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Army Secretary Harvey Resigns over Walter Reed Scandal

March 2, 2007 at 6:10 PM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: The fallout continued big time today from the Walter Reed story. Late this afternoon, Defense Secretary Gates made two announcements at the Pentagon. Here is what he said.

ROBERT GATES, Secretary of Defense: First, earlier today, secretary of the Army, Dr. Fran Harvey, offered his resignation. I have accepted his resignation. Undersecretary of the Army Pete Geren will serve as acting secretary until a new secretary is in place.

I thank Dr. Harvey for his distinguished service to the department and to the nation.

Second, later today, the Army will name a new permanent commander for the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. This flagship institution must have its new leadership in place as quickly as possible.

I am disappointed that some in the Army have not adequately appreciated the seriousness of the situation pertaining to outpatient care at Walter Reed. Some have shown too much defensiveness and have not shown enough focus on digging into and addressing the problems.

Also, I am concerned that some do not properly understand the need to communicate to the wounded and their families that we have no higher priority than their care and that addressing their concerns about the quality of their outpatient experience is critically important.

Our wounded soldiers and their families have sacrificed much, and they deserve the best we can offer.

Finally, I want to reaffirm my confidence in the staff at Walter Reed and their professionalism and dedication to providing caring treatment. From what I have learned, the problems at Walter Reed appear to be problems of leadership.

The Walter Reed doctors, nurses, and other staff are among the best and the most caring in the world. They deserve our continued, deepest thanks and strongest support.

Thank you.

JIM LEHRER: Judy Woodruff has more on the story.

The role of Gen. Kiley

Dana Priest
The Washington Post
I think the message here is that the White House is now involved, because the Army secretary is ultimately appointed by the president.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The last two days have seen the resignation of the Army's top civilian leader and the replacement of the commander of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

For more on who in the military knew about conditions at Walter Reed and the treatment of wounded troops, we turn to two reporters who have covered this story: Dana Priest, of the Washington Post, and Mark Benjamin, national correspondent for Salon.com.

Thank you both for being with us.

Dana, to you first. There are already reports that Secretary Gates did this, made this replacement today because he was displeased that it was Gen. Kevin Kiley, the Army surgeon general, who would have been temporarily in charge of Walter Reed. What are you hearing?

DANA PRIEST, The Washington Post: Well, I think that's correct. Gen. Weightman, the commander at Walter Reed, was relieved, but many people are critical not so much of Weightman, but of the surgeon general, Kiley, who was commander at Walter Reed up until -- I think it was June of 2004, and then lived on post as the Army surgeon general after that, and was seen as someone who knew about problems there from veterans groups, from patients, from families, really didn't do much about it.

Added to that is, although the secretary, Secretary Gates took part in relieving Weightman of command, he apparently did not know that the Army had decided to replace him, even temporarily, with Kiley.

You listen carefully today at what the secretary said, he said he was disappointed with people who seemed defensive. I think he was speaking directly about Gen. Kiley, who they have decided they will wait until after their investigation is complete to see what actions they may take against him.

But even beyond that, Judy, I think the message here is that the White House is now involved, because the Army secretary is ultimately appointed by the president. He's the civilian leader of the army, so they really are making a statement that goes beyond the military command and beyond the military world.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But I guess my first question is, if there were still so many questions about how Gen. Kiley had handled this over the last few years, why was he named even a temporary head at Walter Reed?

DANA PRIEST: This was an Army decision. And as Secretary Gates hinted today, perhaps the Army isn't listening, and they're too defensive, and people other than him have told me, you know, this is part of the problem with the Army, is that it is insular and, when attacked, it closes up. And I don't think that's what he wants to have happen in this case.

Added to that, though, is the political dynamic. The Democrats have really stepped up their attacks on this issue. They have two high-profile committee hearings scheduled next week.

The first, on Monday, will actually be held at Walter Reed and will include some of the soldiers we talked to. The second one will be on the Hill in the Armed Services Committee. So I think that's part of their reaction, is trying to get out ahead of what is now, in part, a political story.

Years of reporting

Mark Benjamin
Salon.com
The outpatient care, that system is overloaded, and the system to compensate those soldiers for their wounds is very complicated and very adversarial.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark Benjamin, you were writing separate stories about the treatment of returning wounded soldiers as long ago as the fall of 2003. You wrote again in 2005, 2006. Just briefly tell us the thrust of those stories.

MARK BENJAMIN, Salon.com: I think what I uncovered, starting in 2003, is that the system that the military uses to care for outpatients -- you know, one of the things that the military does very well is, if you lose a limb, you're an amputee, that inpatient care is excellent.

The outpatient care, that system is overloaded, and the system to compensate those soldiers for their wounds is very complicated and very adversarial. So essentially what we have is what Dana found at Walter Reed, and what I also reported at Walter Reed in 2005 and 2006, is a symptom of that problem.

But I've also written the same story from Fort Stewart, Georgia. I've written the same story at Fort Knox. So the system is broken, and that's what you see.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you went to military officials when you wrote your stories for reaction. What were they saying? How did they explain it?

MARK BENJAMIN: I think that the military public affairs officials probably have not handled this as well as perhaps they wish they could have. And I think it's almost similar to the way that Kiley has sort of responded -- very defensively -- when the Washington Post came out with their articles on Walter Reed.

To put it simply, in some cases, the military officials have simply told me, "There's not a problem here. All is well at Walter Reed."

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about beyond public affairs officials? Were you able to get to any of the generals or even the civilian leadership in the military?

