The White House and congressional leaders called yesterday for swift investigation and repair of the problems plaguing outpatient care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, as veterans groups and members of Congress in both parties expressed outrage over substandard housing and the slow, dysfunctional bureaucracy there.
Top Army officials yesterday visited Building 18, the decrepit former hotel housing more than 80 recovering soldiers, outside the gates of the medical center. Army Secretary Francis Harvey and Vice Chief of Staff Richard Cody toured the building and spoke to soldiers as workers in protective masks stripped mold from the walls and tore up soiled carpets.
At the White House, press secretary Tony Snow said that he spoke with President Bush yesterday about Walter Reed and that the president told him: "Find out what the problem is and fix it."
Snow said Bush "first learned of the troubling allegations regarding Walter Reed from the stories this weekend in The Washington Post. He is deeply concerned and wants any problems identified and fixed." The spokesman said he did not know why the president, who has visited the facility many times in the past five years, had not heard about these problems before.
Walter Reed's commander, Maj. Gen. George W. Weightman, said in an interview that the Army leadership had assured him that all the staff increases he had requested would be met. "This is not an issue," he said. "This is their number one priority."
He said the Army has agreed to fund what he called a "surge plan" that has been designed for the likelihood that the 21,500-person troop increase underway in Iraq will result in more casualties.
Weightman said case managers have been ordered to call each of the 700 outpatients to ask about problems they may be encountering. He has also put half a dozen senior enlisted officers from the hospital in charge of the outpatients' companies normally in the hands of lower-level platoon sergeants. Also, a medic will be stationed 24 hours a day at the Mologne House, the largest residence on the 113-acre post, to help soldiers with medical or psychological problems.
Harvey said he was surprised and disappointed by the conditions and the bureaucratic delays. "In the warrior ethos, the last line says you should never leave a fallen comrade, and from that facility point of view we didn't live up to it . . . and it looks to me we may have not lived up to it from a process side," he said, adding that conditions at the building are "inexcusable."
"It's a failure . . . in the garrison leadership . . . that should have never happened, and we are quickly going to rectify that situation," he said.
"We had some NCOs [noncommissioned officers] who weren't doing their job, period," Harvey said. He said he and Cody will report regularly to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates on a plan to fix the conditions.
The Post series documented tattered conditions at Building 18, including mold, rot, mice and cockroaches, but also a larger bureaucratic indifference that has impeded some soldiers' recovery.
At Building 18 yesterday, platoon sergeants with clipboards went from room to room inspecting for mold, leaks and other problems. A broken elevator was repaired, and snow and ice were cleared from the sidewalks.
The secretaries of the Army and Navy announced that they had begun a broader review of Walter Reed and the National Naval Medical Center and that an independent review group will be formed to investigate outpatient care and administrative processes. Walter Reed is set to close in 2011, and the naval facility in Bethesda will be expanded to handle the additional wounded.
Walter Reed's fixes are unlikely to immediately quiet the criticism from members of Congress, who received a flood of calls from the public and veterans groups asking how the problems could have been unknown to officials -- some of whom regularly visit Walter Reed.
"We need to bring the Army people in and say, 'What the hell is going on?' " said Rep. Bob Filner (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) asked the House Armed Services Committee to investigate outpatient care at Walter Reed. "The treatment reported in The Post of our troops and our veterans is disgraceful," Pelosi spokesman Brendan Daly said.
Several senators, including presidential candidate Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and former presidential candidate John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), announced they are co-sponsoring legislation to simplify the paperwork process for recovering soldiers and increase case managers and psychological counselors. The bill would also require the Army to report more regularly to Congress and the inspector general about the living conditions of injured soldiers.
Jeff Miller (Fla.), the ranking Republican on the House Veterans' Affairs subcommittee on health, said: "The neglect being experienced by some wounded service members is outrageous. The Defense Department is never shy about asking for supplemental funds for operations and equipment; I cannot imagine why housing for recuperating wounded would not be a similarly high priority."
Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), former chairman of what was then known as the House Government Reform Committee, urged the committee to hold a hearing at Walter Reed to give members an "invaluable firsthand look" at how the Army is processing the wounded. "Improvements to date have been episodic, and in some case, short-lived," Davis said in a statement.