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Walter Reed woes claim third official

The Army's surgeon general retires under pressure over shoddy care for injured troops.

March 13, 2007|Peter Spiegel and Johanna Neuman | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — The Army's top medical officer has been forced out, military officials announced Monday, making him the third high-ranking Army official to lose his job over substandard treatment for wounded soldiers at the prestigious Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Lt. Gen. Kevin C. Kiley, the Army's surgeon general and a former commander at Walter Reed, retired under pressure, officials said. Earlier this month, Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey and the commander of Walter Reed, Maj. Gen. George W. Weightman, were removed from their posts.

Kiley's departure was announced the same day the Army released a report in which officials acknowledged they had uncovered problems nearly a year ago, months before the scandal engulfed the Pentagon.

The report, issued by the Army inspector general, was commissioned in April 2006 after an exercise found that the healthcare system was overwhelmed by the number of wounded soldiers returning from war zones, Pentagon officials said.

Its findings suggested that the bureaucratic problems discovered at Walter Reed existed throughout the Army's medical system.

"There have been problems all along," an Army official said.

Kiley's departure was not unexpected, particularly after congressional criticism that he had allowed deficiencies in the center's outpatient system to fester despite complaints from patients and their families that they were receiving shoddy care.

Kiley's retirement, coming so quickly after the removal of Weightman and Harvey, is a sign that others may be pushed out before an investigation into Walter Reed is completed next month. A bipartisan commission named by President Bush has just started work.

The firings and investigations have grown out of revelations, first reported last month in the Washington Post, of bureaucratic failures and squalid conditions that have drawn complaints from wounded Iraq war veterans and their families.

At hearings last week, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) asked Kiley whether he thought he should resign.

"Well, sir, that's a difficult question to answer," Kiley said.

The Army characterized Kiley's departure as a "request to retire" that Kiley made Sunday to Pete Geren, the acting Army secretary.

But a senior Pentagon official said Geren had requested Kiley's retirement, telling the general "now would be the right time" to leave.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity when discussing personnel matters, added that Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, though not involved in the decision, was supportive of the way Geren handled the issue.

In a written statement, Kiley said he submitted his retirement to Geren "because I think it is in the best interest of the Army." He said he thought the service could better deal with the problems in the medical system if he left.

"We are an Army medical department at war, supporting an Army at war," Kiley said. "It shouldn't be and it isn't about one doctor."

Kiley became a lightning rod in the unfolding Walter Reed scandal. He criticized early revelations of problems at outpatient facilities as one-sided and denied problems were the result of leadership failures.

This month, Harvey, as Army secretary, fired Weightman as commander of Walter Reed, installing Kiley as interim chief. The move infuriated Gates and led to Harvey's dismissal.

A former Pentagon official close to the Army said Weightman was well liked by low-level staff at Walter Reed and was seen as someone trying to fix the problems left by previous commanders.

Maj. Gen. Gale Pollock, the Army's deputy surgeon general, will take over as interim chief of the Army's medical system.

A panel that will pick Kiley's permanent successor will meet next month.

Congressional Democrats welcomed Kiley's departure, but said the Army needed to ensure that problems in the medical system would be fixed.

"This step alone will not fix the problems that our wounded and injured service members experience when they are in recovery," said Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

Geren, in his first public appearance as acting Army secretary, addressed Walter Reed staff members Monday. He thanked them for their service and acknowledged that the "failures by some, failures in our system, have tarnished us all."

"Our disability system, built over generations ... has become a maze, overly bureaucratic, in some cases unresponsive and needlessly complex," Geren said.

The Army inspector general's report, which surveyed 32 medical installations in the U.S. and overseas, found that a near doubling of outpatient cases from 2002 to 2006 overwhelmed the Army medical system, a problem exacerbated by inadequate computer systems and poorly trained case managers.

"These issues, coupled with an increasing number of soldiers entering the [outpatient evaluation system], affected the Army's ability to timely meet the needs of both soldiers and the Army," the report said.

It also found that evaluation boards, which are meant to decide whether a wounded soldier is returned to active duty or discharged from the Army, were taking longer than their guidelines stipulated.

Geren said the findings in the inspector general's report would be incorporated in the Army's plan to address problems in its medical system.

*

peter.spiegel@latimes.com

johanna.neuman@latimes.com

Times staff writers Adam Schreck and Julian E. Barnes in Washington contributed to this report.

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