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Walter Reed Chief Fired Over Troop Treatment

Poor outpatient care for soldiers injured in Iraq and Afghanistan is cited.

Hospital Overwhelmed

Army `lost trust and confidence' in general.

March 02, 2007|Peter Spiegel | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The general in charge of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center was stripped of his command Thursday after revelations that wounded soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan were receiving slipshod outpatient treatment at the prestigious facility.

Senior Army officials said they had "lost trust and confidence" in Maj. Gen. George W. Weightman, who led the medical center for six months, after a series of articles in the Washington Post.

The stories detailed the substandard facilities and confusing bureaucracy that wounded troops faced once they were released from their initial treatment.

Weightman acknowledged the problems in interviews after the shortcomings were disclosed, saying the center's outpatient system was overwhelmed by the unexpectedly high number of wounded soldiers returning from war.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday March 03, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 56 words Type of Material: Correction
Walter Reed Army Medical Center: An article in Friday's Section A reporting that Maj. Gen. George W. Weightman had been relieved as commander of Walter Reed implied that the new interim commander, Lt. Gen. Kevin Kiley, was Weightman's immediate predecessor. Kiley headed Walter Reed until June 2004; there was one commander in between the two men.

But he said that most of the problems predated his tenure, and that he had spent most of his time overseeing an increase in case workers and military officers who handled outpatient services.

Veterans groups welcomed Weightman's dismissal, but noted that the officer chosen to replace him on an interim basis -- Lt. Gen. Kevin Kiley, the head of all Army medical programs -- was Weightman's predecessor at Walter Reed and that he might be responsible for some of the hospital's problems.

"It's good to see someone held accountable," said Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. "But you can't just drop one person and make him the scapegoat."

One military official said the Army was continuing to examine Kiley's oversight of Walter Reed to determine whether he knew of the problems in the outpatient facilities.

"Those questions are being looked at," said the official, who spoke on condition on anonymity. "Is this it? We don't know. Potentially, there could be other heads that roll."

Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey, meeting with Pentagon reporters before announcing Weightman's dismissal, declined to answer questions about the Walter Reed investigation. His spokesman told reporters that any discussion about the medical center's problems was "off the table."

In a statement, the Army said Harvey had set up an "action plan" to find any additional shortcomings.

"We'll fix as we go; we'll fix as we find things wrong," Harvey said in the statement.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates endorsed Harvey's move.

"The care and welfare of our wounded men and women in uniform demand the highest standard of excellence and commitment that we can muster as a government," Gates said in a statement.

"When this standard is not met, I will insist on swift and direct corrective action and, where appropriate, accountability up the chain of command."

White House spokesman Scott M. Stanzel, traveling with President Bush in the Gulf Coast, praised the decision.

"We agree with the Army's decision to make a change at Walter Reed," he said. "Our returning servicemen and women deserve to receive the best treatment possible."

The Army secretary's action was designed to send a message about how seriously the Pentagon took the problems at Walter Reed. Although the Navy has routinely dismissed senior commanders because of accidents, it is rare for an Army general to be relieved of command.

"The decision to do this is not taken nonchalantly; the results are final," the military official said. "It is career-ending."

In addition to Weightman, a captain and four noncommissioned officers were relieved of duty, military officials said.

Lawmakers in Washington applauded the move, saying it marked a change from previous Pentagon practice, including its response to prisoner abuse scandals.

"This step was decisive," said Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.). "We can look back over the last several years for incidents, including Abu Ghraib, where senior commanders were not held accountable properly."

Last week, Gates announced the formation of an independent commission to investigate problems at Walter Reed and to find out if similar issues existed at other medical facilities. Commission members, who met for the first time Thursday at the Pentagon, will report to Gates by mid-April.

The problems at Walter Reed, first reported in the Post articles last month, are found mainly in the outpatient treatment of soldiers who have left Walter Reed's hospital, which has received almost universal praise for saving the lives of troops who would have died from similar injuries in previous conflicts.

In one outpatient housing facility at Walter Reed, the Post detailed a building full of mold and insects.

The newspaper also alleged that poor outpatient oversight resulted in wounded soldiers who slipped through medical and bureaucratic cracks.

When the reports first surfaced, Weightman acknowledged that the system had been overwhelmed for two years, when the number of outpatients peaked at 872 from a prewar level of about 100. But he insisted that, since taking command, he had ramped up the number of case workers and military officers responsible for overseeing outpatients.

Weightman, a family physician by training, is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He served in the Army as an infantry officer for five years before going to medical school.

He was the chief medical officer for the Pentagon during the buildup to the war in Iraq and was in charge of all medical planning until the end of large-scale operations in May 2003.

peter.spiegel@latimes.com

Times staff writer Julian E. Barnes contributed to this report.

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