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American Forces Press Service

Army Chief, Surgeon General Address Walter Reed Issues

By Sgt. Sara Wood, USA
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, March 7, 2007 – Problems in the outpatient system at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and possibly at other Defense Department medical facilities should not tarnish the image of the military medical professionals who save lives every day, the Army chief of staff said here today.

Testifying before the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, Army Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker noted that most of the personnel at Walter Reed are real heroes who deal with some of the most challenging medical situations imaginable.

“I do believe that Walter Reed is a jewel, and it’s a jewel because of the people that are there providing the care,” Schoomaker said.

Speaking at the same hearing, Army Lt. Gen. Kevin C. Kiley, surgeon general of the Army, also praised the Army’s health care personnel. More than half the staff of the Army’s Medical Command have deployed at least once to combat, and they’re using brand-new technology on the battlefield that is improving care, he said.

The problems at Walter Reed, which have come to light since a series of Washington Post articles in February, relate to outpatient care and the bureaucracy of the transition from the DoD system to the Department of Veterans Affairs, Schoomaker said. These are problems that need to be dealt with on a high level, with long-term fixes that will address the varying aspects of each soldier’s case, he said.

Schoomaker compared the problems with the Army medical system to the now infamous Building 18 at Walter Reed, where a leaky roof caused mold and infestation problems in some soldiers’ rooms.

“We’ve fixed it 3 times, but the roof still leaks,” he said. “If we don’t fix the roof, it’s just going to come back. And that’s a metaphor for the big problem. We’ve got to address this not with mandates, but with real systemic solutions that put the microscope on this thing and come up with something that’s going to carry through over the long term.”

Kiley acknowledged that the medical boards and physical evaluation boards, which determine a wounded soldier’s duty status, are complex and confusing. The system is often adversarial and creates a sense that soldiers are not appreciated for their sacrifices, he said.

“We really need to reinvent the whole process, and I’m committed to it,” Kiley said.

One of the reasons the process takes so long is because soldiers cannot begin these boards until they are done with medical treatment, Schoomaker said. This treatment can last many months and can leave servicemembers in an outpatient status where they may feel forgotten, he said. He noted that the medical and physical evaluation board process, if done perfectly with no missed appointments or problems, would take 180 days.

Things can be done inside the Army to address this complex board process and the problems with differences between the DoD and VA, Kiley said. Army leaders are working together and looking at these issues now, he said.

The recent revelation of problems at Walter Reed made Schoomaker very angry, he said, but he is now turning his anger into action as the Army works to improve the system for wounded soldiers. Several commissions have been formed to look at the situation from the outside, he noted, and the Army is ready to respond to their recommendations. The Army also appointed a new commander at Walter Reed, Army Maj. Gen. Eric Schoomaker, the chief of staff’s brother.

Gen. Schoomaker said that he excused himself from the process of selecting the new commander to avoid a conflict of interest, but that he is confident in the abilities of Maj. Gen. Schoomaker. “I know him very well, and I know he’s going to do a great job, and I know he’s committed to doing it,” he said.

The Army is appointing a combat-arms brigadier general as deputy commander of Walter Reed, Schooomaker said.

The Army also has put a new brigade commander and command sergeant major, both with combat-arms backgrounds, in charge of the wounded warrior transition brigade at Walter Reed, Schoomaker said.

All the servicemembers will be moved out of Building 18 this week, and that building will be renovated, Kiley said. Schoomaker noted that the buildings at Walter Reed have all been given names instead of numbers, to avoid a cold, institutionalized approach to dealing with servicemembers.

“We’re very serious about this,” Schoomaker said. “There is no excuse. I’m not going to make any excuses for it, but we do have a huge challenge as we look forward, bigger than Walter Reed, mind you.”

The Army is committed to fixing not only the “brick and mortar” issues at Walter Reed, but also the issues dealing with the health and well-being of servicemembers, Kiley said.

“Nothing can allow us to be in a position where the soldiers on the battlefield have lost confidence in us as a medical system, and we’re going to regain that confidence immediately,” he said.

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