at Walter Reed-- where he had served as commander from 2002 to 2004 -- but later was far more contrite.
Kiley submitted his retirement request on Sunday, according to an Army news release. Defense officials said Pete Geren, the acting secretary of the Army, had sought Kiley's removal in recent days. Geren has been in his new role only since last week, when he was tapped to replace Francis Harvey, who resigned as Army Secretary as the scandal began to unfold.
The Army's inspector general reported yesterday that the service is lacking in critical staff and formalized training in caring for soldiers. The inspector general also found that the Army's system for determining disability benefits is overwhelmed by the number of wounded.
Army officials quickly named a temporary replacement for Kiley -- his current deputy, Maj. Gen. Gale S. Pollock. She will serve until an advisory board recommends a new surgeon general.
Pollock, in an e-mail sent to colleagues and staff in the Army Medical Command on Friday, had also sought to minimize reports about conditions at Walter Reed and attacked the media's handling of the issue.
"I know everyone is extremely pained and angry about the media assaults on Walter Reed and our senior leaders," Pollock wrote in an e-mail obtained by The Washington Post. She added that she "articulated our displeasure at the misinformation about the quality of care" to a Post reporter after a congressional hearing last week but also acknowledged that she believes the stories could create momentum for changes that would better serve the Army.
She also wrote: "I know that your families and loved ones are affected by this event as well -- please reassure them that the media makes money on negative stories not by articulating the positive in life -- though that is something I will never understand."
Cynthia Vaughan, a spokeswoman for Pollock, said last night that the message, which also included words of encouragement for the Army medical community, was "intended to lift the spirits and reinforce confidence in her colleagues and her staff."
Senior Army officials, including Gen. Richard A. Cody, the vice Chief of Staff, have said the stories have sparked an important dialogue about the state of the service's medical care. Cody is leading efforts to find and fix problems at Army installations around the world, hoping to remedy the problem of soldiers having to battle a medical bureaucracy after they return from fighting the nation's enemies.
The Army's initial playing down of reports of rodent infestation, mold and bureaucratic delays at Walter Reed angered senior officials at the Pentagon and drew concern from top administration officials -- including President Bush. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates was quick to seek accountability at the highest levels, forcing Harvey to resign days after firing the commander of Walter Reed, Maj. Gen. George W. Weightman, two weeks ago.
Ongoing probes could lead to more firings, two defense officials said yesterday.
Kiley initially sought to deflect the reports after The Post published a series of reports on the conditions faced by veterans receiving care there, saying the problems "weren't serious and there weren't a lot of them," and that they were not "emblematic of a process of Walter Reed that has abandoned soldiers and their families."
He later sought to soften his approach and told congressional panels that he wanted to stay on the job and lead the Army's medical community through systemic change but acknowledged that he was in a tenuous position. He was meeting with top Army officials inside the Pentagon as late as Friday to discuss ways to fix medical bureaucracy and identify shortcomings at facilities around the world.
Kiley commented only briefly when reached via e-mail yesterday, saying that he was "off to retirement" and "proud to have served this great nation." He said that he might pursue a job in executive medicine.
"I submitted my retirement because I think it is in the best interest of the Army," Kiley said in an official statement, adding that he wants the Army to focus on the way forward. "We are an Army Medical Department at war, supporting an Army at war. It shouldn't be and it isn't about one doctor."
Members of Congress yesterday applauded Kiley's exit but said there is still much work to be done.
"The changes in leadership that have occurred since the situation at Walter Reed gained public attention are the first step," said Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. "But this step alone will not fix the problems that our wounded and injured service members experience when they are in recovery. With the installation of new leaders, the real test will be making sure that the work fixing problems actually gets done."
The announcement came after Kiley served about 2 1/2 years of a surgeon general's standard four-year term, which is traditionally followed by retirement. An Army official said Kiley will likely retire as a two-star major general -- instead of as a three-star lieutenant general -- because he has not served a full three years in his current grade. Kiley could appeal for a waiver from the defense secretary to allow him to retire as a three-star general.
Geren, the acting Army secretary, said the service will move quickly to appoint a permanent surgeon general, citing the position's importance in implementing a plan to address shortcomings in veterans' care.
A certified registered nurse anesthetist who has 30 years of service in the Army, Pollock also has an MBA from Boston University and a master's degree in health-care administration from Baylor University. Before moving to Kiley's office in October, Pollock most recently commanded Tripler Army Medical Center in Hawaii.
Staff writer Dana Priest and researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.