“Were they there?” was how Annette McLeod replied when Congress Henry Waxman asked her what she had to say to the Army leaders now that the facts of the deplorable conditions at Walter Reed’s out patient facilities were out in the open.
Mrs. McLeod, whose husband, Wendell, was seriously wounded and stationed at Walter Reed for months of recovery, told the congressional committed that she had worked the chain of command as best she could, but and had not gotten the answers nor the treatment that her husband deserved. “My life was ripped apart the day my husband was injured, and having to live through the mess we’ve had to live through at Walter Reed has been worse than anything I’ve had to sacrifice in my life.” [Source: New York Times ]
Last February the Washington Post did a series of stories on the deplorable conditions that existed in the out patient facilities that were run down and in poor conditions, infested with mice, cockroaches and mold. Worse, many patients, including those with brain injuries and others suffering from PTSD, were housed in outlying sub standard facilities. Some, including amputees in wheelchairs, were required to make a half mile trek back and forth to the hospital for prescriptions or treatment. Obviously some veterans were too ill or weak to make it, and simply ceased getting proper treatment.
Lt. General Kevin Kiley, M.D., who had been in charge of Walter Reed until 2004 and now the Army Surgeon General, was asked by the Congressional committee if he had known conditions were so bad in the outpatient facilities. “I don’t do barracks inspections at Walter Reed,” was his reply. In fact, shortly after the story broke in the Post, Kiley adopted the “Rumsfeld defense” – so named for the former Secretary of Defense who favored attacking the messenger. Kiley criticized the reporters rather than owning up to the story. The Post reported was not new to the brass; stories of poor conditions had been circulating in military circles for years. As waves of injured from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan kept pouring in, military families began to complain of the poor out patient treatment. In some instances, soldiers were warned to keep quiet by their immediate supervisors. [Source: Washington Post]
So when crises like these occur what can leaders do?
Own up to the problem. “Don’t turn a one day story into a two-day one,” was a mantra that the late Don Canham, long time athletic director at the University of Michigan, followed. When problems occur, bring them out in the open. To his credit, Robert Gates, the newly installed Secretary of Defense, came on television and praised the Post for its coverage. He assumed responsibility and promised quick action.
Hold people accountable. The axe fell on the Secretary of the Army, Francis Harvey, who resigned and on General George Weightman, M.D., who was the commander of Walter Reed. When people fail to perform there must be consequences. The Army deserves credit for going after the big fish first; often in some powerful institutions they are the last to be caught. But when you hold the folks at the top responsible you send a powerful message throughout the organization that there will be consequences for failure.
Own the problem. “There will be no excuses, only action,” said Vice President Dick Cheney. Senior military leaders have followed that lead with promises of swift action to follow. In fact, Building 18, the most notorious of the facilities at Walter Reed, has been undergoing swift rehabilitation. Still there may be legions more problems at other VA facilities. It will take concerted leadership and active involvement of leaders to root out the problem and keep pushing for change.
Operate in the open. When problems have occurred, you want a leader who rolls up his sleeves and grabs a shovel. “I command by commanding through my commanders and trusting them to execute the mission,” said Kiley. Under normal circumstances that is appropriate, but when problems occur, leaders need to be actively engaged in making things right. The new leadership at Walter Reed, or any institution under fire, that wants to restore credibility will have to be front, center and visible everywhere. They must install trusted associates who will be crawling through crevices to make certain that the institution is following through on its promises. [Source: Washington Post]
Those in command at Walter Reed who allowed the terrible conditions to persist have tarnished the reputation of the jewel of the military medical establishment. In patient care is the among the best in the world; it is why civilian government leaders go there for treatment. The physicians, nurses, therapists and aides who work there are a dedicated lot who daily provide the best care and do it with care and compassion. Walter Reed will, of course, survive but when leaders fail so dramatically we will always have questions.
Ironically, not all blame was deserved. Columnist [Source: Dana Milbank ] of the Post reported that General Weightman seemed be the wrong place at the wrong time. Even Mrs. McLeod says so. “Mr. Weightman… was just shoved into a situation that was already there, and because somebody had to be the fall guy.” Weightman did not shirk responsibility and assumed blame for the “failure of leadership.” He apologized in public and personally to the McLeod family who were present during his testimony to Congress.
Accountability is paramount. When a senior official of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, was asked by a reporter for NPR’s Morning Edition whom he held accountable for what had occurred at Walter Reed, he replied: “The President and the Congress.” The buck always goes to the top. Getting it to stop there and holding people accountable, however, is a different matter. Process and procedure may address the problem, but we can never forget the individuals. Undoing the harm done to the McLeod family and many more like them may never be possible, but senior leaders can resolve and follow through to make certain that others do not suffer as they have done. But if they recall Mrs. McLeod’s question – “Where were they?” it might orient their priorities properly.
[Note: On March 12, 2007, it was announced that General Kevin Kiley had retired as Army Surgeon General.]
Quotes and facts came from Michael Luo “Soldiers Testify to Lawmakers Over Poor Care At Walter Reed” New York Times 3.06.07; Dana Milbank “Two Generals Provide a Contrast in Accountability” Washington Post 3.06.07; Morning Edition National Public Radio 3.06.07; “Witness slams ‘nightmares’ of Army medical system” CNN.com 3.05.06