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Congress Responds to Walter Reed Reports

February 22, 2007 at 6:25 PM EST


JUDY WOODRUFF: The Army continued its damage control measures today at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Twenty news crews were shown two buildings that were part of the focus of a Washington Post series earlier this week, a series that highlighted rundown outpatient care facilities and a system that neglects many soldiers and Marines.

After the Post reports, the Army swung into action, with rapid renovations and a promise to fix up the buildings, which house some 700 servicemembers, veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.

LT. GEN. KEVIN KILEY, Army Surgeon General: We’ve got some safes. We’ve already got the microwaves on order.

JUDY WOODRUFF: On the tour this afternoon, the U.S. Army surgeon general, Kevin Kiley, updated the press on the status of Building 18.

LT. GEN. KEVIN KILEY: Oh, I think the repairs are going to be done by the end of the week, with the exception of one thing, which is a leaky roof, which we need to wait for the roof to dry. The contractors have already told us we’ll get that sealed up.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Building 18 was one focus of the report. Its mildew-stained walls and carpeting are still in the process of being replaced.

Following the press tour, Kiley again spoke to reporters.

LT. GEN. KEVIN KILEY: It is our responsibility to look at the process through the eyes of our patients. And we need to be well-focused on that. And those great, young Americans deserve nothing but the very best health care, which I believe they’re getting.

I want to reset the thinking that, you know, while we have some issues here, this is not horrific, catastrophic failure at Walter Reed. I mean, these are not good. But you saw rooms that were perfectly acceptable.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Kiley also addressed larger issues confronting the Army’s health care system.

LT. GEN. KEVIN KILEY: I guarantee you that the health care here is of the very highest order and has been. The issues, as you’ve heard in several press conferences, have been about the quality of life, specifically some of the issues in Building 18, and then the bureaucracy, which is not a function of letting soldiers languish.

We’re not letting soldiers languish. I think, if you went over and talked to the doctors at Walter Reed, if you talked to the leadership here, they could begin to rattle off a series of issues. The Army is standing ready. We’ve had Army staff meetings recognizing that there’s going to be a team effort, because some of this is much larger than Walter Reed, and we’re going to take that up.

Patients discuss the center

Sgt. Ryan Groves (Ret.)
U.S. Marine Corps
If I'm objective about it, you know, if I was a doctor, and assuming that there's unlimited beds, I would have probably kept me for, you know, maybe another month or so, just, you know, ease the transition, I guess.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Earlier today, we spoke to a Marine and a soldier, both battlefield-wounded, both previous outpatients at Walter Reed, who are watching the events of this week closely.

Ryan Groves was in Fallujah in October 2004, when his unit was hit as it returned from patrol.

SGT. RYAN GROVES (Ret.), U.S. Marine Corps: Coming back to my vehicle was when the attack started, mortars and RPGs and the like, and the first one got me. The first RPG got me. It hit about, I don't know, four or five feet behind me.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The 26-year-old Marine Corps sergeant lost his left leg, had severe injuries to the other, and was eventually transported to the National Naval Medical Center in nearby Bethesda, Maryland, for eight months of treatment, and then to Walter Reed in Washington for a year of outpatient rehabilitation.

LT. BRADY VAN ENGELEN (Ret.), U.S. Army: I was this close to being killed. Today, I'm just happy to be here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Army First Lieutenant Brady Van Engelen was in Baghdad when he was shot in the head in April 2004. The 27-year-old had a large piece of his skull replaced with a titanium plate. And although he had been shot just six days earlier, Van Engelen was asked to choose inpatient or outpatient care as soon as he arrived at Walter Reed.

You chose to go right into outpatient and...

BRADY VAN ENGELEN: Yes, I mean, I wanted to be -- if I would have gone inpatient, I wouldn't have been able to see my family, you know?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you think a doctor would have made the same decision you did, to put you into outpatient and not inpatient?

