Military Hospital’s Chief Fired

The general running Walter Reed Army Medical Center had been there six months when trouble arrived - news reports about recovering soldiers languishing in dilapidated housing, their families complaining of inattentive administrators, followed by cries of outrage from members of Congress.

Heads had to roll, it appeared. At a time of growing public discontent with the Iraq war and with Democrats newly in charge of Congress, the embarrassments at Walter Reed seemed to magnify the claims of critics that the Bush administration is mismanaging the conflict and its costly human consequences.

On Thursday, the Army fired the commander, Maj. Gen. George W. Weightman.

"The administration knew of problems at Walter Reed hospital for years, yet they did nothing," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. "Firing General George Weightman is a welcome step, but it doesn't change the fact that our injured troops are receiving inadequate medical care and facing bureaucratic nightmares."

Many of the most severely wounded soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan are treated at Walter Reed and held there - often for many months - for rehabilitation and an assessment of whether they will be medically retired. Even in the best of circumstances, it can be a trying and frustrating experience, not only for the wounded but also for their families, whose lives are disrupted for as long as it takes to resolve the case.

The Pentagon is investigating what went wrong at Walter Reed and who is to blame. But it did not wait until all the answers were in before deciding that Weightman, who is a physician and a 33-year Army veteran, had to go. He is the highest-ranking Army general to be sacked since Gen. Kevin Byrnes was dismissed as commander of Army Training and Doctrine Command in August 2005 for an alleged adulterous affair.

In a brief announcement, the Army said service leaders had "lost trust and confidence" in Weightman's leadership abilities "to address needed solutions for soldier outpatient care." He had headed Walter Reed since last August. It said the decision to fire him was made by Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey.

The Army and the Defense Department began their own investigations after The Washington Post published stories last week that documented problems in soldiers' housing and in the medical bureaucracy at Walter Reed, which has been called the Army's premier caregiver for soldiers wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The problems at Walter Reed pertain not to the quality of medical care for wounded soldiers but rather to the treatment of those who are well enough to be outpatients, living in Army housing at Walter Reed. One building was singled out in the Post reports as being in bad repair, including having mold on interior walls.

Gates issued a brief statement Thursday endorsing Harvey's action against Weightman.

"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," Gates 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."

The Senate Armed Services Committee plans a hearing Tuesday about the care, conditions and administration for outpatients at the medical center. One committee member, Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., said Weightman's dismissal was a start. "My sense is that whatever responsibility he shares is not his alone and that they have to look carefully at others," Reed said.

It was not clear whether Gates insisted on Weightman's firing. A Pentagon official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said Gates was "actively involved" in the firing decision.

In an interview with several reporters two days before the first Post story was published, Weightman acknowledged shortcomings at Walter Reed but also said the problems were magnified because of the facility's location in the nation's capital. "We're a fishbowl," he said, noting that being in Washington makes it easier for complaining patients and their families to draw the interest of members of Congress.

An outside panel of former military officials and former congressmen, set up last week by Gates, held its first meeting Thursday at the Pentagon.

Being relieved of command means Weightman is almost certain to have lost his future in the Army.

Story courtesy of the Associated Press.