WASHINGTON — The abrupt departure of the secretary of the Army, taking place as an angry Defense secretary responded to public criticism of how the Pentagon has treated its war wounded, is giving Congress fresh reasons to look more closely at war operations.
Monday, lawmakers are to begin a week of hearings that will look into the situation at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington – how conditions worsened there and why it appeared, at least, that no one was paying attention. The Army's surgeon general, Army Lt. Gen. Kevin Kiley, and the commander of the hospital who was relieved of his duties, Army Maj. Gen. George Weightman, are to appear Monday on Capitol Hill. Intense questioning is expected from lawmakers on a subcommittee of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
The Army, meanwhile, is scrambling to rectify the situation: It's moving patients out of certain areas of Walter Reed in preparation for those places being refurbished, and it's creating new support initiatives to help wounded veterans of the war in Iraq.
"We've got to make sure that our VA hospitals and our military hospitals in this country are equipped to provide the services [so] that our men and women in uniform and our veterans can be confident that they're going to get the help they need," said Sen. Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi, appearing on "This Week" on ABC.
It's important to find out what happened, not to point fingers, Senator Lott said. "Why didn't we know more and do more?" he said. "I'm not ... trying to fix blame. I want to know how we're going to fix it."
The unraveling at the Pentagon began after a story in the Feb. 18 editions of The Washington Post, which detailed problems at what's been considered the nation's premier military medical facility. The story outlined issues with the physical condition of one of the buildings, Building 18, where troops recuperate, receive counseling, or await outprocessing from the military. The report included details of rotting walls and mold and pest infestation, as well as bureaucratic bungling that delayed services or support.
The portrayal of the hospital in the story sparked a furor in Washington. Within days, the Army had relieved General Weightman, and its leadership had identified General Kiley as the acting commander. A number of other, lower-level military personnel were also reassigned.
But that was not enough for Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who didn't like the way the Army, which runs the hospital, was responding. For example, Kiley, in a press tour of the hospital in the wake of the newspaper article, criticized the report for being too one-sided.
"I am disappointed that some in the Army have not adequately appreciated the seriousness of the situation pertaining to the outpatient care at Walter Reed," Secretary Gates said in a briefing last Friday. "Some have shown too much defensiveness and have not shown enough focus on digging into and addressing the problems."
Following Gates' remarks, the Army announced that Maj. Gen. Eric Schoomaker, a physician, would be named as the permanent commander of the hospital. General Schoomaker's older brother, Gen. Peter Schoomaker, is the Army's chief of staff. Another flag officer who is not a physician is expected to be named to the hospital's command structure to ensure someone without a medical background can keep an eye on the improvements, according to a Washington Post report Sunday.
Weightman's side of the story may emerge during the hearings. This may include the information that he did in fact listen to internal warnings last year about problems with staffing.
The Army released a statement Saturday that indicated Weightman had responded to those internal warnings from Army Col. Peter Garibaldi, the Walter Reed garrison commander. Colonel Garibaldi had warned that "patient care services are at risk of mission failure" due to a privatization effort that left the hospital short-staffed. According to media reports, Garibaldi said that Weightman had addressed each of three issues raised.
Rep. Henry Waxman (D) of California, who leads the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said the Garibaldi memo raises "a new dimension to the problems at Walter Reed."
The problems at Walter Reed could be symbolic of the kind of neglect that many lawmakers believe exists across the military. Funding for a war that costs up to $7 billion per month has strapped resources that normally would be spent elsewhere.
Rep. John Murtha (D) of Pennsylvania, a respected Marine veteran who is pushing to bring troops home, asserted Sunday that the problems at Walter Reed have occurred because war costs have trumped so many other needs.
"It happened because the resources are so much in Iraq. They've spent so much money that they've ignored the very thing that is so important to our troops at home," Representative Murtha said on "Meet the Press."