BRADY VAN ENGELEN: No. I mean, you know, I got shot a week before. I think any doctor would probably at least observed. I mean, I don't know if they'd do anything, but at least observe.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And as you look back on it, what shape do you think were you in at that point?

BRADY VAN ENGELEN: I was pretty beaten up, you know? I mean, like I said, I'd just been shot. I had a huge gauze on my head. You know, I still wasn't completely with it. You know, I was fortunate enough to find a cabbie that just took me to the other side of Walter Reed.


BRADY VAN ENGELEN: Yes, I mean, it's not a very far walk. It's like three buildings. It's not that far. But still, you know, I don't know. I could have been walking all night long, you never know.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Groves says that the outpatient facilities are treating many soldiers and Marines who should not be there.

RYAN GROVES: You have a lot of guys running around out there who aren't really outpatient types. You know, they would be inpatients if there were more beds.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Can you give us an example of somebody who you felt really should have been getting more inpatient-type care?

RYAN GROVES: Me. Me. I mean, if I'm objective about it, you know, if I was a doctor, and assuming that there's unlimited beds, I would have probably kept me for, you know, maybe another month or so, just, you know, ease the transition, I guess.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That transition from inpatient to outpatient care can be a drastic one. From 24-hour nursing care, soldiers and Marines are immediately asked to take on much greater responsibility for their own care and to follow military discipline.

You had to do formation every morning?

RYAN GROVES: Yes. Oh, you didn't know that?

JUDY WOODRUFF: How did that work?

RYAN GROVES: Exactly. Exactly. So, as I was mentioning, guys who would be inpatients -- heavily medicated, a lot of the times, sleeping pills, pain meds, you know, whatever -- tired as all get out, because their body's not well, and they're trying to push themselves so they can get better and get on with their life, you know, yes, have formation in the morning.

We do understand that we have to maintain a minimum level of professionalism. We're still active duty, technically, so we still have to get hair cuts. We still have to go do our job.

Our point of place and duty is physical therapy or whatever appointments are for that day; that goes without saying.

And what they don't understand is that we want out of there more than anybody there can ever want us out of there. That I think they forget. But I think, with that said, we do understand that. We do understand that it's important to become independent.

Problem 'engrained' within culture

Lt. Brady Van Engelen (Ret.)
U.S. Army
They're going to fix these walls, you know, and they'll repaint the walls, and replace the beds, but it extends so far beyond that. It's engrained within our culture, you know? It's how we treat our soldiers; it's the way it is.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Both Groves and Van Engelen say that the controversy over the physical condition of facilities at Walter Reed is only one small part of a far greater problem throughout the military health care system.

BRADY VAN ENGELEN: They don't get it. It extends beyond hospital -- they don't see that. They see the hospital bed as the route, you know, where the shoddy beds and the moldy walls as the root of the problem, but it extends beyond that.

And they're going to fix these walls, you know, and they'll repaint the walls, and replace the beds, but it extends so far beyond that. It's engrained within our culture, you know? It's how we treat our soldiers; it's the way it is.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There's a lot of focus on the buildings and what's wrong with the buildings. You're saying that's not the whole problem?

BRADY VAN ENGELEN: Walter Reed is on 16th Street. So is the White House. I mean, it's in his backyard. I mean, do you think this stuff isn't happening in Ravenna, Ohio, you know?

I mean, what about the care there? You know, what about the care at other military installations, as well? This stuff happens all across the country. It's not just Walter Reed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you know that it's happening in other places?

BRADY VAN ENGELEN: I've spoken to soldiers that have told me just as much. It's systemic. It's not just moldy beds, walls, and hospital beds, you know, and the poor TV reception or anything else. It's just the mentality, you know. The system just needs an overhaul.

RYAN GROVES: But the problem is, is that we're not training for combat anymore. You know, we're not training to be in the military anymore. We're training to become civilians, but it's still run...

