RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
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Lawmakers yesterday held a hearing inside the auditorium at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. The House subcommittee on oversight wanted a firsthand view of conditions at Walter Reed. It's been the subject of intense scrutiny after the Washington Post exposed poor housing and outpatient facilities for veterans wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan.
NPR's Guy Raz has more.
GUY RAZ: Connecticut Republican Christopher Shays was one of three members of Congress who used the phrase "tip of the iceberg."
Representative CHRISTOPHER SHAYS (Republican, Connecticut): The only reason why this story got attention is there was something visual. There was mold on a wall. But the mold on the wall is in fact the tip of the iceberg.
RAZ: Of the 350 outpatient rooms at Walter Reed that house wounded war veterans, only 26 of them were found to have mold. But as Shays pointed out, the mold is a minor problem compared to the bureaucratic maze so many of the veterans have had to negotiate, or as Virginia Republican Tom Davis described it...
Representative TOM DAVIS (Republican, Virginia): Byzantine, stovepiped, paper-choked process that was never intended to deal with so many for so long.
RAZ: So many, like Wendell McLeod. He's a National Guardsman who was wounded in Iraq in 2004. He suffered a brain injury, but when McLeod was evaluated by an Army medical board, the board concluded that his brain damage was preexisting, which meant he wouldn't qualify for full disability benefits.
So Wendell's wife, Annette, who testified on his behalf yesterday, went all the way to the top with her concerns.
Ms. ANNETTE MCLEOD: I went as far as the commanders. I went to the generals. Anybody that would listen to me, I would talk.
Unidentified Man: Who was the commander here at that point in time? Was it General Farmer?
Ms. MCLEOD: General Farmer, yes sir.
Unidentified Man: Did you go to General Farmer and express to him the difficulties?
Ms. MCLEOD: Yes sir, I did. I was on his - I was at his office door several days. And each time, they turned me around.
RAZ: Annette McLeod is talking about Major General Kenneth Farmer, who, until about six months ago, was the commander at Walter Reed. Now, Farmer didn't testify, but both his predecessor and his successor did. Major General George Weightman, who was fired as the commander of Walter Reed last week, apologized, as did Lieutenant General Kevin Kiley, who ran Walter Reed up till 2004.
Lieutenant General KEVIN KILEY (U.S. Army Surgeon General): As we've seen over the last several days, the housing condition here in one of those buildings at Walter Reed clearly has not met our standards. And for that, I am personally and professionally sorry. And I offer my apologies to the soldiers, the families, the civilian and military leadership of the Army and the Department of Defense, and to the nation.
RAZ: Kiley is the Army's top medical officer. He says he didn't know about the problems at Walter Reed. He didn't know about the bureaucratic delays in medical treatment or about the behavior of some Army bureaucrats towards the wounded vets. And California Democrat Henry Waxman asked Annette McLeod, the wife of the wounded National Guardsman, whether she believed that.
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 were just surprised to hear about all this?
Ms. MCLEOD: I have one question - were they deaf? Because I worked the chain, I worked anybody that would listen.
RAZ: And she says most Army bureaucrats just passed the buck, and that prompted a question from the committee chairman, Democrat John Tierney.
Representative JOHN TIERNEY (Democrat, Massachusetts): Where does the buck stop? There appears to be a pattern developing here that we've seen before. First deny, then try to cover up, then designate a fall guy. In this case, I have concerns that the Army is literally trying to whitewash over the problems.
RAZ: Now, as so many members of Congress pointed out, the moldy walls at Walter Reed may be just the tip of the iceberg - and so was this hearing. The White House, the Pentagon, the Government Accountability Office, and two other congressional committees are all planning their own investigations in the coming weeks.
Guy Raz, NPR News, Washington.
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