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U.S. Army fires head of Walter Reed Army Medical Center

By Robert Burns The Associated Press

WASHINGTON – The Army yesterday fired the general in charge of Walter Reed Army Medical Center, saying he was the wrong person to fix embarrassing failures in the treatment of war-injured soldiers that have soiled the institution’s reputation as a first-class hospital.

Less than a week after Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited Walter Reed and said those responsible would be “held accountable,” the Army announced it had relieved Maj. Gen. George W. Weightman of command. He is a physician who had headed the hospital for only six months.

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.” It said the decision to fire him was made by Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey.

The Army and the Defense Department began investigations after The Washington Post published stories last week that documented problems in soldiers’ housing and in the medical bureaucracy at Walter Reed, which has been called the Army’s premier caregiver for soldiers wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The problems at Walter Reed pertain not to the quality of medical care for wounded soldiers but rather to the treatment of those who are well enough to be outpatients, living in Army housing at Walter Reed. One building was singled out in the Post reports as being in bad repair, including having mold on interior walls.

Gates issued a brief statement yesterday endorsing Harvey’s action against Weightman.

“The care and welfare of our wounded men and women in uniform demand the highest standard of excellence and commitment that we can muster as a government,” Gates said. “When this standard is not met, I will insist on swift and direct corrective action and, where appropriate, accountability up the chain of command.”

The Senate Armed Services Committee plans a hearing Tuesday about the care, conditions and administration for outpatients at the medical center. One committee member, Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., said Weightman’s dismissal was a start. “My sense is that whatever responsibility he shares is not his alone and that they have to look carefully at others,” Reed said.

It was not clear whether Gates insisted on Weightman’s firing, but a Pentagon official said he had been actively involved in the decision.

Weightman is the highest-ranking Army general to be sacked since Gen. Kevin Byrnes was dismissed as commander of Army Training and Doctrine Command in 2005 for an alleged adulterous affair.

In an interview with several reporters two days before the first Post story was published, Weightman acknowledged shortcomings at Walter Reed but also said the problems were magnified because of the facility’s location in the nation’s capital. “We’re a fishbowl,” he said, noting that being in Washington makes it easier for complaining patients and their families to draw the interest of members of Congress.

An outside panel of former military officials and former congressmen, set up last week by Gates, held its first meeting yesterday at the Pentagon. Headed by two former Army secretaries, Togo West and Jack Marsh, the panel is reviewing treatment and administrative processes at Walter Reed and at the National Naval Medical Center at Bethesda, Md. It is supposed to report its findings and recommendations by April 16.

The panel’s charter, released yesterday, identifies its main goal as finding the “critical shortcomings” in rehabilitative care, administrative processes and quality of life for injured and sick troops, and to recommend how to fix the problems.

The Army has acknowledged problems with the system it uses to evaluate wounded soldiers in determining whether they are well enough to return to active duty.

At a breakfast meeting with reporters yesterday, in which he refused to discuss any aspect of the Walter Reed investigations, Harvey said the Army also was reviewing conditions at its medical centers elsewhere in the country. He would not be more specific.

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.

Weightman’s duties at Walter Reed will be assumed temporarily by Lt. Gen. Kevin Kiley, the commander of U.S. Medical Command, until a permanent replacement is found, Harvey said.

Last week the Army took disciplinary action against four lower-level soldiers at Walter Reed, including one junior officer, but officials have declined to publicly confirm any details of those actions.

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