Walter Reed scandal spurs calls for action

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- Congressional Democrats kept up their attacks yesterday on substandard care for injured soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center as they prepared for hearings on the issue this week.

"If it's this bad at the outpatient facilities at Walter Reed, how is it in the rest of the country?" Sen. Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat, said on ABC's This Week. "Walter Reed is our crown jewel."

In a letter sent yesterday to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, Schumer called for the creation of an independent commission to examine conditions at all medical facilities treating military personnel and veterans. He suggested that former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, a retired Army general and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, be named to lead such a panel.

"To think that men and women are serving their country in the most honorable and courageous way possible and all we give them is a dilapidated, rat-infested, run-down building to recover is a disgrace," he wrote. "My fear is that Walter Reed is just the tip of the iceberg, and merely highlights the pervasive and systemic mistreatment of our service members."

Schumer's call for an independent panel comes on the heels of a promise from President Bush last week that he would name a bipartisan commission to do the same thing.

The scandal over the living conditions and care for soldiers at a Walter Reed outpatient facility, detailed in a recent series of articles in The Washington Post, claimed two generals and the Army's top civilian last week.

On Thursday, in response to the articles, Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey replaced the hospital's commander for the past six months, Maj. Gen. George W. Weightman, with Lt. Gen. Kevin C. Kiley, who had headed the hospital from 2002 to 2004. But veterans groups and legislators criticized that appointment, saying that he had known about problems but had failed to act, and Kiley lost his job a day later -- as did Harvey, who was attacked for appointing Kiley and resigned under pressure.

Members of Congress from both parties have expressed outrage at the revelations, which also embarrassed the Bush administration as it has been laboring to build support for sending 21,500 additional troops to Iraq.

California Rep. Henry A. Waxman, a Democrat who heads the powerful House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, plans to hold a hearing at the hospital today. Weightman and Kiley are both scheduled to testify. The Senate Armed Service Committee also plans a hearing on the matter tomorrow.

Meanwhile, Rep. John P. Murtha, a Vietnam veteran and staunch war critic, said he would unveil today his plan to put new restrictions on the administration's war effort.

Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democrat who is chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on defense, wants to attach conditions to a nearly $100 billion emergency supplemental that would require troops to be fully trained and equipped before they are deployed.

"We should not send troops into combat if they don't have equipment and if they don't have the training they need," Murtha said on NBC's Meet the Press.

Murtha has also suggested requiring the withdrawal of U.S. forces unless the Iraqi government meets a series of benchmarks showing progress toward reducing sectarian strife.

The proposal has been attacked by Republicans and some Democrats as an effort to micromanage the war, a critique reiterated yesterday by Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and a leading supporter of the president's plans to boost the number of U.S. forces in Iraq.

"So all of these efforts ... are just nightmares for a commander. You can fight al-Qaida, but you can't fight people involved in sectarian violence. You can go here, and you can't go there," Graham said on NBC. "There's a reason there's only one commander in chief."

Noam N. Levey writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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