MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block. Conditions at the Army's Walter Reed Medical Center are just a symptom of wider problems at veterans' hospitals across the country. That's the conclusion of a House panel today after a six-hour hearing.

The Washington Post uncovered decrepit housing and ineffective outpatient care there for hundreds of veterans of the Iraq and Afghan Wars. In a few minutes, we'll hear from the father of one wounded Marine and we'll speak with the secretary of veteran affairs.

First, NPR's Guy Raz reports from the Pentagon.

GUY RAZ: On November 13, 2004, Staff Sergeant Daniel Shannon was on patrol in the Iraq town of Habaniya. Shots rang out near the central mosque. Shannon was hit by a bullet that took out his eye and left shards of metal in his brain. He was flown to Walter Reed, and just five days after being shot in Iraq, officials at Water Reed determined Staff Sergeant Shannon could be discharged in the outpatient facility.

Staff Sgt. DANIEL SHANNON (U.S. Army): Upon my discharge, hospital staff gave me a photocopied map of the installation, told me to go to the Malone House, where I would live while an outpatient. I was extremely disoriented and wandered around while looking for someone to direct me to the Malone House, and eventually I found it.

RAZ: Every few minutes during his testimony in front of the House Oversight Committee, Staff Sgt. Shannon, sitting straight in his crisp green uniform and wearing a black patch over his left eye, every few minutes he would pause and lose his train of thought and out of frustration tap his head forcefully with his forefinger. He was emotional. His testimony was the culmination of a two-year battle waged against the Army's medical bureaucracy for proper treatment.

Sitting next to Shannon, Annette McLeod, the wife of injured National Guardsman Wendell McLeod, recalled how Army bureaucrats told her husband he wouldn't be eligible for full disability. McLeod suffered brain damage as a result of an accident in Iraq, and the Army claimed he had a prior learning disability.

Ms. ANNETTE MCLEOD (Wife of Wendell McLeod): All I'm trying to do is have my life, the life that I had and that I know. My life was ripped apart the day that my husband was injured. And then having lived through it, the mess that we lived through, wondering, had been worse than anything I've ever sacrificed in my life.

RAZ: McLeod testified that she'd brought all her complaints far up the chain of command and that they were simply ignored.

The former commander of Walter Reed, Major General George Weightman, who was fired last week, apologized to the committee.

Major General GEORGE WEIGHTMAN (Former Commander, Walter Reed Medical Center): Secretary of Defense Gates, all our Army leaders and you have called this a failure of leadership. I agree. I was Walter Reed's commander, and from what we've seen with some soldiers' living conditions and the administrative challenges we faced and the complex medical board, physical evaluation board processes, it is clear mistakes were made and I was in charge. We can't fail one of these soldiers or their families, not one, and we did.

RAZ: The hearing left both Democrats and Republicans on the committee shocked and angry. Virginia Republican Tom Davis.

Representative TOM DAVIS (Republican, Virginia): All the plaster and paint in the world won't cure a system that seems institutionally predisposed to treat wounded soldiers like inconveniences, rather than heroes.

RAZ: Committee chairman, Massachusetts Democrat John Tierney, wondered whether the problems at Walter Reed were symptomatic of bigger Iraq-related decisions.

Representative JOHN TIERNEY (Democrat, Massachusetts): Is this just another horrific consequence of the terrible planning that went into our invasion of Iraq, that the fact that our top civilian leaders predicted a short war where we'd be greeted as liberators lead to a lack of planning in terms of adequate resources and facilities devoted to the care of our wounded soldiers?

RAZ: Later this week another House committee is expected to take up the Walter Reed issue, as well as perhaps two Senate committees. The Pentagon and the White House are also conducting their own investigations. Meanwhile, the Army still hasn't lifted its restrictions on soldiers at Walter Reed from speaking to the media.

Guy Raz, NPR News, the Pentagon.

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