Army secretary forced from job

Reaction to problems at Walter Reed fell short, Gates says

March 03, 2007|By Julian E. Barnes | Julian E. Barnes,Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey resigned under pressure from Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates yesterday, becoming the second top Army official forced to step down because of revelations of problems in the care of seriously injured soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

In an unusually harsh denunciation, Gates said he was displeased with some Army officials over their handling of disclosures that soldiers had received substandard housing and poor outpatient treatment at Walter Reed.

"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."

In his radio address today, President Bush plans to announce the creation of a bipartisan presidential commission to review all medical care that wounded military service members receive. Bush promised to use the commission's findings to help improve services to veterans.

"Some of our troops at Walter Reed have experienced bureaucratic delays and living conditions that are less than they deserve," Bush plans to say, according to a copy of his remarks released by the White House yesterday. "This is unacceptable to me, it is unacceptable to our country, and it's not going to continue."

In a Democratic response to the address, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut plans to say that it is the country's responsibility to take care of wounded service members for their entire lives.

"It is outrageous that veterans are waiting months and months to see the doctors they need," he plans to say. "We know what the needs of our returning troops and veterans will be, and we must build a lifelong treatment system that serves their needs fully."

Military officers said the swift response by Gates and his willingness to move against top Army commanders and civilian officials was meant, in part, to differentiate him from his predecessor, Donald H. Rumsfeld.

Throughout months of revelations about abuses by U.S. soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and elsewhere, Rumsfeld brushed off demands to punish ranking officers and awarded one a medal for distinguished service.

Harvey relieved Maj. Gen. George W. Weightman of his command of the hospital Thursday. In the same announcement, Harvey appointed Lt. Gen. Kevin C. Kiley the medical center's acting commander.

Veterans groups, lawmakers and others had criticized Kiley, a former head of Walter Reed, accusing him of knowing about problems at the hospital and failing to act. A senior Pentagon official said Gates was upset that Harvey had appointed Kiley.

Last week, a day before Gates made a highly publicized visit to the hospital and publicly condemned the problems at Walter Reed, Kiley denied that there had been a "breakdown in leadership" and criticized the Washington Post articles that exposed the shortcomings.

Although Gates declined to criticize Kiley last week, his comments yesterday contradicted Kiley's stance that there was no failure by hospital leaders. Gates singled out the doctors and nurses at the hospital for praise while criticizing the command.

"I want to reaffirm my confidence in the staff at Walter Reed and their professionalism and dedication to providing caring treatment," Gates said. "From what I have learned, the problems at Walter Reed appear to be problems of leadership."

Jerry Newberry, a spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said Gates' actions have alleviated members' concerns that only low-level officials and officers would be held accountable for the problems at Walter Reed.

"Secretary Gates has been right out in front. He said he wanted answers and said he wanted the problems corrected," Newberry said. "Obviously, he is a no-nonsense guy and means what he says. He's demanded people be held accountable, and obviously they are."

Several military officials said they expect Kiley to be ousted next. But the senior Pentagon official, speaking on condition of anonymity when discussing internal deliberations, said Kiley's fate will probably be determined by an independent review panel appointed by Gates last week to examine Army medical facilities.

Kiley was removed as interim head of Walter Reed yesterday. Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Richard Cody appointed Maj. Gen. Eric B. Schoomaker as the new Walter Reed commander. Schoomaker is now the commanding general of the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command at Fort Detrick, in Frederick, and is the brother of Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, the outgoing Army chief of staff.

Military officials said Harvey failed to speak candidly enough about the Walter Reed problems. He seemed less willing that some Army generals, including Cody, to be forthright in his condemnations.

Julian E. Barnes writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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