WASHINGTON – Lawmakers promised a quick response and sought an independent commission as they expressed outrage over the poor conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center for soldiers wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"I'm worried about if it's this bad at the outpatient facilities at Walter Reed, how is it in the rest of the country? Because Walter Reed is our crown jewel," said Democrat Senator Charles Schumer.
In a letter Sunday to Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Sunday, Schumer asked for an independent commission, possibly headed by former Secretary of State Colin Powell, to investigate all post-combat medical facilities and recommend changes.
"To think that men and women are serving their country in the most honorable and courageous way possible and all we give them is a dilapidated, rat-infested, run-down building to recover is a disgrace," Schumer wrote. "My fear is that Walter Reed is just the tip of the iceberg, and merely highlights the pervasive and systemic mistreatment of our service members."
President George W. Bush last week ordered a comprehensive review of conditions at America's network of military and veteran hospitals. They have been overwhelmed by injured troops from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The White House said the president would name a bipartisan commission to assess whether the problems at Walter Reed exist at other facilities. Last week, Gates created an outside panel to review the situation at Walter Reed and the other major military hospital in the Washington area, the National Naval Medical Center at Bethesda, Maryland.
Gates also dismissed Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey, who had fired the medical center's previous commander, Maj. Gen. George Weightman, and replaced him with Lt. Gen. Kevin Kiley, the Army's surgeon general and a former commander of Walter Reed. Gates said that Harvey's response was not aggressive enough.
The Army announced that Maj. Gen. Eric B. Schoomaker will be the new commander of Walter Reed, which is in Washington.
The moves came in response to a series of Washington Post reports about substandard conditions and bureaucratic problems affecting the care of injured soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan to Walter Reed, one of the military's highest-profile and busiest medical facilities, and its outpatient facilities.
The reports embarrassed the Army and the Bush administration at a time when the White House is scrambling to shore up eroding support for the Iraq war. They have prompted numerous calls in the newly Democratic Congress for more information, and sullied the reputation of what is supposed to be one of the military's foremost medical centers.
Senator Carl Levin, a Democrat, said the scandal is emblematic of the Bush administration.
"I believe this disgraceful neglect has been the result of two things. One is a lack of accountability," said Levin, who is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "Almost no high-level people have ever been held accountable until Secretary Gates came along."
Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, also praised Gates' quick response. "He's taken action, and not only low-level people but high-level people have been replaced, and I think that's welcome action."
Republican Senator Trent Lott said he probably would support a commission such as what Schumer proposes. "Investigations are not always the best way to go, but I think we ought to do whatever's necessary," he said.
Lott said the revelations show that Bush and Congress should take a look at all Veterans Affairs hospitals and military hospitals to be sure they are providing adequate services.
"It is indefensible and appalling," Lott said. "Why didn't we know more and do more? I'm not, you know, trying to fix blame. I want to know how we're going to fix it."