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Defense Secretary Gates Calls for Changes to Walter Reed

February 23, 2007 at 3:20 PM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: Today, it was the turn of the secretary of defense and the number-two on the Joint Chiefs of Staff to visit Walter Reed Army Medical Center, five days after a Washington Post report highlighted poor outpatient care and deteriorating buildings there.

Secretary Robert Gates toured the medical center in Washington, D.C., and spoke to reporters.

An 'unacceptable' situation

ROBERT GATES, Secretary of Defense: Like many Americans, I was dismayed to learn this past week that some of our injured troops were not getting the best possible treatment at all stages of their recovery, in particular, the outpatient care. This is unacceptable, and it will not continue.

I just met with the president this morning before coming out here to brief him on the situation and on the actions that are under way. He is understandably concerned and emphatic in wanting the best possible care for our wounded soldiers and for their families.

I'm grateful to reporters for bringing this problem to our attention, but very disappointed we did not identify it ourselves.

Conducting an investigation

RAY SUAREZ: Most of Walter Reed's 700 outpatients are veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Secretary Gates also announced today he'll form a group to investigate the failures that let down these members of the military family.

ROBERT GATES: This group, which consists of eight military, medical and political leaders, will take a broad look at all our rehabilitative care and administrative processes here at Walter Reed and at the National Naval Medical Center.

This group will inspect the current situation at Walter Reed here in Washington, the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, and any other centers they choose to examine.

I have no information to suggest there are problems at Bethesda or elsewhere such as we have learned about here at Walter Reed, but we need to know the scope of this problem. The group will report back their findings and recommendations within 45 days to the secretary of the Army, the secretary of the Navy, and the assistant secretary of defense for health affairs. Their report will be made available to the Congress and to the public.

Remedies won't be immediate

RAY SUAREZ: The co-chairs of the group of eight are Togo West, former secretary of the Army under President Clinton, and Jack Marsh, former secretary of the Army under President Reagan.

Gates went on to say the group's findings will hold people accountable for the failures at Walter Reed, but, he warned, some of the fixes won't be as quick as this week's renovations.

ROBERT GATES: There's just too much work for the number of people that are available, so that's one thing that can be addressed pretty quickly. In terms of whether there are deeper and more difficult problems, those are the kinds of things, I think, that the review group will take a look at.

RAY SUAREZ: Absent from the Gates entourage today was a top official with direct responsibility for medical care there, the assistant secretary of defense for health issues, Dr. William Winkenwerder. The White House named his replacement yesterday, but said his departure had long been planned.