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Oops! We Did It Again.

It's been more than a year since the Walter Reed scandal broke, but "some would say we're a step slow," acknowledged Maj. Gen. David Rubinstein, right.
It's been more than a year since the Walter Reed scandal broke, but "some would say we're a step slow," acknowledged Maj. Gen. David Rubinstein, right. (By Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)
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By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The generals were nervous.

Lt. Gen. Robert Wilson moved his index finger across the page as he read his statement with a halting delivery. Maj. Gen. David Rubenstein, holding a discolored washcloth under the witness table to dry his perspiration, accidentally dropped the cloth and felt for it with his shoe.

The anxiety, even for men with two or three stars on each shoulder, was to be expected. They had come before a House Armed Services subcommittee to explain why, 16 months and at least eight fact-finding investigations after the Walter Reed scandal, the Army still hadn't fixed the health-care system for soldiers wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Wisely, however, the generals armed themselves with a highly sophisticated and unexpected weapon: contrition.

"It absolutely needs to work better," said Lt. Gen. Michael Rochelle, the Army's deputy chief of staff.

"We realize that we have much work to do," offered Wilson, of the Army's installation management command.

"Some would say that we're a step slow; I have no argument with that complaint," confessed Rubenstein, the Army's deputy surgeon general.

"Certainly, this program has been imperfect and execution uneven," said Brig. Gen. Gary Cheek, an assistant surgeon general for "warrior care."

It was a tactical retreat in the face of an overwhelming enemy: the facts.

Committee investigators had visited Army medical facilities and came back with ominous statistics. At Fort Hood, Tex., last month, they found that a "warrior transition unit" designed to support 649 had 1,342 soldiers, with 350 more on a waiting list. Instead of the promised 74 nurse case managers, there were 38. Other facilities "would shortly experience similar shortages" or already had.

The Army miscalculated the growth in the number of soldiers needing care (it's now at 12,000 and is expected to reach 20,000 next year), causing it to fall below "the required level of staffing" at most facilities -- despite the Army surgeon general's assertion in February that "we are entirely staffed at the point we need to be staffed."

"Why," inquired the panel's chairman, Susan Davis (D-Calif.), "did it take oversight visits from this subcommittee to identify and spur the Army to fix these issues?" She concluded: "We are very concerned that the Army took its eye off that ball, that you are not living up to the goals you set and the promises you made."


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