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Thursday, March 01, 2007

Walter Reed Fires Top General, WaPo Reports Complaints Heard for 3 Years, Soldiers Muzzled

Today comes news that the Washington Post investigation into the living conditions and treatment of our wounded veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center has resulted in a shake-up at the top rungs of command:

The top general at Walter Reed Army Medical Center was fired Thursday, the military announced, following revelations of poor conditions in the building where troops who were wounded in Afghanistan and Iraq are treated. Maj. Gen. George Weightman's firing was the first major military staff change after reports surfaced last month about substandard conditions in a building that is part of the facility.

Army Secretary Francis Harvey, who removed Weightman from his post according to an Army statement, had blamed a failure of leadership for the conditions, which were first reported by The Washington Post. According to the Army statement, "Maj. Gen. Weightman was informed this morning that the senior Army leadership had lost trust and confidence in the commander's leadership abilities to address needed solutions for soldier-outpatient care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center."

"The commanding general of U.S. Army Medical Command, Lt. Gen. Kevin Kiley, will be acting temporarily as Walter Reed commander until a general officer is selected for this important leadership position," the statement said.

But this isn't the end of it by any measure.

Click on 'Article Link' below tags for key grafs of this coverage...

[UPDATE Mar 02 2007] Mar 1 NBC Nightly News on the firing [caution: second part of this segment is graphic and incudes images of injured casualties receiving medical care]:

Meanwhile, the Washington Posts' Anne Hull and Dana Priest continue their frontpage coverage with a barn-burner today, Hospital Officials Knew of Neglect. Complaints had been voiced for years. The complainers -- including the wife of former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld -- were dismissed.

Additionally, the ArmyTimes reported yesterday that troops at Walter Reed have been ordered to stay away from reporters; indeed, they are now required to submit to daily inspection at 6 a.m every morning -- something unprecedented following basic training -- and ordered to report problems through military channels, not the media. In addition, Editor & Publisher reports that the muzzling extends far beyond the gates of Walter Reed.

For educational purposes, articles quoted from extensively.

From the Washington Post:

Top officials at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, including the Army's surgeon general, have heard complaints about outpatient neglect from family members, veterans groups and members of Congress for more than three years.

A procession of Pentagon and Walter Reed officials expressed surprise last week about the living conditions and bureaucratic nightmares faced by wounded soldiers staying at the D.C. medical facility. But as far back as 2003, the commander of Walter Reed, Lt. Gen. Kevin C. Kiley, who is now the Army's top medical officer, was told that soldiers who were wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan were languishing and lost on the grounds, according to interviews.

Behind the gates of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center on Butternut Street, the stately homes of Commander George W. Weightman and top Army medical officer Kevin C. Kiley stand in stark contrast to Building 18, which is just across Georgia Avenue.
Behind the gates of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center on Butternut Street, the stately homes of Commander George W. Weightman and top Army medical officer Kevin C. Kiley stand in stark contrast to Building 18, which is just across Georgia Avenue.

Steve Robinson, director of veterans affairs at Veterans for America, said he ran into Kiley in the foyer of the command headquarters at Walter Reed shortly after the Iraq war began and told him that "there are people in the barracks who are drinking themselves to death and people who are sharing drugs and people not getting the care they need. I met guys who weren't going to appointments because the hospital didn't even know they were there," Robinson said. Kiley told him to speak to a sergeant major, a top enlisted officer.

Unbelievable. Steve Robinson wasn't the only one to try to ease the frustration and very real suffering of those going through the system at Walter Reed. Accounts of those who have come forward are damning. So is Kiley's role in this still-brewing scandal:

Kiley lives across the street from Building 18. From his quarters, he can see the scrappy building and busy traffic the soldiers must cross to get to the 113-acre post. At a news conference last week, Kiley, who declined several requests for interviews for this article, said that the problems of Building 18 "weren't serious and there weren't a lot of them." He also said they were not "emblematic of a process of Walter Reed that has abandoned soldiers and their families."

But according to interviews, Kiley, his successive commanders at Walter Reed and various top noncommissioned officers in charge of soldiers' lives have heard a stream of complaints about outpatient treatment over the past several years. The complaints have surfaced at town hall meetings for staff and soldiers, at commanders' "sensing sessions" in which soldiers or officers are encouraged to speak freely, and in several inspector general's reports detailing building conditions, safety issues and other matters.

Retired Maj. Gen. Kenneth L. Farmer Jr., who commanded Walter Reed for two years until last August, said that he was aware of outpatient problems and that there were "ongoing reviews and discussions" about how to fix them when he left. He said he shared many of those issues with Kiley, his immediate commander. Last summer when he turned over command to Maj. Gen. George W. Weightman, Farmer said, "there were a variety of things we identified as opportunities for continued improvement."

In 2004, Rep. C.W. Bill Young (R-Fla.) and his wife stopped visiting the wounded at Walter Reed out of frustration. Young said he voiced concerns to commanders over troubling incidents he witnessed but was rebuffed or ignored. "When Bev or I would bring problems to the attention of authorities of Walter Reed, we were made to feel very uncomfortable," said Young, who began visiting the wounded recuperating at other facilities.

