For the past three years, Michael J. Wagner directed the Army's largest effort to help the most vulnerable soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. His office in Room 3E01 of the world-renowned hospital was supposed to match big-hearted donors with thousands of wounded soldiers who could not afford to feed their children, pay mortgages, buy plane tickets or put up visiting families in nearby hotels.
But while he was being paid to provide this vital service to patients, outpatients and their relations, Wagner was also seeking benefactors and soliciting donations for his own new charity, based in Texas, according to documents and interviews with current and former staff members. Some families also said Wagner treated them callously and made it hard for them to receive assistance.
Last week, Walter Reed launched a criminal investigation of Wagner after the Washington Post sought a response to his activities while he ran the Army's Medical Family Assistance Center, a position he left several weeks ago. Maj. Gen. George Weightman, the commander at Walter Reed, said the probe by the Criminal Investigation Command "reflects the seriousness with which we take these allegations."
Weightman's legal adviser, Col. Samuel Smith, said that "it would clearly be a conflict of interest" prohibited by federal law, Army regulations and Defense Department ethics rules if Wagner used his position to solicit money for his own organization.
The saga of the Medical Family Assistance Center is just one example of the problems at Walter Reed, where nearly 700 soldiers and Marines from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan live as outpatients while recuperating. Some families are happy with the help they received from Wagner and his office, and many soldiers and their families applauded the dedication of workers there. Others said that they had problems with Wagner and the center seemed chaotic and disorganized.
"We had many family members who came to me because they couldn't get a respectful and compassionate response from Dr. Wagner," said Peggy Baker, director of a charity that helps wounded soldiers, Operation First Response.
Wagner, who has a doctorate in education, resigned his position last month to work full time on his Military, Veteran and Family Assistance Foundation, based in Dallas. The foundation includes the Phoenix Project, which runs marriage retreats for soldiers returning from combat.
In a phone interview, Wagner denied he had solicited money or made contact with donors during office hours. "It's just not true," he said. "I intentionally stayed out of that. I couldn't do that. I couldn't do both." He said he is not paid by the foundation. The documents that would verify that have not yet been filed with the IRS.