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The Nation

Outrage And Apologies Over Care At Walter Reed

Wounded troops tell Congress about their struggles. Army officials admit failure.

'The Tip Of The Iceberg'

March 06, 2007|Johanna Neuman and Adam Schreck | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Top Army officials faced angry lawmakers during an emotional hearing Monday on shoddy medical treatment and living conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, acknowledging that they had failed in the care of wounded veterans.

Calling the scandal at Walter Reed "the tip of the iceberg of what is going on all around the country," Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said veterans and their families were "flooding us with complaints" about bad medical care.

Waxman, citing news stories and congressional reports that revealed the hospital's problems over the last two years, cast doubt on Army officials' assertions that they were surprised by disclosures that injured soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan had been treated shabbily.

"We get officials who say they just didn't know things were happening," Waxman said. "I have a long list, a stack of reports and articles that sounded the alarm bells about what was going on here and around the country."

Army Maj. Gen. George W. Weightman, fired as commander of the hospital complex last week, took responsibility for the problems.

"I failed," he said at the hearing. "We can't fail one of these soldiers or their families, not one. And we did."

Turning from the congressional panel to face a veteran and his family, Weightman expressed regret for a bureaucratic maze that forced the soldier's wife to battle the Army to get her husband proper medical treatment.

"I'd just like to apologize for not meeting their expectations," he said.

Several lawmakers accused Army brass of making Weightman, the medical center's commander for six months, the scapegoat for the problems at Walter Reed. Veterans groups think he had made progress in reducing the ratio of case managers to patients and in spotlighting post-traumatic stress disorder.

Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey was forced to resign last week over the scandal.

Weightman's predecessors -- retired Maj. Gen. Kenneth L. Farmer Jr., who had commanded the hospital complex from 2004 until August, and Lt. Gen. Kevin C. Kiley, who was in charge from 2002 to 2004 -- have not been disciplined.

After Weightman was fired, Kiley was named interim commander of Walter Reed but was removed a day later. Kiley remains the Army's surgeon general.

"Tell me why [Weightman] got the ax and why the others walk on the earth today," said Rep. John F. Tierney (D-Mass.), chairman of the subcommittee that held the hearings. "Where has all the brass been?"

Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, the Army's chief of staff, responded angrily.

"I've got a daughter and a son-in-law that are on the way to combat," said Schoomaker, whose younger brother, Maj. Gen. Eric B. Schoomaker, has been named to run Walter Reed. "This is not something about people [who] don't care, and I am not going to sit here and have anybody tell me that we don't care."

Tierney shot back, "Nobody said anything about people not caring." He called Schoomaker's response a "red herring."

The burgeoning scandal over medical treatment for returning troops, much like the government's flawed response to Hurricane Katrina, is exposing weaknesses in federal crisis management.

Members of Congress promised more hearings on the maze of red tape that wounded soldiers confronted.

"You've been fighting a war," Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said to veterans. "You shouldn't have to come back here and fight a system."

Peter Schoomaker promised to address the problems.

"I couldn't be madder, and I couldn't be more embarrassed and ashamed," he said.

Lawmakers questioned the policy under which maintenance and operations at Walter Reed were outsourced to IAP Worldwide Services Inc., a Florida firm run by a former Halliburton official who reduced Walter Reed's staff from 300 to 100.

"We've contracted out so much in this war," Waxman said. "We have mercenaries instead of U.S. military.... We are, in Iraq, overpaying for the work of the contractors, and here we're under-serving our military."

The subcommittee made the unusual decision to move the hearing from Capitol Hill to a wood-paneled auditorium at Walter Reed.

As soldiers in camouflage fatigues and sand-colored boots roamed the scrubbed hallways outside, lawmakers squeezed shoulder to shoulder onto a dais in the auditorium. They listened intently to the testimony of two injured soldiers and the wife of a third. All recounted problems and hurdles at the hospital -- stories that first captured public attention in articles in the Washington Post last month.

Staff Sgt. John Daniel Shannon, who is waiting for plastic surgery so he can wear a prosthetic eye, was angry that Harvey was allowed to resign.

"I don't know how things work in Washington, D.C., but in combat, we don't get to resign when bullets are flying and people are dying," Shannon said.

His advice to Army officials: "Pull themselves up by their bootstraps like any sergeant would do, admit to their mistakes and work to fix them until they're fixed."

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