WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Feb. 23, 2007) - Injured American troops should not return home to battle the bureaucracies of a broken outpatient health care system, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told reporters at Walter Reed Army Medical Center here today.

Gates' comments came after surveying repairs at the center's outpatient facility Building 18, where reported maintenance and administrative problems catapulted the center into the national spotlight this week.

Gates toured the facility with Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Navy Adm. Edmund P. Giambastiani.

"Like many Americans, I was dismayed to learn this past week that some of our injured troops were not getting the best possible treatment at all stages of their recovery - in particular, their outpatient care. This is unacceptable, and it will not continue," Gates said.

Gates said he is thankful reports brought the conditions to light, but disappointed that officials did not discover them beforehand.

No wounded servicemember should have inadequate care, he said.

"They should not have to recuperate in substandard housing, nor should they be expected to tackle mountains of paperwork and bureaucratic processes during this difficult period for themselves and their families," he said.

"They battled our foreign enemies; they should not have to battle American bureaucracy," Gates said.

Gates echoed senior military officials' comments earlier this week that no complaints or reports faulted the medical care of the servicemembers. The complaints primarily focused on outpatient care and cited poor living conditions, uncompleted maintenance work orders, and delays and mix-ups in the recordkeeping and personnel systems.

There is too much work for the dedicated case workers there, Gates said. He added that many are overwhelmed and work nights and weekends trying to keep up with the workload.

Gates announced that an independent review group will look at all rehabilitative care and administrative processes at WRAMC and the National Naval Medical Center, in Bethesda, Md., and report its findings and recommendations within 45 days. The group's members will be given free and unrestricted access to facilities and personnel, he said.

The group's report will go to the secretaries of the Army and Navy and the assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, and will be made public, Gates said.

The secretary also hinted that further personnel actions may be taken against those found responsible, once the investigation is complete.

"A bedrock principle of our military system is that we empower commanders with the responsibility, authority and resources necessary to carry out their mission. With responsibility comes accountability. It is my strong belief that an organization with the enormous responsibilities of the Department of Defense must live by this principle of accountability at all levels," Gates said. "Accordingly, after the facts are established, those responsible for allowing this unacceptable situation to develop will indeed be held accountable."

Gates said some lower-level leaders directly involved already have been relieved. He did not identify them, however.

Members of the independent review group are:

- Togo West, former secretary of veterans affairs and secretary of the Army under President Clinton;
- Jack Marsh, former secretary of the Army under President Reagan;
- Dr. Joe Schwartz, a former Republican congressman from Michigan;
- Jim Bacchus, a former Democratic congressman from Florida, who is now at Vanderbilt University;
- Retired Gen. John Jumper, former Air Force chief of staff;
- Retired Lt. Gen. Chip Roadman, former Air Force surgeon general;
- Retired Rear Adm. Kathy Martin, former Navy deputy surgeon general; and
- Retired Command Sgt. Maj. Larry Holland, formerly with the assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs.

Army Surgeon General Lt. Gen. (Dr.) Kevin C. Kiley said yesterday that most of the reported maintenance issues will be fixed by the end of this week.

Kiley also said a major renovation is planned that will overhaul the building entirely, including its heating and air conditioning system and plumbing. Because the Soldiers there will have to move, the timing has not been set. Planners want to cause minimal disruption to the Soldiers, Kiley said.

Within walking distance of the hospital's Georgia Avenue entrance, Building 18 was bought by the Army in 1989. The rooms are apartment-style with two bedrooms sharing a common kitchen area and bath. Each has a microwave oven and a small refrigerator. Seventy-six Soldiers live in the building; it can house 106.

(Fred W. Baker III writes for the American Forces Press Service.)