Letters: Reader Feedback – 2007-04-01

More on Walter Reed You must be a Democrat! In your Editor's Viewpoint (CSE, 03/07, p. 7), you applaud the dismissal of the administrators in the first part of your diatribe, but at the end you address the real problem... Congress' appropriation of money to fix the problems (purge to splurge). Don't you agree that if the administrators had the money, the facilities would have been kept up in b...

By Staff April 1, 2007

More on Walter Reed

You must be a Democrat! In your Editor’s Viewpoint (CSE, 03/07, p. 7), you applaud the dismissal of the administrators in the first part of your diatribe, but at the end you address the real problem… Congress’ appropriation of money to fix the problems (purge to splurge).

Don’t you agree that if the administrators had the money, the facilities would have been kept up in better shape? It’s kind of like shooting the messenger. The ones raising hell in Congress also are the ones with the purse strings.

Last month, I believe you had a blurb on a very new ‘state of the art’ facility down south somewhere. Let’s look at what they did for the troops and what they are doing well (such as new and planned facilities) and not ride the doomsday train.

Remember you can catch more flies with sugar than with salt. Be a little more responsible from now on.

Jim Keehner via e-mail

Michael Ivanovich responds:

Thank you for taking the time to write and express your opinions, regarding not only my editorial but my professionalism as well, by inferring my editorial was irresponsible. My response below is lengthy, but addresses your points and adds new information based on published articles. You can find these articles and others (I’ve only cited a few) at www.armytimes.com , www.csmonitor.com and www.washingtonpost.com .

The tone and content of my editorial were non-partisan, entirely consistent with Republican and Democrat leaders, including President Bush, Secretary of Defense William Casey, and several republican senators, including Ted Stevens (R-Alaska).

Regarding administrators and budgets, poor decision-makers can impact budgets in several ways: They can request sufficient budgets (or not); and they can disburse whatever budgets they do have wisely and effectively (or not). So what happened at Walter Reed? It looks as if a combination of things resulted in squalid conditions there, but the problem of leadership and accountability seem to be the root of the problems; funding was secondary.

Your letter implies that funding trumps management and that Congress is solely responsible for funding. But the Pentagon has a strong hand in the budgets by establishing the level of funding needed and requesting it. Congress’ Committee of Appropriations then meets, exceeds, or reduces the amount requested in a spending bill and the president signs it or not. But the process starts with the Pentagon. Given that the Republicans controlled Congress during the time that Walter Reed’s problems began and persisted, would you say that Pentagon budget requests were fully or adequately granted? For the fiscal year ending in Sept. 2005, 100% of the Pentagon’s request for military health program funding was granted, based on House Report 109-016 — Making Emergency Supplemental Appropriations for the Fiscal Year Ending Sept. 20, 2005 (available at the Library of Congress website). Incidentally, that same report expressed concern for “outdated and worn” facilities at Walter Reed and ordered a study on whether the facility should be “revamped or a new facility constructed.” I haven’t sought to obtain a copy of the report, which was due Sept. 15, 2005, but can say that, as reported in the Christian Science Monitor , Walter Reed was ordered to be closed under the Base Realignment and Consolidation (BRAC) program signed off by then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and merged with a “new-and-improved facility” called the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center at a cost of $989 million but saving $195 million per year (see “How Decay Overtook Walter Reed,” by Gordon Lubold, Christian Science Monitor, March 7, 2007). Personally, I think the report might be historically significant, as one would assume that the conditions of all of Walter Reed’s buildings would have been documented.

But back to Pentagon budgets. Let’s look at statements made by Lt. Gen. Kevin Kiley, who was WRAMC commander from 2002-2004 and subsequently appointed Surgeon General of the Army. Kiley, by the way, fired the commander of WRAMC, Maj. Gen. Weightman, after the Washington Post story broke, and was appointed commander again by the Secretary of the Army while retaining his Surgeon General position. Casey then forced the Army secretary to resign and Kiley himself then resigned under pressure after downplaying WRAMC.

Under questioning during congressional hearings, Kiley stated that he had all the resources he needed at Walter Reed. His testimony was questioned by Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.): “Frankly, that’s almost—it’s being dishonest… to yourself, and it’s being dishonest to us” (Gordon Lubold, Christian Science Monitor, March 7, 2007). However, Kiley also said that he was commanded to make budget cuts in the order of $80 million in 2007 and $142 million in 2008, but didn’t know where he could find “efficiencies” of that order. These are just Army cuts that Kiley was speaking of. According to Sen. Stevens, the Pentagon has imposed cuts of $500 million in 2006 and $800 million in 2008. Sen. Stevens is reported to have said, “It is shocking to see, at a time when the military medical facilities need more money, that we have budget people directing reductions” (“Monetary, Staff Problems Suspected at Hospital”, by Steve Vogel and Ann Scott Tyson, Washington Post, March 8, 2007).

As I mentioned earlier, Walter Reed was scheduled to close. So, was Building 18 allowed to degrade in anticipation of the shutdown? According to a past chief comptroller for the Pentagon, that would not have been allowed to happen to an operational facility. That same comptroller, who was in place when Kiley first commanded Walter Reed, stated that had Kiley needed additional funds to ensure a healthy environment, they would have reprogrammed them with Congressional approval because no one would deny wounded soldiers proper care.

I found an article in the Army Times that reported an internal memo written to the WRAMC commander, Maj. General Weightman, that “describes how the Army’s decision to privatize support services at WRAMC was causing an exodus of highly skilled and experienced personnel. The decline was from more than 300 service staff to 50, with the 50 being contract employees working for a firm, IAP Worldwide Services, headed by a “former senior Halliburton official.” According to the article, the memorandum states that officials at the highest levels of Walter Reed and the U.S. Army Medical Command were informed about the dangers of privatization, but appeared to do little to prevent them.” The memo then requested more federal employees because the hospital mission had grown “significantly” during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the medical command did not concur with their requests for more people” (see “Committee Subpoenas Former Walter Reed Chief,” by Kelly Kennedy, Army Times, March 3, 2007). This, in my opinion, eludes to senior budget officials trying to keep costs down at the expense of providing adequate medical facilities to the surging number of veterans, many of whom are 19 to 25 years old and will need medical care for decades.

I still believe that what happened at Walter Reed is happening in many facilities across the country, public, private and military.

Regarding the current military spending bill Congress is working on, I have mixed feelings about it. While it addresses the issues spawned by Walter Reed, it has been heavily amended to address issues not related to military spending. But that’s a political issue.