WASHINGTON – A top Army commander was relieved of his command at Walter Reed Army Medical Center on Thursday after senior officials said they lost trust and confidence in his leadership abilities to address injured soldier care at military medical facilities.
Army Maj. Gen. George W. Weightman leaves his post as two-star general of the North Atlantic Regional Medical Command and Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
In a brief announcement, the Army said service leaders had "lost trust and confidence" in Weightman's leadership abilities "to address needed solutions for soldier outpatient care" at Walter Reed.
The change comes on the same day that an independent panel reviewing allegations of poor quality-of-life conditions at two military medical facilities treating soldiers injured in Iraq and Afghanistan plans to meet for the first time.
Lt. Gen. Kevin Kiley, commanding General of U.S. Army Medical Command, will be acting as Weightman's temporary replacement.
"We'll fix as we go; we'll fix as we find things wrong," said Secretary of the Army Dr. Francis J. Harvey in recent comments in the press release. "Soldiers are the heart of our Army and the quality of their medical care is non-negotiable."
Being relieved of command means Weightman is almost certain to have lost his future in the Army.
A native of Vermont, he graduated from West Point in 1973 and got his medical degree from the University of Vermont. He later served as the surgeon for the 82nd Airborne Division, including during Desert Storm.
He has held a number of medical commands, including service as a leading surgeon during the initial stages of the Iraq war.
The panel will visit the Pentagon and will receive free and unrestricted access to Walter Reed and the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. Its report is expected in 45 days.
Officials were forced to respond after news articles drew concerns of a deteriorating environment at the 113-acre institution that helps soldiers recover from injuries. Building 18, a facility that houses hundreds of soldiers recovering from battle wounds, was reported to have mold and soiled carpets as well as mouse and cockroach infestations, among other problems.
President Bush is aware of the decision to relieve Weightman of his command, White House spokesman Tony Fratto said.
"We certainly support the decision to fix the problems at Walter Reed," Fratto said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi promised on Thursday to place the matter as an urgent priority and address the problems in the upcoming supplemental appropriations bill for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Congressional hearings are also planned for next week.
"Our wounded military personnel and combat veterans deserve nothing less than the best care, but the continuing revelations at Walter Reed Army Medical Center show a troubling trend," Pelosi said in a statement.
On the Senate side, Democratic Sens. Barack Obama and Claire McCaskill are pushing legislation to insure injured soldiers returning from the two war fronts receive appropriate care, including improvements to facilities and procedures and services related to outpatient care for wounded and recovering service members at active military hospitals.
"We need to be aggressive about peeling away the layers and finding some accountability in the system. We need to not just take the word of the command. We have to dig down deeper and talk to the men and women who are living in this system," McCaskill said.
House and Senate lawmakers will hold hearings next week on the issue. Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson told the House Budget Committee that the conditions are "absolutely unacceptable."
Former Army secretaries Togo West and Jack Marsh are leading the investigative review panel and will have unrestricted access into outpatient issues at Walter Reed, the military said. Defense Secretary Robert Gates promised last week to improve conditions after The Washington Post reported the decrepit state of the hospital.
Army officials said last week that they were appalled by the conditions, and had they known they would have acted sooner. But family members, veterans groups and lawmakers say they first warned the Army's surgeon general as well as other top officials about outpatient neglect more than three years, a report in The Washington Post revealed Thursday.
The Pentagon wouldn't comment on the Post report, but Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England told the Senate Budget Committee on Thursday that Gates is "pretty much outraged as we all are. We are going to take whatever action we need to do and that is anything we need to do." He said the panel will review whether the conditions are systemic or an anomaly.
Spokesman Bryan Whitman said the review panel will have full access to facilities and personnel. The Army, however, has apparently told veterans at Building 18 not to speak with reporters on site. They are still free, however, to meet with anyone they want off campus.
According to a report in the Army Times, some soldiers say officials told them not to talk to reporters and to wake up at 6 a.m. to be ready for room inspections at 7 a.m.
“Some soldiers believe this is a form of punishment for the trouble soldiers caused by talking to the media,” one Medical Hold Unit soldier, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told the newspaper.
FOX News Mike Emmanuel and Nick Simeone and The Associated Press contributed to this report.