How decay overtook Walter Reed

Lawmakers probing the scandal at Walter Reed Army Medical Center are saying it wasn't just a failure of leadership.

Constrained resources during a war lasting longer and costing more than anyone in the administration had expected, along with a controversial privatization initiative at the hospital, also played a role. But beyond these circumstances, one key factor has come up during congressional testimony this week: The facility was due to be shuttered in coming years, raising the possibility that officials were reluctant to make large financial commitments to it.

This combination of challenges illustrates just how strained military resources have become as the US grapples with its longest conflict since the Vietnam War. And as the current center of attention, Walter Reed has emerged as a symbol of the difficult decisions confronting the Pentagon. A core question: How can the Defense Department maintain facilities that are to be closed, including its premier Army hospital, without essentially throwing money away?

"You've got to pay the money, and the reason is simple: Up until the moment you cease operations, and you pull down the flag, it's a US military installation, and it has vital services it has to provide," says Christopher Hellman, a former congressional staffer who has followed the base-closure process closely. (Walter Reed is part of the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process.) "The reality is you don't have the luxury of canceling contracts and delaying maintenance work at what is still an operational facility," says Mr. Hellman, now a military policy analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington.

Still, some experts don't necessarily see that the Army made a conscious decision to stop paying maintenance bills on the facilities at Walter Reed just because it was closing.

"Buildings don't fall apart in the year and a half since the base closure commission issued its recommendations," says Jeremiah Gertler, a senior analyst on the 1995 base closure commission.

Merging operations

Under a decision made by former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Walter Reed was to be shuttered completely. Its medical and other operations were to merge with other military installations in the area. Much of the operation was to be folded into the existing National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., and the result was to become a new-and-improved facility called the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

"The [BRAC] commission acknowledged Walter Reed Army Medical Center's rich heritage and earned reputation as a world-class medical center," the commission recommended. "However, the commission found that service members deserve a state-of-the-art 21st century medical center and that [Mr. Rumsfeld]'s proposal would increase military value."

The plan has a one-time cost of $989 million, but would save $145 million each year.

Funding for the overall BRAC initiative had been threatened considerably this year to the tune of $3.1 billion under the Joint Resolution for fiscal 2007, according to defense officials. A lower funding level would "jeopardize our ability to complete BRAC actions ... and stymie our efforts to construct facilities and move equipment and people to receiver locations," according to an internal Pentagon memo dated Feb. 15.

The Joint Resolution that cut the funding for BRAC initiatives was passed by Congress and signed by Bush on Feb. 15, but defense analysts like Hellman believe Congress will still fund BRAC at some point in the future under regular appropriations.

However, Lt. Gen. Kevin Kiley, a former commander at the hospital who is now the Army's surgeon general, testified Monday before members of an Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee to say that he had all the resources he needed.

Rep. Christopher Shays (R) of Connecticut became angry when General Kiley maintained that the Army had all the money it needed for the facility.

Failure to air dirty laundry publicly – or maintain you have enough funding when you don't, is disingenuous, Representative Shays said. "Frankly, that's almost – it's being dishonest," he said. "It's being dishonest to yourself, and it's being dishonest to us. And I will look forward to the day when someone who's in uniform comes to us and says, under oath, 'I'm not given the resources I need to do my job.' "

One comptroller's experience

But finding the money necessary to keep a crucial facility up and running should not have been a problem even if it were to be closed, says a former Pentagon official who held the purse strings.

When he was the chief comptroller of the Pentagon up until 2004, Dov Zakheim remembers visiting Walter Reed, but, he says, he was always "escorted," and therefore never had an opportunity to see the conditions in which Iraq and Afghanistan veterans were living.

But money would have been made available to fix the problems at Walter Reed, despite the fact that the facility is slated to close. "Had this situation been brought to my attention, we could have moved money. No one on the Hill would have opposed a reprogramming to improve facilities for those who were injured, wounded and/or disabled," he says.

The hospital had also begun to privatize a portion of its workforce in a controversial move that local lawmakers had decried. More than 350 support jobs at the hospital are to be outsourced.

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