Is Bureaucracy to Blame for Walter Reed Shame?

Congressional hearings begin today about the treatment of soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Philip Carter, former Army officer and military affairs writer, blames the scandal on the bureaucratic culture of the United States Armed Forces.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From the studios of NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

I'm Alex Chadwick. Coming up, a former Army officer says shabby conditions at medical facilities for veterans are a direct result of the culture of the military.

BRAND: First though, in Washington lawmakers talked with soldiers and family members today as they began hearings into those conditions at the Walter Reed Medical Center. Walter Reed hit the news last month after a series of articles in the Washington Post about deplorable conditions for wounded troops.

Today's hearings are taking place at the hospital. Co-chairman John Tierney, a Democrat from Massachusetts, laid out some of the issues.

Congressman JOHN TIERNEY (Democrat, Massachusetts): These are not new or sudden problems. Rats and cockroaches don't burrow and infest overnight. Mold and holes in ceilings don't occur in a week. And complaints of bureaucratic indifference have been reported for years.

CHADWICK: Soldiers testified, including specialist Jeremy Duncan(ph). He praised the actual medical treatment he received for his injuries, including a fractured neck. But, he said, the physical facilities were horrifying.

Mr. JEREMEY DUNCAN (Soldier): The conditions in the room in my mind were just - it was unforgivable for anybody to deliver - it wasn't fit for anybody to live in a room like that. I know most soldiers have - you know, just coming out of recovery have weaker immune systems. The black mold can do damage to people. The holes in the walls - I wouldn't live there even if I had to.

BRAND: Family members also testified. Annette McCloud's(ph) husband Wendell was in the National Guard for 16 years before he was deployed to Iraq, where he was injured while on duty there. She took a leave from her job to take care of him.

Ms. ANNETTE MCCLOUD (Military Wife): When I arrived to care for him, I found that he had no appointment scheduled with any Walter Reed staff. He had been assigned a social worker. Aside from the evaluation he received after his injury, the Army had just left him in Summit Hills without any evaluation opportunities and therefore no treatment.

I complained and had him transferred to the Malone House, where he could get some help. He had back and shoulder injuries and mental problems.

CHADWICK: Top military officials have said they were surprised by the reports of awful conditions that appeared in the Washington Post. But co-chair Henry Waxman, a California Democrat, said the problems with Walter Reed were known and ignored. Here he is questioning the woman you just heard, military wife Annette McCloud.

Representative HENRY WAXMAN (Democrat, California): What's your reaction? When you've been trying to get people's attention for the situation for your husband and now when we have it so clearly laid out in the press and there's attention being paid to it, the higher-ups say they are just surprised to hear about all this.

Ms. MCCLOUD: I had one question: were they there? Because I worked for change. I went to anybody that would listen. So they didn't - if you don't want to hear, you don't hear.

BRAND: Last week Defense Secretary Robert Gates created an outside panel to review the situation at Walter Reed and also at the other major military hospital in the Washington area. That's the National Naval Medical Center at Bethesda, Maryland.

And Gates also dismissed two top military officials.

CHADWICK: For more on the Walter Reed story now we're joined by Phil Carter. He's a former Army officer who writes about military matters for the online magazine, Slate. Phil, welcome back.

Mr. PHIL CARTER (Slate): Thanks, Alex.

CHADWICK: Here's a quote from the piece you put up on Thursday on Slate about the Walter Reed story. It's clear that the military bureaucracy is rotten to the core. That's a rather hot statement.

Mr. CARTER: The Walter Reed mess shows just how bad the military is at passing information, particularly when it's bad, dealing with bad information, and using its senior management personnel not just to work within the system but to take ownership of the system and really fix it.

CHADWICK: But this is an angry piece from you - and you're an analytical guy - angry, I suspect, because you're a veteran of this war. You're back from a year's combat service in Iraq months ago.

Mr. CARTER: When the story first broke, I couldn't find the profanity with which to express my rage and simmered down over a few days to see the systemic problems that were animating in what was going on there.

CHADWICK: Well, what are the systemic problems from your standpoint? You've served as an Army captain. You're also an attorney. You're used to analyzing things and looking at them.

Mr. CARTER: It's one thing to make healthy soldiers attend formations in the morning and fight with the paperwork monster that is the military. But if you've got guys with traumatic brain injury, you've got guys that have significant difficulty moving around, then forcing them to negotiate the system is fundamentally wrong.

And for legions of generals and congresspersons and members of the senior administration ranks to not notice this and fix it is just derelict.

CHADWICK: What do you think of the way that Defense Secretary Gates has managed this so far? Because on the very day that you wrote in Slate saying people should be fired - and in fact people did start getting fired.

Mr. CARTER: I think it was the smart move to hold the senior commander, Major General Weightman, accountable for this by firing him.

CHADWICK: He was in charge of Walter Reed. And he was dismissed from that role.

Mr. CARTER: Right. He may not have had a direct role in what was going on. But a commander's responsible for everything that does happen or fails to happen in his unit. And General Weightman has to bear that responsibility for better or worse.

Firing Secretary Harvey was probably the right thing to do too. It sends a clear message to the ranks that you must perform. And if you don't perform you'll be held accountable.

CHADWICK: Army Secretary Francis Harvey fired on Friday by Secretary Gates.

Mr. CARTER: That's right.

CHADWICK: You know, there is a tone in this article - and you've kind of alluded to this here today - this is beyond Walter Reed. It's beyond the Army medical system, you're suggesting.

It's an inherent tendency to find a kind of a bureaucratic approach to every problem within the military.

Mr. CARTER: Right. The Pentagon has morphed into the largest bureaucracy ever known to man. And a lot of people write that the American way of war is a sort of technological fantasy of smart bombs and munitions and clean warfare.

Well, in many ways it's also become the most bureaucratic form of warfare ever. And we now have a system whereby every policy, every procurement, every decision must go through this process. And the end results don't look like they're working anymore.

CHADWICK: You write about General Kiley. This is Kevin Kiley. He's the Army surgeon general. He had been in charge of Walter Reed Army Medical Center. His office was on the grounds of Walter Reed. He lived on the grounds of Walter Reed.

And you write, why couldn't he walk out of his office, walk across the street to this building where things were going so wrong - the notorious building 18 on the grounds there - why didn't he just walk over and look and see what was going on?

Mr. CARTER: This is the failure of leadership that happened there. General Kiley relied on his staff to tell him what was going on. He didn't do what management gurus call management by walking around - just going around to talk to people, especially the most junior ranking people and their families at Walter Reed.

He probably would have gotten an earful. Dana Priest and Anne Hull from the Washington Post certainly did nothing more than that. They just walked around and listened.

And their intrepid reporting proved to be better leadership than the combined generals there at Walter Reed.

CHADWICK: Phil Carter, an attorney and former Army officer, he lives here in Los Angeles and writes for the online magazine Slate. Phil, thank you again.

Mr. CARTER: Thanks, Alex.

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