Hearings expose privatization, red tape nightmare at Walter Reed

WASHINGTON — Wounded soldiers and a soldier’s wife told a congressional hearing March 5 of their daily ordeal to get help at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, even as a memo released by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) exposed sharp staff cutbacks by a private contractor at the Army’s flagship medical complex.

With tears streaming down her cheeks, Annette McLeod, wife of U.S. Army Cpl. Wendell McLeod Jr., told of her husband leaving for Iraq a healthy man and returning with a brain injury that has left him severely disabled. Yet screeners at Walter Reed, she charged, attempted to deny him disability benefits, claiming he is suffering from a “preexisting condition” and that he “didn’t try hard enough” when given diagnostic tests.

“My life was ripped apart by what happened at Walter Reed,” she told the House Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs which convened the daylong hearing at Walter Reed’s main auditorium. “This is how we treat our soldiers. They go to fight, put their lives on the line, and when they return they get zero percent,” she said.

Spec. Jeremy Duncan lost an ear and vision in his left eye and suffered a broken neck from the explosion of a roadside bomb. When he arrived at Walter Reed he was assigned to the infamous Building 18 with mouse droppings, dead roaches, mildew and holes in the ceiling. “It wasn’t fit for anyone to live in a room like that,” he testified. “That’s when I contacted The Washington Post.”

Staff Sgt. John Shannon, wearing an eye patch with a purple heart embroidered on it, said he was designated an outpatient five days after he arrived gravely wounded from Iraq. The Pentagon brass should “pull themselves up by their bootstraps and admit to their mistakes and work to fix them until they’re fired,” he said.

Several lawmakers zeroed in on a memo written by Walter Reed Garrison Commander Peter Garibaldi in September 2006, describing how the privatization of support services at Walter Reed caused an exodus of “highly skilled and experienced personnel.” His memo warned that “patient care services are at risk of mission failure.”

In January 2006, Walter Reed awarded a five-year $120 million contract to IAP Worldwide Services, a Florida-based firm that won notoriety for failing its contract to deliver ice to the Gulf Coast devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

The company is headed by Al Neffgen, a former Halliburton executive who testified before Waxman’s committee in July 2004 in defense of Halliburton’s exorbitant charges for troop support and fuel delivery in Iraq.

Outrage at the Walter Reed scandal is spreading across the nation, exposing the demagogy of Bush’s “support the troops” slogan. U.S. Army veteran Ellen Barfield, leader of the Baltimore Chapter of Veterans for Peace, has stood vigil outside Walter Reed repeatedly since the Iraq war began. “They are privatizing everything,” she told the World. “But it is particularly evil to put captive people like wounded soldiers or seniors at the mercy of those whose bottom line is to make a profit. If you do that, then of course people are going to suffer.”

Rep. Waxman, chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, wrote a letter to Major Gen. George Weightman, asking him to explain the Garibaldi memo when he testified in the March 5 hearing. Weightman had just been fired as commander of Walter Reed.

“According to multiple sources,” Waxman wrote, “the decision to privatize support services at Walter Reed led to a precipitous drop in support personnel at Walter Reed” from more than 300 federal employees to under 60. “Yet instead of hiring additional personnel, IAP apparently replaced the remaining 60 federal employees with only 50 IAP personnel,” Waxman wrote. “The conditions that have been described at Walter Reed are disgraceful.”

In his cross examination of Weightman and Army Surgeon General Kevin Kiley, Waxman declared, “We’ve contracted out so much in this war. We have mercenaries instead of U.S. military. We are in Iraq overpaying for the work of contractors and here we’re under-serving our military.”

Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), the District of Columbia’s nonvoting delegate, pointed out that she represents the workers at Walter Reed. “I have employees coming to me because I represent Walter Reed. My question goes to the wisdom of privatizing everything except clinical [services] in the middle of a war. Would it have been better not to privatize the entire garrison workforce when you surely would have known it would scatter the workforce?”

Kiley glumly replied, “It did increase the instability.” Weightman interjected, “Absolutely.”

The decision to privatize aggravated an earlier decision by the Bush administration to close Walter Reed down permanently by 2011 and build a new $10 billion joint military medical center eight miles away. Hundreds of doctors and other skilled medical personnel left Walter Reed for jobs elsewhere.

Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa) asked Kiley, “Do we have any business closing Walter Reed?” Kiley replied, “I made my recommendation against closing it. It was decided by the Secretary of Defense [Rumsfeld]. The president approved it.”

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