RENÉE MONTAGNE, host:
One of the Army's senior most generals vows to personally oversee the upgrading of a hospital ward that houses soldiers recovering from injuries sustained in Iraq. Army General Richard Cody made the announcement yesterday, just days after a Washington Post report exposed squalid living conditions at the Army's Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington D.C.
NPR's Guy Raz reports.
GUY RAZ: Some of the rooms at Walter Reed Hospital's Building 18 are rat and mold infested and are the rooms where Iraq war veterans are recovering from battlefield injuries. The Washington Post spent about four months investigating conditions at the facility, and this week, General Richard Cody, the Army's vice chief of staff, went to investigate Building 18 himself, along with the Army's civilian chief.
General RICHARD CODY (Vice Chief of Staff, U.S. Army): And we're absolutely disappointed in the status of the rooms, and found the delays and lack of attention to detail to the building's repairs inexcusable.
RAZ: Army chiefs and the top civilian leaders at the Pentagon, including Dr. William Winkenwerder, the assistant defense secretary in charge of health affairs, they all say they were unaware of the conditions inside Building 18.
Mr. WILLIAM WINKENWERDER (Assistant Defense Secretary, Health Affairs): I never received a concern from a soldier, a family member. And we get concerns all the time directed to us. But we never got a concern sent our way about this issue, which is a little surprising. I'm not sure why that is.
RAZ: Walter Reed is considered one of the most advanced hospitals in the world. None of the soldiers interviewed in the Post article complained about the in-patient care, but the accounts of squalid conditions at the outpatient facilities have embarrassed Army officials.
Gen. CODY: Clearly, we've had a breakdown in leadership. And a bureaucratic, medical and contractual processes bogged down a speedy solution to these problems.
RAZ: Army officials privately concede that they'll have to reevaluate a whole set of procedures at Walter Reed, including whether recovering troops in the outpatient facilities still have to take part in daily military formations.
Now for patients who may not be fully ambulatory or those who suffer from psychological trauma, it's not an easy task because they have to walk to get to the place where formations are held. And it's a complaint that Frank Yoakum of the Enlisted Association of the National Guard hears a lot from some of the men and women he visits at Walter Reed.
Mr. FRANK YOAKUM (Enlisted Association of the National Guard) And so if you don't have a non-medical attendant with you, a spouse or a loved one that's with you to help you out, you're navigating those roads, which are right now snow-bound, and going uphill in a wheelchair or on crutches or on a prosthetic device on your own.
RAZ: So far, no one at Walter Reed Hospital's been fired. But the Army's General Cody promised to change the command structure at the hospital immediately. And he told reporters he'd personally oversee it.
Gen. CODY: The senior Army leadership takes full responsibility for the lack of quality of life at Building 18 and we're going to fix it.
RAZ: Renovations have already begun at Building 18. And in a few weeks, the Army will rename the now-infamous ward. But that, too, will be temporary. Walter Reed is what's known in military lingo as a base realignment facility. That means it's scheduled to be shutdown in a few years. And the Pentagon is planning to expand the nearby Bethesda Naval Hospital, and that will serve as the national military medical center.
Guy Raz, NPR News, Washington.
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