Army Secretary Ousted

Posted in United States | 04-Mar-07 | Author: Michael Abramowitz and Steve V| Source: Washington Post

Reporters gather in front of the Mologne House inside the Walter Reed Army Medical Center complex Thursday, Feb. 22, 2007, in Washington. The Army fired the general in charge of Walter Reed Army Medical Center after disclosures about inadequate treatment of Iraq vets and other wounded soldiers.

Second Firing Follows Walter Reed Revelations; Bush Vows a Probe

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates fired the secretary of the Army yesterday and President Bush vowed to investigate allegations of substandard treatment of wounded soldiers as the administration scrambled to contain fallout from the scandal over squalid housing and bureaucratic delays in outpatient care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

The Army named Maj. Gen. Eric B. Schoomaker as the new commander of Walter Reed only a day after picking Lt. Gen. Kevin C. Kiley, who had previously commanded the medical center, as the temporary chief. Kiley's selection had angered soldiers and family groups -- and, more important, Gates -- because of their belief that he had been aware of problems at the hospital and done little to address them. Kiley is the current Army surgeon general.

Gates made little secret of his dismay when he appeared before reporters yesterday to announce the resignation of Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey. Pentagon officials indicated that Harvey was forced to resign because Gates was angry with how the Army handled allegations of poor care detailed in a series of Washington Post reports. The facility's commander, Maj. Gen. George W. Weightman, was dismissed this week, and a captain and several lower-level soldiers were reassigned.

"I am disappointed that some in the Army have not adequately appreciated the seriousness of the situation pertaining to outpatient care at Walter Reed," Gates said. "Some have shown too much defensiveness and have not shown enough focus on digging into and addressing the problems."

Later, in an interview, an emotional Harvey appeared both apologetic and defensive. "It's unexcusable to have soldiers in that type of building," he said, explaining why he resigned.

But he also said that the Post stories lacked balance. "Where's the other side of the story?" he asked, his voice rising. "Two articles in your paper have ruined the career of General Weightman, who is a very decent man, and then a captain . . . and the secretary of the Army. If that satisfies the populace, maybe this will stop further dismissals."

In a sign of the seriousness with which Bush takes the situation, the White House announced that he will soon name a commission to look into whether there are similar problems at other military and veterans hospitals. Administration officials took the unusual step of releasing early the text of Bush's regular Saturday radio address, in which the president will vow to ensure that the government meets the physical and mental health needs of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Most of the people working at Walter Reed are dedicated professionals," Bush will say, according to the text. "Yet some of our troops at Walter Reed have experienced bureaucratic delays and living conditions that are less than they deserve. This is unacceptable to me, it is unacceptable to our country, and it's not going to continue."

Taken together, the developments yesterday highlighted the anger at the highest levels of the administration over the problems at Walter Reed, as well as the political danger for the White House. Veterans groups remain among the few strong supporters of the war and have been an important part of the president's political base, yet they -- along with military families -- have been outraged since the problems first became public two weeks ago.

Joe Davis, a spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said that the reports have angered members across the country and that the group hopes Vice President Cheney will address the issue when he speaks to its legislative conference on Monday. "Nobody would believe the military would do this to their wounded," Davis said. "We want accountability."

Democrats in Congress, meanwhile, have strongly denounced the administration for what they call insufficient attention to the needs of returning soldiers. At least two committees are mobilizing to investigate the Walter Reed situation. The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform issued a subpoena yesterday to compel Weightman to testify at a congressional hearing Monday.

The committee also released an internal Army memorandum reportedly written in September in which the Walter Reed garrison commander, Col. Peter Garibaldi, warned Weightman that "patient care services are at risk of mission failure" because of staff shortages brought on by the privatization of the hospital's support workforce.

Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.), a member of the House Appropriations subcommittee on defense and a close ally of a leading war critic, Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), said Bush's new commission is too little too late. "He's the executive," Moran said. "This has been six years, and now six years later, after an awful lot of neglect, he's going to get around to putting a commission together, a study to tell him what to do. . . . I think he's feeling politically desperate."

White House officials said politics played no role in their decision to form the commission, saying that Bush is genuinely outraged by the conditions at Walter Reed and that he learned about them from the recent news reports. "Once the Walter Reed stories ran, there was a collective feeling in the building, and certainly from the president, that whatever reasons or excuses, it was unacceptable," said Tony Fratto, deputy White House press secretary.

Eleven national volunteer organizations that help the wounded were called to the White House to meet with Bush on Wednesday, a meeting that White House officials said was planned before the Walter Reed stories broke. Cindy McGrew, founder of Operation Second Chance, a Maryland-based group that deals primarily with the wounded at Walter Reed, attended and said the president "wants to do all he can to help."

But the director of another organization, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to anger the administration, called the event a "missed opportunity to ask people who have day-to-day interaction with the wounded to provide insight into how to fix this situation."

Anthony J. Principi, who served Bush as his first secretary of veterans affairs, said he was not sure Walter Reed is a political problem for the president but indicated that veterans groups are watching the situation carefully. "Veterans organizations have been very supportive of the president -- they respect and admire that he is stepping out on the issue and will hold people accountable. The president needs their support," he said.

The new commander of Walter Reed is Schoomaker, 58, currently commander of the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command at Fort Detrick, Md., home to biological weapon defense research. He is the younger brother of Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff.

It appears he has his work cut out for him. Yesterday, soldiers living in Building 18, the site of the worst problems, were told to pack their things so that Walter Reed could properly renovate the dank structure besieged by mold, leaks and rot. Some of the wounded were moved to another building on the post, while others were driven to a hotel in Silver Spring.

One soldier who had been living in Building 18 for 16 months, waiting to be treated for back problems, was told to report to barracks in Fort Meade, Md., according to his father. The soldier arrived at Fort Meade yesterday afternoon with his gear but was unable to move into his new accommodations -- the building had no elevator, and the soldier could not climb the stairs.

Staff writers Anne Hull, Dana Priest and Ann Scott Tyson contributed to this report.