JUDY WOODRUFF: By the military?

RYAN GROVES: ... by the military. So we have these wounded guys coming back who are traumatized, don't know what the heck's going on for -- I mean, depending on how wounded they are, for a long time. They don't really know; they don't have their bearings. And it takes a while. It takes a long time.

Congressional reaction

Rep. Bob Filner
House Veterans Affairs Committee
Our young people coming back, the bravest and most courageous people in our society are coming back, and the administration that says, "Support our troops, support our troops, support our troops," says, "You're on your own when you get out."

JUDY WOODRUFF: And now for some congressional reaction. For that, we turn to Rep. Bob Filner, Democrat of California. He is chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. And Rep. Christopher Shays, a Republican of Connecticut, he serves on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Gentlemen, thank you very much.

And I want to start with a bit of news. The White House announced late this afternoon that the president will replace the current assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, Dr. William Winkenwerder. The Pentagon is saying this has nothing to do with the reports this week, that this has been in the works for some time, but Dr. Winkenwerder has been front and center in the news.

Congressman Filner, do you have any information, any background on this?

REP. BOB FILNER (D), California: I don't, but it's clear that the White House and the Army spokesman that we heard from just a minute ago are in denial about this whole thing. They're saying that the resignation has nothing to do with this. So what are they going to do about it?

The spokesman for the Army said this is not a catastrophic or horrific circumstance. It is. Our young people coming back, the bravest and most courageous people in our society are coming back, and the administration that says, "Support our troops, support our troops, support our troops," says, "You're on your own when you get out."

JUDY WOODRUFF: Rep. Shays, two things. Do you have any information on what's happened with Secretary Winkenwerder?

And what is your reaction to what Gen. Kiley, who is the Army surgeon general, is saying today? In essence, he's saying that these soldiers and Marines who come to Walter Reed are getting the best health care.

REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS (R), Connecticut: Well, I think they get the best surgical care, and certainly they get it in Iraq. I mean, Bob and I have been to facilities in Iraq that just blow you away. And when you get someone into that facility, they stay alive 98 percent of the time.

But when they get here, they get caught up in this incredible bureaucracy. And what I think is interesting is, when you have pictures of buildings, you're graphically able to illustrate something that's illustrious of something bigger.

The bigger problem is the process of why you would have someone in a hospital for two months to two years. They want to be discharged, in some cases; in other cases, they can come right back in the military. And the problem is, the paperwork is just pathetic.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is that the problem, Congressman Filner? It seems to me we're getting two very different pictures here.

We have the Pentagon, the surgeon general of the Army saying, again, they're getting terrific health care. But then you have these two young Iraq veterans, whom I talked to today, saying that the problem is much more complicated than that, that the entire system needs an overhaul.

REP. BOB FILNER: I have to take the testimony of those brave, young men who you interviewed, Judy. This is a systemic problem. Again, we're not -- I have to point out, Walter Reed is a military hospital. I am a chairman of the Veterans Committee. They're different systems.

But the problem is very similar, in that -- for instance, let me point out a systemic problem, Judy. The medical records of those who are wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan kept by the Army or Marines are not translatable into the V.A. system.

So you have no congruence for, you know, analyzing the problem, getting the history in a proper way. You just have two different systems. And you have both the DOD and the V.A., which seems intent on saying, "We didn't cause this problem in Iraq. You had some pre-existing condition or something else."

They are constantly fighting these young people, in terms of the benefits that they have earned and have sacrificed for. So we have really deep problems. And I think we have to, in the Congress, find a new way of oversight. The methods that we're using now are just not sufficient.

REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: And, Judy, the other problem is you have the active military, and then you have the reservists and National Guard, and they don't really have bases that can give them support. And the systems they use for the reservists and the National Guard are different than the active forces.

So we've got a whole hodgepodge of stuff to work out. But one of the things that I think you can be certain of is that you're going to see members of Congress visit these facilities up close and ask to go to the back rooms.

