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Congressional panel told of shoddy care at Walter Reed

WASHINGTON—The faces of the scandal over the treatment of wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center appeared before a congressional panel Monday.

Annette McLeod, whose husband suffered a brain injury when he was hit by a steel door in Iraq, said the Army tried to blame his mental problems on the fact that he needed extra help with math and reading while in grammar school.

The hospital kept putting up roadblocks to his treatment, she said. On his test for traumatic brain injury, they said "he didn't try hard enough," McLeod said.

"This is how we treat our soldiers," she said angrily, her voice breaking. "They're good enough to sacrifice their lives, but we give them nothing."

Staff Sgt. John Daniel Shannon, who lost his left eye and received a brain injury after he was shot near the Iraqi city of Ramadi, told lawmakers that once at Walter Reed, he was basically abandoned.

"The system can't be trusted," he said.

The generals in charge were apologetic, even as several said they were unaware of the conditions that blackened the reputation of the Army's premier medical facility.

"I couldn't be madder; I couldn't be more embarrassed," said Gen. Peter Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff. "I'm ashamed."

"I'm personally and professionally sorry," said Lt. Gen. Kevin C. Kiley, who headed Walter Reed before becoming the Army surgeon general. "Simply put, I'm in command and I share these failures."

Maj. Gen. George W. Weightman, who took over the hospital in August and was fired last week, said, "You can't fail one of these soldiers. Not one. ... And we did."

Weightman, who some in Congress believe has been made a scapegoat for the problems, at one point turned to the McLeods and apologized for "not meeting their expectations. I promise we will do better."

The House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee held the hearing at Walter Reed, where some combat-wounded outpatients were housed in squalor and had to battle the Army bureaucracy for their disability benefits. Other House and Senate panels, along with similar questions about the Department of Veterans Affairs' treatment of wounded veterans, are certain to hold more on Capitol Hill as the issue crackles like lightning in political and military circles.

The hearing came in response to recent Washington Post reports that the hospital housed some of its wounded outpatients in a bug- and rodent-infested building, known as Building 18. Mold grew on the walls, security was compromised and utilities weren't always working. The online magazine Salon first reported the problems more than a year ago.

"It was unforgivable," said Spc. Jeremy Duncan, who lost his left ear and the vision in his left eye and suffered other wounds when a roadside bomb exploded near him. "It wasn't fit for anybody to live in a room like that."

The 17 lawmakers, plus aides, were squeezed onto the stage behind a long table in a small hospital auditorium. Above them hung the Walter Reed motto: "We provide warrior care."

Democratic Rep. John Tierney, D-Mass., who chaired the hearing, called the conditions "appalling."

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

But Tierney added that the housing problems were "only the tip of the iceberg," a phrase that panel members used repeatedly.

McLeod said the Army never told her that her husband, Spc. Wendell W. McLeod Jr., was injured while he was taking inventory on a food transport truck in Iraq. She learned about it from him.

She became his advocate: "I was very persistent. I went to generals, anybody who would listen to me."

Still, she said, "My life was ripped apart the day that my husband was injured."

McLeod, Duncan and Shannon described a system in which the injured have to justify their wounds in order to earn their disability payments. They said that Army medical personnel can diagnose their conditions, but case managers can question the diagnoses, prolonging their ordeal.

Paperwork gets lost, appointments get postponed and decisions get delayed, they added.

"Too often, wounded soldiers are poorly served and fall through the cracks," Cynthia Bascetta, a Government Accountability Office health care investigator, told the hearing.

Several generals said they were unaware of reports from both the GAO and the media in recent years that have detailed the problems that wounded soldiers often face.

Kiley said that the "bricks and mortar" issues, such as Building 18, can be easily fixed, and that most of the soldiers have been moved out. But the system for helping the wounded needs to be "less confrontational, less adversarial," he said. "We really need to reinvent this process."

Several lawmakers were skeptical. They said the Army has promised in the past to fix problems, only for Congress to later learn that little was done.

"What makes this round of problems any different?" said Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va. "These are heroes, and they're languishing."

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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