Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates named an independent review panel yesterday to investigate what he called an "unacceptable" situation in outpatient care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and he said that some soldiers "most directly involved" in the problems have been removed from their positions.
Speaking to reporters during a visit to the Army hospital in Northwest Washington, Gates also warned that senior military leaders could be disciplined based on the findings of the review group.
"We empower commanders with responsibility, authority and resources necessary to carry out their missions," Gates said. "With responsibility comes accountability. Accordingly, after the facts are established, those responsible for having allowed this unacceptable situation to develop will indeed be held accountable."
The Senate Armed Services Committee has tentatively scheduled hearings on the facility for March 6, said a spokeswoman for the panel's chairman, Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.). Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), the ranking minority member of the committee, toured the facility yesterday.
The actions came after stories in The Washington Post on Sunday and Monday revealed that wounded soldiers recuperating at Walter Reed often become mired in red tape as they seek further treatment or decisions on whether they will stay in the military. The articles also disclosed poor living conditions -- including mold, filth and leaks -- in Building 18, an Army facility that houses recovering troops.
"I'm grateful to reporters for bringing this to our attention but thoroughly disappointed we did not identify it ourselves," Gates said in his first public remarks addressing the situation.
The eight-member review group appointed by Gates has been charged with taking a broad look at all rehabilitative care and administrative procedures both at Walter Reed and the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda. Panel members "will be given free and unrestricted access" to visit medical facilities and interview personnel, Gates said.
The group will be co-chaired by Togo West, who was secretary of veterans affairs and secretary of the Army during the Clinton administration, and by John O. Marsh Jr., who was secretary of the Army under President Ronald Reagan and a former member of Congress from Virginia. Other members include two former members of Congress, three retired senior military officers and a retired command sergeant major. Their report is due within 45 days and will be made public, Gates said.
Gates said he had no information suggesting that there are problems at Bethesda similar to those at Walter Reed, but he said the naval facility is being included because "we need to know the scope of this problem."
There is rare unanimity in Washington on the need to treat wounded soldiers well, Gates said, "and so we're determined to fix it, and fix it fast." He described the medical care itself at the hospital as "unsurpassable" and said the shortcomings were confined to "the outpatient aspect of this."
During his visit, Gates met a group of five soldiers being treated at the facility who spoke of a frustrating administrative bureaucracy at the hospital. "They battled our foreign enemies; they should not have to battle an American bureaucracy," Gates said.
Gates said caseworkers are "overwhelmed" by the numbers of patients they are assigned, and he indicated that more workers would be soon assigned to the hospital.
"There's just too much work for the number of people that are available," he said. "So that's one thing that can be addressed pretty quickly." Gates added that troops who had been wounded in service "should not have to recuperate in substandard housing."
The Army declined to identify publicly the personnel who have been moved to different positions at the hospital. Speaking on background, an Army official said they included several soldiers involved in supervising facilities at Walter Reed, including Building 18.
Gates met with President Bush yesterday morning to brief him on the actions underway. "He is, understandably, concerned and emphatic in wanting the best possible care for our wounded soldiers and for their families," Gates said.