I mean, we all visit the soldiers in the front area, and it looks pretty efficient there. But when we -- I haven't been into that back area, and I'm eager to do that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Back area, meaning the outpatient buildings?


Congress looks for solutions

Rep. Chris Shays
I mean, we've done such a great job of saving lives that in the past we wouldn't have been able to save, and a lot of these are IEDs that we were not prepared for.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I want to ask both of you. Congressman Filner, how do you get to the bottom of this? Because there are so many questions, I think, that have been raised, not only by the Post reporting, but what we've learned in the last few days.

How do you find out where the problem is, what the problem is, and then what to do about it?

REP. BOB FILNER: Well, we should be able to rely on the chain of command, and somebody should be held accountable for this. And we should be able to, but apparently we cannot.

I would advocate, for example, an oversight and inspection system that is separate from the agency that is being, in fact, overseen. That is, the inspector general, although supposedly independent, is really a part of that system.

We could do something very quickly, set up a hotline that is manned by, you know, independent people, maybe some veterans who understand these issues, and allow people to report on the situation.

As Chris pointed out, as congresspeople, we're shown only, you know, the best of what is going on. We need an independent, investigative and oversight kind of function that allows us to really learn what's going on.

And then, what is most important: The administration has to hold these people accountable. We've seen today that the head of the health system in the Army resigns, but they claim it has nothing to do with this horrific conditions at Walter Reed.

They have got to say, "We have made a mistake. Here's who's accountable, and they're going."

JUDY WOODRUFF: Congressman Shays, I've had more than one person say to me that they believe at least part of what's going on here is that the military was just not prepared for the number of soldiers and Marines who came back with these kinds of wounds and, in particular, for the brain injuries, post-traumatic stress syndrome.

REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: Well, I think that's actually -- it couldn't be more on target. I mean, we've done such a great job of saving lives that in the past we wouldn't have been able to save, and a lot of these are IEDs that we were not prepared for.

We didn't have up-armored vehicles, so we worked on that. We didn't have proper body armor, and we worked on that. And when we dealt with the military -- on this, they say it would be solved in three months. I'd go back to Iraq three months later and find we still had the problem because they underestimated what they needed to do.

So it's been one underestimation after another. The challenges when you go into a hospital -- you really feel that you're a little intrusive. You want to talk to the soldiers, but you don't want to be talking to the soldiers if you're intruding on their personal experience. And so you handle it rather delicately.

Our committee has had a number of hearings, and we've dealt with some of these issues, but I think what's been helpful is just seeing the ugly pictures. People can relate to pictures, and then they say, "Well, if it's like that, the whole system must be." They can understand that the breakup is more than just the pictures.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Congressman Filner, we've also been told by veterans' organizations that they've been pointing out these problems for several years. They're saying this is not new.

So how do we know -- how do people watching this reporting tonight know that this is going to be dealt with, once and for all? Or is it just going to -- we're just going to move on, and more stories will come out months from now?

REP. BOB FILNER: As I said, we have to have a different, I think, level of oversight. And the resources that ought to be used for these returning young men and women are just not there.

I mean, we spend for the war, but we don't spend for the warrior. We are spending a billion dollars every two-and-a-half days in the war in Iraq. But we have to fight for every disability dollar from some soldier who is mentally scarred.

We are just not seeing, with this administration or the Congress -- treating these young men and women who come home is part of the cost of war. And we have got to have those resources.

We're going to have tens of thousands coming back from Iran and Afghanistan, hopefully soon, with physical maiming and mental scars. We have got to have the resources in place, and right now we do not.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We're going to have to...

REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: Let me just say, Judy, there's going to be a lot of hearings, and I think the public will see from those hearings what's going on.

JUDY WOODRUFF: On that note, we will leave it. Rep. Chris Shays, Rep. Bob Filner, gentlemen, thank you both.