MARK BENJAMIN: Oh, certainly. And there is widespread concern among health care providers -- who are, obviously, wonderful professionals -- and some generals who believe that this system is badly broken and are ashamed and angry that it's not serving troops from Iraq and Afghanistan better than it is.

Bringing complaints to Congress

Dana Priest
The Washington Post
Why is it that an administration, who pledged to treat soldiers properly, and the Republican-controlled Congress that did the same, really never took on this issue seriously?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Dana, how much of the -- there are a lot of references over the last few days to icebergs, that we're only see the tip of the -- how much of this story are we seeing and understanding at this point?

DANA PRIEST: Well, Walter Reed really is just a small part of it. It happens to be a very sensational part, because it's right under their nose here in Washington, which actually points to another issue.

If you were to ask members of Congress and their staffs, "Have you been ever approached by soldiers having problems?" I would bet you that nearly every member, and certainly the members who have large Army hospitals in their districts, have all been flooded, flooded with complaints about soldiers and their outpatient care, and they never got traction on that.

Why is that? Why is it that an administration, who pledged to treat soldiers properly, and the Republican-controlled Congress that did the same, really never took on this issue seriously?

In that sense, it's not quite an open secret, because it's a complicated situation. Everybody has an anecdote to tell, and you have to dig a little deeper to make sure that the anecdote is representative of a broken system.

But there was one hearing in the House in February 2005, and not very many people paid attention to it. There was some little spark of aftermath, but it didn't go anywhere. And why is that? To me, it's because it was not a priority, even of the members of Congress who are now claiming that this is top on their list.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That's my question. I mean, what took so long? I mean, clearly, the influence of your newspaper, the influence of your and your colleagues' reporting had a lot to do with this.

DANA PRIEST: Well, but we also have a two-party system now, in a sense, and I'm not being critical or not. I'm just saying that now you have a debate that you really didn't have. You have an opposition party close to a presidential election who can take this story and make it, force it to be heard in another forum, which is on Capitol Hill.

And that is exactly what they're doing. Whether the Republicans decided to downplay it because it was a Republican administration, I don't know, but that is a new dynamic in this town that can't be ignored.

New leadership at Walter Reed

Mark Benjamin
Salon.com
It's interesting who's going to take over Walter Reed. But I think it will be even more interesting to see what happens with these investigations that are going on.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark Benjamin, do you know anything -- how much do we know, I should put it that way, about Gen. Eric Schoomaker, who's been named the new head of Walter Reed?

MARK BENJAMIN: Well, it remains to be seen. I mean, what we do know is that he's inheriting a very, very difficult situation. And I wonder -- the most interesting thing about him taking that job, as we're discussing, is that the problem is not just Walter Reed.

So the person that's put in charge of Walter Reed is important, but these people report to civilian leaders at the Department of Defense. There is an assistance secretary of defense for health affairs. There's people that are in charge of readiness and personnel.

Those people set the policy, and the policy has led to a very broken system. So, you know, it's interesting who's going to take over Walter Reed. But I think it will be even more interesting to see what happens with these investigations that are going on.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, and we've also -- we haven't mentioned it just now, but a few days ago we reported that the assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, Dr. William Winkenwerder, is being replaced. Dana, can you add anything to that about why that's happened and who that replacement is?

DANA PRIEST: Well, again, I do think that it's a concern that's being felt now. Obviously, there's division over the war that is enabling or freeing up other people to be more critical than they perhaps would have been in the beginning.

So I do think the White House and the administration overall is trying to get -- trying to control this. It's spreading like wildfire.

You notice in the president's announcement of a commission, he's not just announcing a commission that will look at Walter Reed, and it's not just going to look at outpatient care. It's going to look at soup-to-nuts veterans, soldiers' treatments, and that will get him into the worst-kept secret of decades, which is the state of Veterans Administration hospitals.

So that is a story that's been out there, and reporters have picked at it now and again. But if they're really going to start to unravel that and to look at it, they're going to have that as the iceberg. And we'll see whether they really make good on their word to do that or not.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I want to ask the both of you, just quickly, if you had a chance to pose questions to Army officials, civilian officials at the Pentagon, what are just some of the questions you would want answers to?

MARK BENJAMIN: I would like to know exactly why this system is broken. I mean, it is so bad in so many places, this outpatient system, it almost seems like it couldn't be a mistake.

I mean, it is certainly saving the Pentagon a lot of money to have these people, you know, sent out of the hospital without proper compensation. I would like to know more about how this came about, and I hope that's one of the things these investigations will show.

How did we arrive at a place where I could be writing essentially the same story for four years straight about soldiers at outpatient -- excuse me, soldiers in a number of different locations having this problem, and nobody seems to do anything about it? How could it go on for so long?

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Dana, what would you want to know?

DANA PRIEST: Well, you know, the root of so much that we cover is money. And the question is, why isn't this funded to the extent that it needs to be funded?

The Veterans Administration hospitals, for instance, are always put in the supplemental budget. They're never part of the main budget, same with some of the issues that were affecting Walter Reed.

So what are they trying to do with that money shell game, in a way? They're trying not to own up to the fact that this is a costly thing to do right. And if we want to do that, you need to put it in the budget in a respectful way, in which people can look at it, and truth squad it, and decide whether that's right or not, and that it will stay there long enough, not just be a year-by-year appropriation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Dana Priest at the Washington Post, Mark Benjamin, with Salon.com, two reporters who have made a huge difference in getting the story out there. Thank you both.

MARK BENJAMIN: Thanks for having me.

DANA PRIEST: Thanks, Judy.