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Lawmakers Open Hearings Into Conditions At Walter Reed

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WASHINGTON (AP) _ Substandard living conditions found at the Army's flagship veterans hospital likely exist throughout the military health care system, the head of a House panel investigating Walter Reed Army Medical Center said Monday.

``We need a sustained focus here, and much more needs to be done,'' Rep. John Tierney said of a scandal enveloping Walter Reed. Charges of bureaucratic delays and poor treatment there have produced calls in Congress for quick reform.

Tierney said he is afraid ``these problems go well beyond the walls of Walter Reed,'' adding that ``as we send more and more troops into Iraq and Afghanistan, these problems are only going to get worse, not better.''

The hearing brought an apology from the Army's No. 2 civilian. ``We have let some soldiers down,'' said Peter Geren, undersecretary of the Army.

As Congress held its first hearing on the scandal at the medical center itself, Tierney, D-Mass., questioned whether problems at the facility are ``just another horrific consequence'' of inadequate planning that went into war in Iraq; a problem created by contracting out work there to private business, or some other cause.

``This is absolutely the wrong way to treat our troops, and serious reforms need to happen... immediately,'' he said.

Tierney chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee's national security panel, which held the hearing Monday in the hospital's auditorium. The list of Army officials, hospital staff and patients invited to speak includes the medical center's previous commander, Maj. Gen. George Weightman.

Geren, who will become acting Army secretary later this week, told the panel that the revelations of poor conditions at Walter Reed had hurt the Army. Defense Secretary Robert Gates forced Army Secretary Francis Harvey to resign last week and he leaves his post on Friday.

``There's a vow that's part of the soldier's creed: I will never leave a fallen comrade,'' he said. ``That's the -- on the battlefield, in a hospital, as an outpatient. That is the part of our soul of every soldier. And anytime that vow is broken, I can tell you it hurts the heart of the Army''

Lawmakers listened closely as several patients came to the hearing with stories of lax or poor treatment at Walter Reed:

Staff Sgt. John Daniel Shannon, who lost his left eye and suffered traumatic brain injuries from a rifle wound, said that after he was discharged from Walter Reed, he was given a map of the grounds and eventually found his way to outpatient quarters by wandering around and asking for directions.

Then, he says, he ``sat in my room for a couple of weeks wondering when someone would contact'' him about continuing treatment.

``My biggest concern is having young men and women who have had their lives shattered in service to their country ... get taken care of,'' Shannon said.

Annette McLeod told the committee that her husband, Cpl. Wendell McLeod, was originally sent to the wrong hospital after he was hit in the head with a steel door in Iraq and also suffered a head injury.

Once at Walter Reed, she said, he suffered delays in getting outpatient tests and treatment.

``My life was ripped apart the day that my husband was injured,'' she told the panel tearfully. The experience at Walter Reed made it ``worse than anything I've had to sacrifice in my life.''

``This is absolutely the wrong way to treat our troops, and serious reforms need to happen ... immediately,'' Tierney said.

Addressing war veterans on Monday, Vice President Dick Cheney promised that the problems at Walter Reed will be fixed.

``There will be no excuses _ only action,'' Cheney told a gathering of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. ``And the federal bureaucracy will not slow that action down.''

In a letter Sunday to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., asked for an independent commission, possibly headed by former Secretary of State Colin Powell, to investigate all post-combat medical facilities and recommend changes. President Bush last week had ordered a comprehensive review of conditions.

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, Md.

Gates also dismissed Harvey, who had fired Weightman and replaced him with Lt. Gen. Kevin Kiley, the Army's surgeon general and a former commander of Walter Reed. Gates said 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. In addition, the Army took disciplinary action against several lower-level soldiers at Walter Reed.

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.
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