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Originally published Saturday, March 3, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Army secretary booted over Walter Reed mess

Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Friday forced the Army secretary to resign and President Bush vowed to investigate accusations of substandard...

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Friday forced the Army secretary to resign and President Bush vowed to investigate accusations of substandard treatment of wounded soldiers as his administration scrambled to contain fallout from a scandal over squalid housing and delays in outpatient care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

The Army also named Maj. Gen. Eric Schoomaker as the new commander for Walter Reed one day after picking Lt. Gen. Kevin Kiley, who had previously commanded Walter Reed, as the temporary chief.

Kiley's selection had angered soldiers and family groups — and more importantly, Gates — because of their belief that he had been aware of problems at the hospital and done little to address them.

Kiley is the current Army surgeon general.

Gates made little secret of his dismay when he appeared Friday to announce the resignation of Army Secretary Francis Harvey, who had been in the job since November 2004.

Pentagon officials indicated Harvey, 63, had been forced to resign because Gates was angry with how the Army handled accusations of poor care detailed in Washington Post stories that also were published in The Seattle Times.

The Post stories documented squalid living conditions for some outpatient soldiers at Walter Reed and bureaucratic problems that prevented many troops from getting adequate care.

The facility's commander, Maj. Gen. George Weightman, was fired Thursday; last week, a captain and several lower-level soldiers were reassigned.

"I am disappointed that some in the Army have not adequately appreciated the seriousness of the situation pertaining to outpatient care at Walter Reed," Gates said.

Later, in an interview, Harvey appeared apologetic and defensive. "It's inexcusable to have soldiers in that type of building," he said, explaining why he resigned.

But he also said the Post stories lacked balance. "Where's the other side of the story?" he said, his voice rising. "Two articles in your paper have ruined the career of General Weightman, who is a very decent man, and then a captain ... and the secretary of the Army. If that satisfies the populace, maybe this will stop further dismissals."

Asked if Gates prodded him to leave, Harvey acknowledged the secretary wasn't happy with the way the Army handled the matter. But he said he had been thinking about stepping down for a few days and "I submitted my resignation."

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His last day in the job will be Friday.

The Army secretary is the service's top civilian official. He commands no troops. Along with the four-star general who is Army chief of staff, the secretary has statutory responsibility for training and equipping the Army. That includes responsibility for budgeting, recruiting and other personnel and resource policies.

Earlier Friday, the White House said Bush would soon name a commission to look into whether there are similar problems at other military and veterans hospitals.

Administration officials took the unusual step of releasing early the text of Bush's regular Saturday radio address, in which the president will vow to ensure that the government meets the physical and mental-health needs of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Political repercussions

The developments Friday highlighted the anger at the highest levels of the administration over the problems at Walter Reed and the political danger for the White House.

Veterans groups remain among the few strong supporters of the war and have been an important part of the president's political base, yet they — along with military families — have been outraged since the problems at Walter Reed became public two weeks ago.

Joe Davis, spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said the reports had angered members across the country and the group hopes Vice President Dick Cheney will address the issue when he speaks to its legislative conference Monday. "Nobody would believe the military would do this to their wounded," said Davis. "We want accountability."

Democrats in Congress have denounced the administration for what they call insufficient attention to the needs of returning soldiers. At least two committees are moving to investigate the Walter Reed situation. Friday, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform issued a subpoena to compel Weightman to testify at a hearing Monday.

Problems cited in memo

The committee also released an internal Army memorandum reportedly written in September in which the Walter Reed garrison commander, Col. Peter Garibaldi, warned Weightman that "patient care services are at risk of mission failure" because of staff shortages brought on by privatization of the support work force at the hospital.

Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., a member of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee and a close ally of leading war critic Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., said Bush's proposed new commission was too little, too late.

"This has been six years, and now six years later, after an awful lot of neglect, he's going to get around to putting a commission together, a study to tell him what to do," Moran said.

White House officials said politics played no role in their decision to form the commission, saying Bush was outraged by the conditions at Walter Reed, which officials indicated he only learned about from the recent news reports.

The new commander for Walter Reed is Schoomaker, 58, currently commander of the U.S. Army Medical Research and Material Command at Fort Detrick, Md., home to biological-weapons-defense research. He is the younger brother of Gen. Peter Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff.

It appears he has his work cut out for him. On Friday, soldiers living in Building 18, the site of the worst problems, were told to pack their things so Walter Reed could properly renovate the dank structure besieged by mold, leaks and rot. Some of the wounded were moved to another building on post while others were driven to a nearby hotel.

One soldier who has been living in Building 18 for 16 months waiting to be treated for back problems was told to report to barracks in Fort Meade, Md., according to his father.

The injured soldier arrived at Fort Meade on Friday afternoon with his gear but was unable to move into his new accommodations; the building at Fort Meade had no elevator and the soldier could not climb the stairs.

Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.

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