A top Army general vowed yesterday to personally oversee the upgrading of Walter Reed Army Medical Center's Building 18, a dilapidated former hotel that houses wounded soldiers as outpatients.
Gen. Richard A. Cody, the Army vice chief of staff, used terminology similar to that of a military campaign to describe his plan to overhaul the broken building, including giving it a more "appropriate" name, and the sluggish bureaucracy for outpatient care.
"We own that building, and we're going to take charge of it," Cody said at the Pentagon. "The senior Army leadership takes full responsibility for the lack of quality of life at Building 18, and we're going to fix it."
Cody blamed "a breakdown in leadership" for the troubling conditions but said no one has been fired or relieved of command. He did point to lower-ranking officers and noncommissioned officers lacking "the right experience and the authority to be able to execute some of the missions."
"That's what we're correcting right now," he said.
Cody and William Winkenwerder Jr., the assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, said at a news conference that they frequently visit Walter Reed and were surprised and disappointed by the living conditions and the fact that they had learned about them from media reports. The Washington Post reported Sunday and Monday on the challenges facing outpatients at Walter Reed.
"We get concerns all the time directed to us. But we never got a concern sent our way about this issue, which is a little surprising. I'm not sure why that is," Winkenwerder said.
Standards of medical care at Walter Reed remain high, he said, but he acknowledged: "The trust has taken a hit here. And I think it's our job to repair that trust and to re-earn that trust. And that's what we're going to do."
Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (Va.), the top Republican on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, blasted the Army yesterday, saying in a statement that it has known for years about shortcomings at Walter Reed.
"You could put all of the wounded soldiers in the Ritz-Carlton and it wouldn't fix the personnel, management and recordkeeping problems that keep them languishing in outpatient limbo out there for months while paperwork from 11 disjointed systems gets shuffled and lost," Davis said.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) echoed Davis's concerns after she toured Building 18 and spoke to soldiers.
"The problem is much more serious than one building," she said in an interview. "It's going to be easy for everyone to duck this problem after the building is fixed if we don't fix the completely dilapidated administrative system."
Norton said that she thinks Congress will have to compel the Army to overhaul its outpatient care system but that immediate steps are needed to help soldiers trapped in the existing bureaucracy.
Army Secretary Francis Harvey said an independent review group of about eight people will be established to look at outpatient care. Winkenwerder said the group would report back to the Pentagon in a "short time frame."
Cody called the state of Building 18 -- where 76 soldiers live -- "inexcusable" and said he will "personally oversee" its renovation. He said the building had been upgraded several times and called the furniture "very nice" but said the walls and infrastructure were not "up to speed" and required inspections were not done or were not rigorous enough.
Harvey said the building would be renamed after an Army doctor, medic or nurse who was killed in action.
Cody said the Army will review all its procedures for handling wounded soldiers and their families and will seek to streamline systems for assistance.