Army's surgeon general ousted in care scandal

March 13, 2007|By Peter Spiegel and Johanna Neuman | Peter Spiegel and Johanna Neuman,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- The Army's top medical officer has been forced out, military officials said yesterday, making him the third high-ranking Army official to lose his job over substandard treatment of wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Lt. Gen. Kevin C. Kiley, the Army's surgeon general and a former commander at Walter Reed, retired under pressure, officials said. Earlier this month, Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey and the commander of Walter Reed, Maj. Gen. George W. Weightman, were removed from their posts.

Kiley's departure was announced on the same day the Army released a report in which officials acknowledged they had uncovered problems nearly a year ago, months before the current scandal engulfed the Pentagon.

The report, issued by the Army inspector general, was commissioned in April 2006 after an exercise found that the health care system was overwhelmed by the number of wounded soldiers returning from war zones, according to defense officials. Its findings suggested that the bureaucratic problems found at Walter Reed exist throughout the Army's medical system.

"There have been problems all along," an Army official said.

Kiley's departure was not unexpected, particularly after congressional criticism that he had allowed the deficiencies in the center's outpatient system to fester despite complaints from patients and their families about shoddy care.

But coming so quickly after the removal of Weightman and Harvey, Kiley's retirement is a sign that others might be ousted before the department's formal investigation into Walter Reed is completed next month and as a bipartisan commission named by President Bush has just begun its work.

The firings and investigations have grown out of revelations, first reported last month in The Washington Post, of bureaucratic failures and squalid conditions that have drawn complaints from wounded Iraq war veterans and their families.

At hearings last week, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina asked Kiley point-blank whether he thought he should resign.

"Well, sir, that's a difficult question to answer," Kiley said.

The Army characterized Kiley's departure as a "request to retire" made by Kiley on Sunday to Pete Geren, the acting Army secretary who is filling in for Harvey.

But a senior Pentagon official said Geren directly requested Kiley's retirement, telling the general "now would be the right time" to leave. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, added that Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, though not involved in the decision, was supportive of the way Geren handled the matter.

In a written statement, Kiley said he submitted his retirement to Geren "because I think it is in the best interest of the Army." He added that he felt the service could better deal with the problems in the medical system if he were to leave.

"We are an Army Medical Department at war, supporting an Army at war," Kiley said. "It shouldn't be and it isn't about one doctor."

Kiley became a lightning rod early in the Walter Reed scandal. He criticized revelations of problems at outpatient facilities as one-sided and denied that problems were the result of leadership failures.

Earlier this month, Harvey - then the Army secretary - fired Weightman as commander of Walter Reed, installing Kiley as interim chief of the center. The move infuriated Gates and led to Harvey's dismissal. A former defense official close to the Army said Weightman was well liked by low-level staff at Walter Reed and was seen as someone who was attempting to fix the problems left to him by previous commanders.

Maj. Gen. Gale Pollock, currently the Army's deputy surgeon general, will take over as the interim chief of the Army's medical system. A panel that will pick Kiley's permanent successor will meet next month.

Congressional Democrats welcomed Kiley's departure but said the Army must continue to ensure it will fix problems in the medical system.

"This step alone will not fix the problems that our wounded and injured service members experience when they are in recovery," said Rep. Ike Skelton, a Missouri Democrat who is chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

Geren, in his first public appearance as acting Army secretary, addressed Walter Reed staff members yesterday, thanking them for their service while acknowledging that the "failures by some, failures in our system, have tarnished us all."

The Army inspector general's report, which surveyed 32 medical installations in the U.S. and overseas, found that a near doubling of outpatient cases from 2002 to 2006 overwhelmed the Army medical system, a problem exacerbated by inadequate computer systems and poorly trained case managers.

"These issues coupled with an increasing number of soldiers entering the outpatient evaluation system affected the Army's ability to timely meet the needs of both soldiers and the Army," the report said.

It also found that evaluation boards, which are meant to decide whether a wounded soldier is returned to active duty or discharged from the Army, are taking longer than their own guidelines stipulate.

Geren, in his address at Walter Reed, said the findings in the inspector general's report would be incorporated in the Army's "action plan" to address problems in its medical system.

Peter Spiegel and Johanna Neuman write for the Los Angeles Times.

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