The head of the U.S. Army’s top hospital was removed from his post on Thursday after troops wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan were found to be living in shoddy conditions and struggling with a complex bureaucracy.
An Army statement said top officials had lost confidence in Maj. Gen. George Weightman’s ability “to address needed solutions for soldier outpatient care” at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
“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,” said Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
“When this standard is not met, I will insist on swift and direct corrective action and, where appropriate, accountability up the chain of command,” he said in a statement.
Problems at the hospital were brought to light by a Washington Post investigation published last month. It found that recuperating soldiers were living in a dilapidated building infested with mice, mold and cockroaches.
The newspaper also found wounded troops forced to untangle a web of bureaucratic red tape to obtain benefits and treatment as they coped with physical and psychological trauma.
Government investigators found the typical soldier must file 22 documents with eight different commands to enter and exit the medical processing system, the Post reported.
The Army has said it has already fixed many of the problems with the substandard building and is working to quickly improve its administrative procedures.
But Gates pledged last week that commanders would be held accountable for failings at the hospital. He also ordered an independent review into outpatient care of wounded troops.
The Army said Weightman had been relieved of command at 10 a.m. and its surgeon-general, Lt. Gen. Kevin Kiley, would take temporary charge of Walter Reed.
Several lower-ranking people at the hospital have also been relieved of their duties, Gates said last week.
President George W. Bush’s administration has frequently praised U.S. troops for their sacrifices and insisted they will have the best possible treatment. But Democrats said the government had failed to provide adequate care.
“This administration has consistently underestimated the resources that are needed to support our veterans,” said presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama, who has introduced legislation to improve care for wounded soldiers.
Sen. Jack Reed, who served as a captain in the U.S. Army, said after a closed-door meeting of senators with Gates that Weightman’s removal was not enough on its own.
“I think they have to go further in terms of establishing responsibility,” said Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat. “It’s not just about firing individuals, its about fixing the problem.”
Outpatients at Walter Reed are mainly troops who have received initial medical care but require further treatment before they can go home or return to duty. The average outpatient stay lasts 10 months, the Washington Post said.
More than 10,000 U.S. troops in the Iraq war and more than 600 involved in the Afghan conflict have been wounded so seriously that they were not able to return to duty within 72 hours, according to Pentagon statistics.
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