The Army's surgeon general yesterday criticized stories in The Washington Post disclosing problems at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, saying the series unfairly characterized the living conditions and care for soldiers recuperating from wounds at the hospital's facilities.
"I'm not sure it was an accurate representation," Lt. Gen. Kevin C. Kiley, chief of the Army Medical Command, told reporters during a news conference. "It was a one-sided representation."
The Medical Command oversees Walter Reed and all Army health care.
Until now, the Army had not challenged any aspect of the Post series. Army and Defense Department leaders have promised to eliminate squalid conditions in Building 18, a former hotel outside the Walter Reed gate where 76 wounded soldiers live as outpatients. They have also promised to address bureaucratic problems in the handling of wounded soldiers.
The two-part newspaper series reported that many soldiers spend 18 months or more at Walter Reed. It quoted many patients and their families describing a bureaucratic indifference to medical needs. And it described rooms in Building 18 with mold, leaky plumbing and holes in ceilings.
While acknowledging "pretty distressing" conditions in some rooms at Building 18, Kiley said the problems were neither widespread nor symptoms of a system that allows soldiers to languish. The building is not "emblematic of a process of Walter Reed that has abandoned soldiers and their families," said Kiley, who was commander at the hospital before becoming surgeon general in 2004.
"I want to reset the thinking . . .," Kiley said. "While we have some issues here, this is not a horrific, catastrophic failure at Walter Reed."
Asked to elaborate on his comments after the news conference at the facility, Kiley said he does not dispute the facts in the Post stories. "It's not the accuracy I question, it's the characterization," he said.
Kiley said the Army is beginning to study ways to streamline the medical bureaucracy, including the process by which soldiers are evaluated and either discharged or returned to active duty. "That's going to take more than a couple of weeks, but we're going to get at it," he said.
Kiley's comments came at the end of a media tour during which reporters and television camera crews were escorted through Building 18 to view conditions and repairs. Rooms had been painted, plumbing repaired and floors disinfected.
"It's not the Ritz-Carlton at Pentagon City, I'll grant you that," Kiley said, surveying the cleaned, repaired and repainted room where until recently Army Spec. Jeremy Duncan lived with black mold and a hole in the ceiling above the shower.
Duncan, who broke his neck while on patrol in Iraq last year, was moved to a new room after the Post story described his living conditions. He said he has not suffered any reprisals. "Believe it or not, people were actually happy about the fact that someone spoke up," Duncan said.
Kiley said that while repairs to Building 18 are nearly complete, the aging facility needs a top-to-bottom renovation. "That's tough to do while you're trying to take care of soldiers," he said.
In another development yesterday, the White House announced that President Bush plans to nominate S. Ward Casscells to replace William Winkenwerder as assistant defense secretary for health affairs. The Pentagon said Winkenwerder's departure was already planned and is not related to problems at Walter Reed.