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Erasing the Walter Reed stain

By A TIMES EDITORIAL
Published March 9, 2007


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The symbol of a failed Iraq war policy has shifted from Abu Ghraib, where the military abused prisoners of war, to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where the military abused its own wounded soldiers by neglecting them. There cannot be too much outrage expressed or enough investigations or firings of incompetent administrators to make up for the suffering caused our injured men and women in uniform. But it's a start toward redemption.

We now know, thanks to a bold investigation by the Washington Post, that many soldiers came home physically and mentally shattered by the war only to be confined to substandard housing and a bureaucratic purgatory that denied their basic needs for rehabilitation. This happened at Walter Reed, one of the military's pre-eminent institutions and a short drive from the White House and the Capitol, and extended to military and VA facilities throughout the nation. The burden of a long, increasingly unpopular war has denied the military the resources necessary to keep its promise to wounded soldiers.

No one, not President Bush nor members of Congress, should have been surprised by the Post's revelations. Complaints had come in for years and were summarily dismissed by the Pentagon under former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Now everyone is eager to get to the bottom of this scandal. Better late than never.

Credit should go to Rumsfeld's replacement, Robert Gates, who acted decisively in forcing out Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey for making a mockery of the military's initial response by replacing Walter Reed's commander with Lt. Gen. Kevin Kiley. Currently the Army surgeon general, Kiley had run Walter Reed for two years, right at a time the growing problems there were ignored.

While Gates reversed the Kiley appointment, he should have sent Kiley into retirement, too. Kiley showed his arrogant disregard for the soldiers' suffering first by denying the accuracy of the Post's stories, then by defending his see-no-evil management style. "I command by commanding through my commanders and trusting them to execute the mission," Kiley told a House committee looking into the deplorable conditions that existed just outside Kiley's office door. Such a smug defense of negligence should not be tolerated.

There are signs that shortcomings in military medical care are finally going to be addressed. Congressional hearings are eliciting strong rebukes from members and exposing a corrupt system once hidden from public view. President Bush is finally putting actions behind his words. His choice of former Sen. Bob Dole and University of Miami president Donna Shalala to head a bipartisan commission to investigate the scandalous conditions is a good start. Both Dole, a wounded veteran, and Shalala, former Health and Human Services secretary, have the expertise and credibility to get something done.

The last thing wounded soldiers need, however, is a flurry of hearings and media attention that leads to little change. This is not a scandal that can be erased with well-meaning reports gathering dust on a shelf and a few coats of paint. Only action and resources sufficient to get grievously injured soldiers the timely help they need now will be an acceptable response.

This isn't merely a problem to be fixed. It is a moral stain on the nation's conscience that will not so easily be cleansed.

[Last modified March 8, 2007, 21:58:12]


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