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Army Medical Chief Resigns over Walter Reed Scandal

March 12, 2007 at 6:10 PM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: The resignation of the Army’s top doctor, Lt. Gen. Kevin Kiley, follows the recent ouster of two other high-ranking Army officials, the head of Walter Reed, Maj. Gen. George Weightman, and Army Secretary Francis Harvey.

After facing calls for his resignation on Capitol Hill last week, in a statement released today, Kiley said, “We are an Army medical department at war, supporting an Army at war. It shouldn’t be, and it isn’t, about one doctor.”

For more about this story, we’re joined by Josh White of the Washington Post.

And, Josh, as far as your sources have told you, did the surgeon general of the Army come to this decision on his own or was he pushed to retire?

JOSH WHITE, Washington Post: Well, Ray, I think it was a combination of things. I think, in part, it was a decision on his part to step out of the fray. I think, also, it was the intense pressure, both within the Army and from Capitol Hill, that was pushing in that direction.

I was hearing today that the acting secretary of the Army, Pete Geren, who came in after the Army secretary was ousted a week ago, this was his first big move. And I’ve heard that he called Gen. Kiley into his office, discussed options, and this is what they agreed on, that Lt. Gen. Kiley would retire and that they would replace him on a temporary basis before convening an advisory board to find a permanent replacement.

Kiley's reaction

RAY SUAREZ: When the storm of criticism began in response to stories broken by your newspaper, didn't it seem General Kiley was going to try to hang on?

JOSH WHITE: It did. And he said numerous times publicly that he wanted to keep his job, that he felt that he was in the best position to continue to make changes, to try to fix the problems that had been identified. And, really, his diverse past, the number of commands that he had had, his combat experience, and also his knowledge of the system is what he felt should have allowed him to keep the job.

However, there were numerous people on Capitol Hill who continued to ask for his resignation. There was concern, I think, within the Army about what it would mean to keep him on. And there was certainly concern at the highest levels of the Pentagon about the message that it was sending that he was still in his job.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, once the serving people above and below him left their posts, he got a pretty rough ride in the hearings, didn't he?

JOSH WHITE: He did. And if you watch the hearings, his demeanor changed as time went on.

In the first hearings, he was somewhat dismissive, not extremely apologetic, not accepting a whole lot of responsibility. But as the days went on, especially throughout last week, he continued to sound a more and more contrite tone, I think, in part, because that's what Congress was asking him to do.

And he was in charge of the entire Army's medical system. He lives across the street from Walter Reed. He was the Walter Reed commander from 2002 to 2004.

These are problems and issues, especially the big bureaucratic tangles that soldiers were having to deal with, that people felt that he should have done something about or at least have known about and, if he did know about these problems, that he didn't do enough to fix them.

The role of Army surgeon general

RAY SUAREZ: Well, help us understand where he fit in the current setup. What does the surgeon general of the Army do? And how did Walter Reed and other hospitals fit under his responsibility?

JOSH WHITE: Sure. As the Army surgeon general, he was essentially the Army's top doctor. He was in command of the entire Army Medical Command, which incorporates more than a dozen hospital facilities around the country, and around the globe, including, for example, Landstuhl in Germany, where a lot of the wounded soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan go.

He was in a position of both directing policy and also overseeing all of these facilities. So he was in touch with all the commanders at all of the different facilities around the country.

In that position, it's the kind of thing, these big bureaucratic issues that he should have been involved in. And I think, in some ways, he has said openly that this affords the Army medical community the opportunity to overhaul a system that they've been frustrated by, in part because soldiers were having to deal with all sorts of paperwork, different boards, different hearings, just to get what they felt they rightfully deserved after serving in combat and being wounded.

I think a lot of the outside criticism has been that Kiley in his position should have known more about what was going on and should have done more to fix it.

New leadership at Walter Reed

RAY SUAREZ: You mentioned that he had been the commanding officer at Walter Reed for two years, from '02 to '04. Wasn't he sent back there as C.O. when Gen. Weightman was removed by the secretary of the Army?

JOSH WHITE: He was. And I think his tenure as Walter Reed commander the second time around was about 48 hours, maybe less. That move was actually seen within the Pentagon and by the secretary of defense, Robert Gates himself, as somewhat unrealistic, to send the person in who may have been there when the problem started and then went on to be the surgeon general in a supervisory role back into Walter Reed itself was seen as a mistake.

And I think that was dealt with very quickly by the removal of Army Secretary Francis Harvey. That decision in and of itself drew a lot of criticism and was then reversed very quickly. They sent in Maj. Gen. Schoomaker, who happens to be the brother of the current Army chief of staff.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, it was depicted when that move was first made, the man who had been commanding officer being sent back, as a sign that Secretary Harvey didn't understand how the news of what was going on at Walter Reed was being received in the country. Who's heading there now? And do they, as they say, "get it"?

JOSH WHITE: Well, the commander currently at Walter Reed is Maj. Gen. Schoomaker who started just last week. What they've also done at Walter Reed is Gen. Cody, the vice chief of staff, has totally overhauled the Walter Reed leadership.

And what he did was he created a deputy commander position, where they brought in a colonel who was recently serving in Iraq on the ground, was in Gen. Chiarelli's command structure at the core level in Baghdad, to come in and fix the outpatient problems. That's a colonel who is coming in at the brigade level to deal with the wounded warriors.

They've also brought in a one-star general to be the deputy commander of Walter Reed, who will look very specifically as a soldier at the organization, the leadership, the way things run. And what Gen. Cody thinks is, will bring a very definitive structure, leadership command to a place that was very sorely needing it.

Details of the resignation

RAY SUAREZ: Well, what does it mean for a flag-level career man to leave, for him personally? This is the middle of his term as surgeon general. Does he immediately leave the Army?

JOSH WHITE: Well, he is trying to immediately retire. He's put in a request to retire. There will be a board that will convene to see if that will be allowed.

And then, essentially, what will happen here is he likely will have to retire as a two-star general instead of as a three-star general.

The surgeon general of the Army usually serves a four-year term. And in this case, Gen. Kiley had served about two-and-a-half years. In order to retire as a three-star general, he would have to serve three years of that four-year term. That would be September.

So in opting to retire now, he may be foregoing some additional benefits that he would receive as a three-star. He can appeal that decision. He can ask for a waiver from the secretary of defense. It's unclear if Secretary Gates would grant such a waiver, given all of the controversy.

RAY SUAREZ: Josh White of the Washington Post, thanks for being with us.

JOSH WHITE: You're very welcome.