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A soldiers' hospital's duty

It's gratifying to see accountability at Walter Reed, but even better would be to see an improvement in care.

March 13, 2007

PURGING THE ARMY brass responsible for appalling outpatient conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center does not by itself correct the wrongs done to veterans and recovering soldiers, some of whom had to endure dirty and vermin-infested quarters, medical neglect and a Dickensian maze of paperwork and bureaucracy. But accountability is a necessary part of returning medical care for military personnel to the level the American people believed that they were providing before last month's series of articles in the Washington Post detailed the failings.

So there was some satisfaction in the announcement Monday that Lt. Gen. Kevin C. Kiley, the Army surgeon general, had been forced into retirement. Kiley was Walter Reed commander from 2002 to 2004, and again for several days this month. He differed from the other two high-ranking Army officials who have lost their jobs because of the scandal -- Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey and Maj. Gen. George W. Weightman -- by his denial of any failure of leadership and attempting to blame others for the abysmal care. That's a reaction that cuts against the grain of the military ethic, in which an officer is responsible for the actions of those under his command.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has moved quickly. He formed an independent review group to examine the state of Walter Reed and other military hospitals. He removed Harvey, after Harvey took the inexplicable step of reinstalling Kiley in command and removing Weightman, who had been in charge at Walter Reed for only six months. And unlike Kiley, who called the Post articles one-sided, Gates said he was grateful the problems had been brought to light. He has been a refreshing voice of accountability and reason.

Soldiers rely more than most of us on the competence and good faith of their government, especially its military institutions, and their government should honor their trust. Soldiers should be able to expect that any mission in which they could lose their lives or limbs is well planned and that they will be well equipped. They should be able to expect as well that if they are wounded, they will get the best possible treatment.

In fact, improvements in military medicine have greatly reduced the number of battlefield deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan as compared with previous engagements, and fewer deaths mean larger numbers of wounded. Those numbers reportedly overwhelmed Walter Reed and other Army hospitals. Government and military officials should have planned for them. But planning for them would have meant paying for them, which would have run counter to President Bush's insistence that the nation could wage war while also cutting taxes -- and cutting corners.

The deepest shame of the Walter Reed scandal is the realization that soldiers who shoulder arms on the nation's behalf have been victimized twice: first by poor planning for the war itself in Iraq, and second by poor planning for care of the wounded when they come home.

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