Friday, March 02, 2007

Wash Post Expose on Walter Reed Gets Results

Seldom in coverage of issues growing out of the Iraq war have adverse reports resulted in such quick action as the Washington Post's series of articles 10 days ago on treatment in the outpatient clinics at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where war wounded faced squalid conditions.

The reports authored by reporters Dana Priest and Anne Hill, led yesterday to the general in charge of Walter Reed, Maj. Gen. George W. Weightman, being relieved of his command by the Secretary of the Army, Francis Harvey, who later resigned too. Both Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the White House quickly supported the moves. The firing of Weightman was the lead story in both the L.A. Times and New York Times today.

President Bush today ordered a full inquiry and review of treatment of the wounded at all military hospitals and said a bipartisan commission would be named to undertake the inquiry. But this really amounts to shutting the barn door after the horse has escaped. Walter Reed had been slated for eventual closure, and its outpatient clinics farmed out to a private contractor. Since those decisions, the quality of care dropped dramatically.

After months of claims by the Bush Administration that treatment of the war wounded was excellent, the Post's report came as a depressing revelation.

As the Post editorial on this sorry spectacle observed, "The walls of one soldier's room were covered with black mold, and the ceiling of his shower had a large hole. Soldiers who lost their uniforms while undergoing emergency treatment on the battlefield have had to present their purple hearts to get replacement clothing."

That was just the start of it. Red tape subjected treatment to long delays, and wounded soldiers had to slip and slide over ice just to reach the outpatient facilities.

It was, in short, an outrage the Administration could not ignore, and the Post reports show exactly the function of a free press -- which is to inform the public when things are not right. Here they were worse than not right.

It would be nice if yesterday's quick action by the Administration to get rid of a miscreant general was assurance that everything would soon be remedied. However, the general appointed to succeed Weightman, Lt. Gen. Kevin Kiley, head of all Army medical programs, unfortunately commanded Walter Reed himself until just recently, so he may ultimately be implicated in the scandal. (A second change in command was announced by Gates on Friday, and Kiley will not be coming back to the hospital).

The L.A. Times article by Peter Spiegel this morning quotes Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, as observing, "It's good to see someone held accountable. But you can't just drop one person and make him the scapegoat." (Actually, several lower-ranking Army men have already been relieved as well). Then, as I say, later Friday, the Army Secretary too was forced out.

Due to proficient, modern treatments on the battlefield, a much higher percentage of soldiers survive war wounds in Iraq and Afghanistan than in previous wars. But this has put a strain on facilities back home to take care of them.

No expense, it is needless to say, must now be spared to be sure the U.S. gets this right. We owe these soldiers everything, and bureaucratic foul ups and outright deprivation cannot be permitted to continue. Thank God, the Washington Post has done its job.



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