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Oops! We Did It Again.

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."

The ranking Republican member, John McHugh (N.Y.), was no less skeptical. "In many ways, this challenge isn't being met, and I find the current circumstances unacceptable," he said. "Do you gentlemen agree with that?" Rochelle nodded his head. "Anybody disagree with that?" Nobody moved.

But with the choreography of a Special Forces team, the four generals, each in dark olive with well-shined shoes, professed their devotion to the cause.

"Warrior care is our highest priority, second only to the global war on terror," Wilson said.

"We have no higher priority," added Rubenstein, "except for putting boots on the ground itself in Iraq and Afghanistan."

"Manning the warrior transition units is only second to manning those units preparing to deploy," affirmed Rochelle.

The officers were careful to avoid the sort of bluster that caused their predecessors to be fired in the immediate aftermath of the Walter Reed scandal -- although Rubenstein got close with his boast that "we're doing phenomenal work." Instead, they heaped flattery on their interrogators.

Cheek voiced a desire to "thank Congress for the leadership and support you provide to the Army in the development and execution of this program." Rochelle thanked the half-dozen lawmakers at the hearing for their "continued support" for the "wounded warriors and families that we are all honored to serve." Wilson chimed in with praise for congressional funding. And Rubenstein managed to find gratitude that committee staff members were "very open with all of their findings."

The lawmakers were disarmed. Davis spoke of the "overall positive direction" and her confidence that the Army is "clearly providing better support" for the wounded.

Delicately, and with careful use of qualifiers, the generals argued that things had improved over 16 months. "We know we have come a long way," Rochelle said. "We also know that we still have a long way to go."

Rubenstein professed to be "working diligently at executing an outstanding Army Medical Action Plan," even if there are "challenges in its execution."

It didn't take much questioning for the "challenges" to trip up the generals. Asked whether the Army is offering competitive pay, Rubenstein boasted that "in some communities, we are too competitive" -- but a moment later complained about how he "can't compete" with the pay at civilian hospitals.

"But you told me you were overly competitive, General," McHugh said. "Which are you?"

After that, the generals mostly stuck with concession and contrition: "We had not sufficiently empowered our commanders. . . . We're going to review this. . . . We've had our challenges. . . . It simply wasn't nimble enough. . . . It is a logjam. . . . We are not meeting the standard. . . . That's a valid concern."

Finding no argument, the lawmakers brought the hearing to a prompt close, but not before another round of mutual flattery. Cheek thanked the committee for its support. Wilson thanked McHugh for the pleasant hearing. Rubenstein praised the staff for its "amazing openness." The chairwoman found herself telling the generals: "Thank you for thanking our staff." Rubenstein, now dry, retrieved his perspiration cloth and hid it under his papers.

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