Soldier Recounts Abuse at Walter Reed
Saturday, April 7, 2007
Two months before Mario Alberto Echeverri administered a sleep disorder test to an Army corporal at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the medical technician had been arrested for fondling the groin of a U.S. Park Police officer.
Seventeen months before, Echeverri had been observed touching a Walter Reed patient inappropriately and was warned against such behavior. Two years before, he had been accused of improperly touching a patient at a private sleep center in Gaithersburg.
Cpl. Matthew Burgess knew none of this when he went to the Army hospital the evening of April 21, 2004. Echeverri gave the soldier sleep medication, asked him strip to his shorts, connected him by wire to monitoring equipment and had him lie down. The test was part of a study of whether Burgess's headaches, fatigue and diarrhea were connected to the anthrax vaccine he received when he was deployed to Iraq in 2003.
While the machine monitored Burgess, a surveillance camera captured Echeverri fondling the drugged soldier while he was helpless to respond, court records reflect. Tapes show the technician engaging in similar conduct with two other male patients, one an active-duty soldier and the other a 16-year-old boy, according to records and interviews.
Echeverri, who worked for a private contractor hired by Walter Reed, pleaded guilty in 2005 to second-degree sexual abuse of Burgess, court records indicate. He was not charged in the other two cases as part of his plea agreement, said a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Washington.
For Burgess, 34, his experience at Walter Reed is an unforgivable betrayal that points to a failure by the Army to take care of soldiers returning from Iraq.
"I had already lost my health because of the anthrax vaccine, and this on top of it," said Burgess, whose illness was ultimately determined by the Army to have been caused by the vaccine, medical records show.
"The Army always tells you all the way from basic training that we're a family, and if you do the right thing, we'll take care of you," Burgess said. "You believe that. You want to believe that, but then you find out they don't."
Walter Reed officials said they were unaware of Echeverri's arrest by U.S. Park Police or the allegations in Montgomery County. Once they discovered he had abused patients, Walter Reed removed him from his job and reported him to authorities.
"We reported everything very honestly as we knew it at the time," said Col. David Kristo, then-commander of the sleep center.
The Washington Post does not typically name victims of sexual abuse, but Burgess said he wanted his story told publicly because he thinks it demonstrates the Army's neglect of Iraq war veterans and raises questions about Walter Reed's oversight of contractors.
Burgess and his wife, Robyn, said his experience should be considered as Congress, the Army and various commissions explore how to fix the system. "We want to expose the way our heroes are treated and help our future veterans," Robyn Burgess said.