General who heads Walter Reed fired

Army secretary responds to reports of poor care

March 02, 2007|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON --The two-star general in charge of Walter Reed Army Medical Center was relieved of command yesterday, after disclosures that wounded soldiers being treated as outpatients were living in dilapidated quarters and enduring long waits for care.

Maj. Gen. George W. Weightman, a physician and a graduate of West Point, was fired because Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey "had lost trust and confidence" in his ability to make improvements in outpatient care at Walter Reed, the Army said in a brief statement.

The revelations about conditions at the hospital, one of the Army's best known and busiest centers for treating soldiers wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan, have embarrassed the Army and prompted two investigations, several congressional inquiries and a rush to clean up the accommodations for outpatients, where residents lived with mold on the walls, stained carpets and other problems.

A series of disclosures published prominently in The Washington Post about the living conditions, the red tape that ensnarled treatment, and other serious problems have challenged the notion promoted for years by the Army - especially since the war in Iraq - that wounded soldiers receive unparalleled care at Walter Reed.

Army officials have defended the treatment provided to most patients at Walter Reed, especially the most serious cases, those admitted to wards on the hospital's campus a few miles from the center of Washington.

But they have acknowledged that the large number of wounded from Iraq and Afghanistan, now about 650 patients, has strained doctors, nurses and other care providers and forced them to rely more heavily on overflow facilities to house outpatients who must remain near the hospital for treatment.

Officials refused to provide the specific reasons for Weightman's dismissal.

Treatment of wounded soldiers also was spotlighted recently in a documentary recounting the treatment received by the former ABC News anchorman Bob Woodruff, who was wounded in Iraq last year. Woodruff contrasted his care with that of soldiers, finding that Veterans Affairs regional medical centers provide retired soldiers with good care but that local VA hospitals are less skilled at dealing with complex problems such as traumatic brain injuries.

The Army has admitted in recent weeks that the system it uses to decide whether wounded soldiers who have been moved to outpatient status will be able to return to active duty takes too long in many cases, and it has promised to make changes in the system. At Walter Reed, the process has taken an average of more than 200 days, a source of frustration to soldiers and families awaiting decisions about what benefits they will receive if they retire.

Harvey told reporters yesterday that the Army was also examining conditions at other medical facilities, in the U.S. and abroad, and "We'll fix as we find things wrong."

Paralleling the Army effort, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates appointed a panel last week to examine conditions at Walter Reed and other Defense Department hospitals it chooses, including the Naval Medical Center in Bethesda.

Gates endorsed the decision to relieve Weightman in a statement yesterday.

"The care and welfare of our wounded men and women in uniform demand the highest standard of excellence and commitment that we can muster as a government," he said. "When this standard is not met, I will insist on swift and direct corrective action and, where appropriate, accountability up the chain of command."

Gates had signaled earlier, after a visit to Walter Reed, that senior officials could be relieved.

A Pentagon official said that, in addition to Weightman, a captain, two noncommissioned officers and an enlisted soldier involved in outpatient treatment are being reassigned. He said he could not provide further information because of Defense Department confidentiality rules.

Weightman, who oversees medical facilities in seven other states in addition to Walter Reed, is one of the most senior officers to be relieved in connection with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He could not be reached for comment.

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