Beverly Young said she complained to Kiley several times. She once visited a soldier who was lying in urine on his mattress pad in the hospital. When a nurse ignored her, Young said, "I went flying down to Kevin Kiley's office again, and got nowhere. He has skirted this stuff for five years and blamed everyone else." ...

More than a year ago, Chief Warrant Officer Jayson Kendrick, an outpatient, attended a sensing session, the Army's version of a town hall meeting where concerns are raised in front of the chain of command. Kendrick spoke about the deterioration and crowded conditions of the outpatient administrative building, which had secondhand computers and office furniture shoved into cubicles, creating chaos for family members. An inspector general attending the meeting "chuckled and said, 'What do you want, pool tables and Ping-Pong tables in there?' " Kendrick recalled.

There is so much in this report from the WaPo that is maddening, alarming. The contempt. The passing-of-the buck. The neglect and complete ignoring of the complaints that came from high and low.

[UPDATE Mar 02 2007] Imus in the Morning reacts:

One last section from the WaPo piece:

On Feb. 17, 2005, Kiley sat in a congressional hearing room as Sgt. 1st Class John Allen, injured in Afghanistan in 2002, described what he called a "dysfunctional system" at Walter Reed in which "soldiers go months without pay, nowhere to live, their medical appointments canceled." Allen added: "The result is a massive stress and mental pain causing further harm. It would be very easy to correct the situation if the command element climate supported it. The command staff at Walter Reed needs to show their care."

In 2006, Joe Wilson, a clinical social worker in the department of psychiatry, briefed several colonels at Walter Reed about problems and steps that could be taken to improve living conditions at Building 18. Last March, he also shared the findings of a survey his department had conducted. It found that 75 percent of outpatients said their experience at Walter Reed had been "stressful" and that there was a "significant population of unsatisfied, frustrated, disenfranchised patients." Military commanders played down the findings. "These people knew about it," Wilson said. "The bottom line is, people knew about it but the culture of the Army didn't allow it to be addressed."

Last October, Joyce Rumsfeld, the wife of then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, was taken to Walter Reed by a friend concerned about outpatient treatment. She attended a weekly meeting, called Girls Time Out, at which wives, girlfriends and mothers of soldiers exchange stories and offer support.

According to three people who attended the gathering, Rumsfeld listened quietly. Some of the women did not know who she was. At the end of the meeting, Rumsfeld asked one of the staff members whether she thought that the soldiers her husband was meeting on his visits had been handpicked to paint a rosy picture of their time there. The answer was yes.

When Walter Reed officials found out that Rumsfeld had visited, they told the friend who brought her -- a woman who had volunteered there many times -- that she was no longer welcome on the grounds.

And the clamp-down continues. From the Army Times:

Soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center’s Medical Hold Unit say they have been told they will wake up at 6 a.m. every morning and have their rooms ready for inspection at 7 a.m., and that they must not speak to the media. “Some soldiers believe this is a form of punishment for the trouble soldiers caused by talking to the media,” one Medical Hold Unit soldier said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. It is unusual for soldiers to have daily inspections after Basic Training.

Soldiers say their sergeant major gathered troops at 6 p.m. Monday to tell them they must follow their chain of command when asking for help with their medical evaluation paperwork, or when they spot mold, mice or other problems in their quarters.

They were also told they would be moving out of Building 18 to Building 14 within the next couple of weeks. Building 14 is a barracks that houses the administrative offices for the Medical Hold Unit and was renovated in 2006. It’s also located on the Walter Reed Campus, where reporters must be escorted by public affairs personnel. Building 18 is located just off campus and is easy to access.

The soldiers said they were also told their first sergeant has been relieved of duty, and that all of their platoon sergeants have been moved to other positions at Walter Reed. And 120 permanent-duty soldiers are expected to arrive by mid-March to take control of the Medical Hold Unit, the soldiers said.

[UPDATE Mar 02 2007] Countdown w/Keith Olbermann report:

Meanwhile, Editor & Publisher reports that the muzzling is far from limited only to soldiers receiving care at Walter Reed:

A report today that soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center are being told not to speak with the press is apparently just the latest move in a recent effort to tighten restrictions on journalists' access to many military facilities, according to the president of Military Reporters and Editors.

James Crawley, a military reporter with MediaGeneral and MRE president, said today's revelation by Army Times that Walter Reed patients had been barred from speaking with reporters is not the first case of tightened restrictions. In recent months, he says several MRE members have reported similar crackdowns. What's worse, many of the denials are apparently in reaction to the potential negativity of a planned story. "It is starting to look like it is becoming a policy in some areas where they are not allowing reporters on the base unless it is an absolutely positively good news story," said Crawley. "The military is making it harder and harder to do stories on bases, as far as doing man on the street interviews." ...

"This is troublesome because it keeps the average person from learning the real facts here," [Crawley] said. "They are trying to censor the news, in this case it is bad news. The military has gone into a bunker mentality." He also had heard reports from some reporters that casualty numbers were not being released as freely as in the past. "They are trying to manage the news," he said. "There has to be some middle ground and in the past there has been middle ground."

Bunker mentality. And who is the enemy in this scenario?

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