Pentagon Tackles Criticism of Military Hospital

Reported infestations of rats and roaches at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, along with bureaucratic headaches for veterans, have put the Pentagon on the defensive about the state of military hospitals.

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LUKE BURBANK, host:

But first, rats and roaches running wild in a military hospital, and not just anywhere, but Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. That was the story reported this week by the Washington Post. The Pentagon has been working overtime to show that it's addressing the issue.

Today Defense Secretary Robert Gates held a news conference at Walter Reed.

Mr. ROBERT GATES (U.S. Secretary of Defense): The men and women recovering at Walter Reed and at other military hospitals have put their lives on the line and paid a considerable price for defending our country. They battled our foreign enemies. They should not have to battle an American bureaucracy.

BURBANK: Joining us now from Washington is NPR's Guy Raz, who was at that press conference. Hi, guy.

GUY RAZ: Hi.

BURBANK: So the Pentagon has been pretty quick to respond to these allegations made in the Post, and it's coming right from the top, I guess.

RAZ: It's coming from the top and it's going all the way up to the top. And in fact this morning's press conference at Walter Reed was the third time this week that the Pentagon publicly addressed this issue at all, which is many, many times indeed for the Pentagon.

It's almost as if the top civilian and military leaders at the Pentagon are trying to outdo one another to prove how sorry they are. I mean for one thing, the defense secretary for now says he's going to put together an independent panel to review the conditions at Walter Reed. And he basically implied that heads are going to roll over this story.

BURBANK: What exactly are some of the things that are wrong or allegedly wrong at Walter Reed? What was in that Post story specifically?

RAZ: Well, in broad brushstrokes, two of these Washington Post reporters spent about four months hanging around two outpatient wards at Walter Reed Hospital. Now, this is the premiere military medical facility in the country.

And they got to know several badly wounded vets who are recovering, wounded in Iraq. And what they found was that some of these vets were living in fairly dilapidated conditions with rodent problems and moldy walls.

But really what the real scandal of the article was, this bureaucratic maze that so many of these vets are forced to navigate of the red tape, just to see a doctor, things like going to daily formations. I mean some of these vets are in wheelchairs are on crutches. Many of them are suffering from psychological trauma.

They have to show up to these daily formations every day. There are times where a vet will be in his or her room for days without anybody coming in to check on them. And that really was what this story uncovered.

The inpatient care at Walter Reed, it should be said, is still considered world class. It's the outpatient facilities that are at the heart of this story now.

BURBANK: Yeah, and you know, it's interesting because Bob Gates has only been in charge of the Pentagon for a few months. And yet this response, as you already said, has been pretty quick and pretty, you know, front and center. Is this different, you think, than the way that Donald Rumsfeld would've handled it, the previous secretary of defense?

RAZ: You know, I suspect Rumsfeld would've, at least publicly, offered a similar kind of mea culpa. You'll recall he did offer to resign over the Abu Ghraib scandal back in 2004. But the difference today isn't just a matter of style. It really reflects the pressure the administration is under, in general, over Iraq.

You look at the polls, it's clear the American public doesn't support the policy. You know, I think at the time when the Bush administration was feeling a little more confident, they would not have dealt with this in the way they have. In other words, they wouldn't have had three news conferences.

BURBANK: Well, Guy, I'm not sure if you actually know the answer to this, but I mean Walter Reed is the sort of premiere hospital for this sort of place. Even the outpatient center you would assume is pretty top shelf.

What does that say for some other, you know, facilities around the country that are less in the spotlight? Is that something you think you think they're going to look into as well?

RAZ: Yeah, absolutely. And they're going to be looking at Bethesda Naval Hospital as well, which is very close to Walter Reed. It's the other sort of premiere military hospital in the country. And that's part of the review. But essentially, these independent reviewers are going to look at all military medical facilities across the country and try to get a better assessment.

It should be noted that Walter Reed is scheduled to shut down in 2013 anyway. It's going to be collapsed into the Bethesda Naval Hospital; that's going to be expanded. And presumably the facilities there, the outpatient care there will be better.

BURBANK: NPR correspondent Guy Raz. Thanks so much, Guy.

RAZ: Thank you.

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