The US army's embattled medical chief apologized Monday to lawmakers for longstanding problems that made care at a showcase army hospital a bureaucratic nightmare for soldiers wounded in Iraq.
Lieutenant General Kevin Kiley, the army surgeon general, said he was sorry for the shabby living conditions of convalescing soldiers at Walter Reed Medical Center and acknowledged there was an urgent need to simplify procedures.
"Simply put, I am in command," he said in testimony before a House subcommittee. "And as I share these failures, I also accept the responsibility and the challenge for rapid corrective action."
Army Secretary Francis Harvey was sacked last week by Defense Secretary Robert Gates because of the army leadership's failure to take seriously problems uncovered at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in a series of Washington Post stories.
Gates was surprised and upset that Harvey named Kiley to be temporary commander of the hospital after its current chief Major General George Weightman was relieved of command last week.
The Post had reported that Kiley knew of the problems at the hospital from the time he was its commander from 2003 to 2004, but did nothing to correct them.
Walter Reed is a renowned army specialty hospital and rehabilitates thousands of amputees and war wounded from Iraq and Afghanistan.
In a series of stories, the Post found that wounded soldiers were living in a building with mold-covered walls, infestations of mice and cockroaches, and holes in the ceiling.
It detailed how soldiers were often lost in the system without medical follow-ups or waiting up to 18 months for a decision on whether they would be returned to duty or discharged with a medical disability.
Republican Representative Tom Davis suggested the problem could be widespread and reach far beyond the Walter Reed medical center.
"It's a paperwork nightmare. It's a labyrinth that you'd need a Ph.D. in law degree and you still couldn't navigate yourself through," Davis said.
"I'm afraid this is just the tip of the iceberg; that, when we got out into the field, we may find more of this," he said.
The army's two top military leaders -- army chief of staff General Peter Schoomaker and vice chief of Staff General Richard Cody -- were asked when they learned about the problems at the hospital and what they did about it.
"The first thing that pops into my mind is where have you been, where has all the brass been?" said Representative John Tierney, the committee chairman. "Clearly this can't all be pushed down to the lower level."
Schoomaker shot back: "I'm not going to sit here and have anyone tell me we don't care."
The army chief then conceded that problems with outpatient care at the hospital had been anticipated, but said he did not know of a stream of reports about poor conditions and bureaucratic red tape at Walter Reed.
Cody said he was aware of problems arising from wounded soldiers being put on "medical hold" while awaiting decisions on whether they should be medically discharged.
"Each time I heard about these problems, they were being addressed," he said.
He added that the scope of the problem exploded in 2004 when the number of soldiers put on medical hold went from 6,000 a year to 11,000.
Kiley also admitted that he knew of the bureaucratic problems at the hospital.
"But I was the next higher commander. I had a two-star commander in command managing Walter Reed as well as the North Atlantic region," he said.
Testifying in the same hearing, Weightman said many of the problems identified were "individually fixed immediately."
"But we obviously missed the big picture," he said.
Some lawmakers questioned whether Weightman who had been in command since last summer was taking more than his share of the blame.
"Either one of you want to tell me why he got the axe and why the others walk on the earth today?" Tierney asked Schoomaker and Cody.
"The reason is because these issues hadn't been surfaced. And General Weightman was in the position of accountability and responsibility," Schoomaker said.
"And the secretary of the army didn't have trust and confidence in him and relieved him. And I support that," he said.