Robert Gates, America's new Defense secretary, deserves a crisp salute for his response so far to reports of shoddy treatment of outpatient soldiers at Walter Reed, a showcase Army hospital. But those wounded who have served need meaningful follow-up.
Mr. Gates set the right tone, made the correct observations, and took the appropriate steps in the days following Washington Post articles on Feb. 18 and 19. The stories revealed the frustrations of soldiers back from Iraq and Afghanistan – outpatients tangled in endless bureaucracy and living with mold, rot, and mice.
As the first week of fallout drew to a close, Gates told the media he counted himself among those military who "feel very strongly ... about this because this is about our family." He's right about the soldiers being family, and much of the country no doubt feels the same. People may disagree about the war, but unlike some instances in the Vietnam era, they strongly support the men and women fighting it – which is why this story resonates not only in Washington but coast to coast.
In almost the next breath Gates added, "we're determined to fix it and fix it fast." (See story)
He acted quickly. Within hours of the stories, repairmen were scraping mold and repairing plaster – a PR move, perhaps, but a response. Within two weeks, the commander of Walter Reed – and his temporary successor – were out and replaced, the Army secretary had been forced to resign, and Gates announced an independent panel to investigate and report back within 45 days. He was topped by President Bush, who promised a commission to look at the whole range of care for the wounded, from the time they leave the battlefield through their lives as veterans. Congress is also roused, holding hearings this week.
The main problem, Gates observed, is military leadership. "Some have shown too much defensiveness and have not shown enough focus on digging into and addressing the problems." That's welcome candor at a Pentagon that has taken a defensive posture on several high-profile issues – from the friendly-fire death of US football pro Pat Tillman to finger-pointing at low-ranking soldiers in the Abu Ghraib scandal to characterizing the Iraq war itself.
Gates actually expressed gratitude to "reporters for bringing this problem to our attention," then added that he was "very disappointed we did not identify it ourselves."
And therein lies the core of this challenge. Outpatients and their families, veterans groups, and members of Congress complained of patient neglect to top officials at Walter Reed, including the Army's surgeon general, for more than three years. Some corrective steps were taken, but obviously, not enough. And beyond the Pentagon's medical centers lies a huge network of Veterans Affairs hospitals and clinics that is also overburdened – an open secret reported on by the media.
Combat in Afghanistan and Iraq is producing a new generation of war wounded. Their needs will stretch over decades. In the wake of Walter Reed, no leader in Washington can now claim ignorance. The money, the staff, and the proper facilities must be provided to give these soldiers and vets the care they deserve.•