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Democrats fume over Walter Reed

Sen. Schumer suggests that Colin Powell lead a review of military medical facilities.

March 05, 2007|Noam N. Levey | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Congressional Democrats on Sunday kept up their attacks on substandard care for injured soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center as they prepared for hearings on the issue this week.

"If it's this bad at the outpatient facilities at Walter Reed, how is it in the rest of the country?" Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on ABC's "This Week." "Walter Reed is our crown jewel."

In a letter sent Sunday to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, Schumer called for the creation of an independent commission to examine conditions at all medical facilities treating military personnel and veterans. He suggested that former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, a retired Army general and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, lead the panel.

"To think that men and women are serving their country in the most honorable and courageous way possible and all we give them is a dilapidated, rat-infested, rundown building to recover is a disgrace," he wrote. "My fear is that Walter Reed is just the tip of the iceberg, and merely highlights the pervasive and systemic mistreatment of our service members."

Schumer's call for an independent panel follows a promise from President Bush last week to name a bipartisan commission for the same purpose.

The scandal over the living conditions and care for soldiers at a Walter Reed outpatient facility, detailed in a recent series of articles in the Washington Post, claimed two generals and the Army's top civilian last week. On Thursday, in response to the articles, Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey replaced the hospital's commander for the last six months, Maj. Gen. George W. Weightman, with Lt. Gen. Kevin C. Kiley, who had headed the hospital from 2002 to 2004. But veterans groups and legislators criticized that appointment, saying Kiley had known about problems and failed to act; a day later, Kiley lost the command and Harvey resigned under pressure, attacked for appointing Kiley.

Members of Congress from both parties have expressed outrage at the substandard care. The revelations have also embarrassed the Bush administration as it has been laboring to build support for sending 21,500 additional troops to Iraq.

Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), who heads the powerful Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, plans to hold a hearing at the hospital today. Weightman and Kiley are to testify.

The Senate Armed Services Committee plans a hearing on the matter Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), a staunch Iraq war critic, said that today he would unveil his plan to put new restrictions on the administration's war effort.

Murtha, chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on defense, has been working on ways to attach conditions to a nearly $100-billion emergency supplemental bill that would require troops to be fully trained and equipped before they are deployed.

"We should not send troops into combat if they don't have equipment and if they don't have the training they need," Murtha, a Vietnam veteran, said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

Murtha has also suggested requiring the withdrawal of U.S. forces unless the Iraqi government meets benchmarks showing progress toward reducing sectarian strife.

The proposal has been attacked by Republicans and some Democrats as an effort to micromanage the war, a critique reiterated Sunday by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a leading supporter of the president's plans to boost the number of U.S. forces in Iraq.

"Some of these resolutions are just nightmares for a commander. You can fight Al Qaeda, but you can't fight people involved in sectarian violence. You can go here, and you can't go there," Graham said on NBC. "There's a reason there's only one commander in chief."

noam.levey@latimes.com

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