WASHINGTON -- Top Army officials faced an angry Congress at an emotional hearing on shoddy medical treatment and living conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, acknowledging yesterday that they have failed in the care of wounded veterans.
Calling the scandal at Walter Reed "the tip of the iceberg of what is going on all around the country," Rep. Henry A. Waxman, a California Democrat and chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said that veterans and their families are "flooding us with complaints" about the burgeoning scandal.
Citing news stories and congressional reports that exposed the problems over the past two years, Waxman cast doubt on claims by Army higher-ups that they were surprised by recent disclosures about soldiers who returned from Iraq and Afghanistan and were treated shabbily.
Maj. Gen. George W. Weightman, fired as commander of the hospital complex last week, took personal responsibility for a lapse of leadership.
"I failed," he said. "We can't fail one of these soldiers or their families, not one. And we did."
Turning to face one veteran and his family, Weightman expressed regret for a bureaucratic maze that forced the soldier's wife to do battle with the Army to get her husband the medical treatment he needed. "I'd just like to apologize for not meeting their expectations," he said.
Several lawmakers accused Army brass of making Weightman the scapegoat for problems at the medical center. Veterans groups have complained that Weightman, who was Walter Reed's commander for only six months, made progress in reducing the ratio of case managers to patients and in spotlighting post-traumatic stress disorder.
Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey was forced to resign over the scandal last week. Weightman's predecessors - retired Maj. Gen. Kenneth L. Farmer Jr., who commanded the hospital complex for two years until last August, and Lt. Gen. Kevin Kiley, who ran the complex from 2002 to 2004 - have not been disciplined. Kiley, the Army's surgeon general, was removed last week after serving a day as interim commander at Walter Reed, but he retains his primary post.
"Tell me why he [Weightman] got the ax and why the others walk on the Earth today," asked Massachusetts Democrat Rep. John F. Tierney, chairman of the subcommittee that held yesterday's hearings. "Where has all the brass been?"
Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, the Army's chief of staff, exploded in anger.
"I've got a daughter and a son-in-law that are on the way to combat," said Schoomaker, whose younger brother Maj. Gen. Eric B. Schoomaker has been named to run Walter Reed. "This is not something about people [who] don't care, and I am not going to sit here and have anybody tell me that we don't care."
"Nobody said anything about people not caring," Tierney shot back, calling Schoomaker's response a "red herring."
Like the federal government's flawed response to Hurricane Katrina, the burgeoning scandal over medical treatment for returning soldiers is exposing major weaknesses. Members of Congress promised more hearings on the complex maze of red tape that forces wounded soldiers to do battle with a bureaucracy.
"You've been fighting a war," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat, to veterans. "You shouldn't have to come back here and fight a system."
Schoomaker vowed to address the problems. "I couldn't be madder and I couldn't be more embarrassed and ashamed," he said.
Lawmakers questioned the policy under which maintenance and operations functions at Walter Reed were outsourced to IAP Worldwide Services, a Florida firm run by a former Halliburton official who reduced Walter Reed's staff from 300 to 100.
"We've contracted out so much in this war," said Waxman. "We have mercenaries instead of U.S. military. ... We are, in Iraq, overpaying for the work of the contractors and here we're under-serving our military."
The subcommittee made the unusual decision of moving the hearing away from Capitol Hill to an auditorium at Walter Reed.
Lawmakers listened intently to the impassioned testimony of two injured soldiers and the wife of a third. All recounted problems and hurdles they faced at the hospital - stories that first captured public attention in articles last month in the Washington Post.
Staff Sgt. John Daniel Shannon, waiting for the plastic surgery that would allow him to wear a prosthetic eye, expressed anger that Army Secretary Harvey was allowed to resign.
"I don't know how things work in Washington, D.C., but in combat, we don't get to resign when bullets are flying and people are dying," said Shannon. His advice to Army officials: "Pull themselves up by their bootstraps like any sergeant would do, admit to their mistakes and work to fix them until they're fired."
Spec. Jeremy Duncan, injured in a roadside bomb in Iraq, lost his sight in one eye, suffered a fractured neck and almost lost his left arm. He was housed in now-infamous Building 18.
"It wasn't fit for anybody to live in a room like that," he said, describing holes in the wall and black mold that exposed vulnerable patients to possible infection.
Duncan said that despite repeated reports and complaints, nothing ever got fixed. "That's when I contacted the Washington Post," he said. After the newspaper reported the squalid conditions, "I was immediately moved from that room, and the next day they were renovating the room."
Johanna Neuman and Adam Schreck write for the Los Angeles Times.