Army Hospital Probes Ex-Aid Director

A guard stands at an exit for the U.S. Army's Walter Reed Medical Center on Friday, May 13, 2005 in Washington. The Pentagon announced that it wants to shut down Walter Reed. AP

Walter Reed Army Medical Center is investigating the former head of a program that aids injured soldiers.

The probe involves the activities of Michael J. Wagner, who until last month ran the Army's Medical Family Assistance Center, Army spokesman Paul Boyce said Tuesday. The center links businesses, charities and other donors with wounded troops who need financial help or with families strained by living costs, air fares and other expenses when they come to Washington to visit or help care for injured soldiers.

The Washington Post — citing documents and interviews with current and former assistance center staff members — said Wagner was seeking funders and soliciting donations for a Dallas charity at the same time he administered the Army program.

Wagner is now a director of the Texas-based charity, the Military, Veteran and Family Assistance Foundation, a nonprofit group that provides services and resources for veterans and their families.

He could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday at the foundation office.

The Post said that in a telephone interview Wagner denied he had solicited funds for the charity or made contact with donors during office hours. "It's just not true," he was quoted as saying. "I intentionally stayed out of that. I couldn't do that. I couldn't do both."

Wagner said the charity was founded by his brother and that he did not officially become its executive director until he left Walter Reed, according to the Post.

The story was the latest in a Post series that also disclosed bureaucratic delays and substandard living conditions endured by some soldiers there as outpatients, as well as problems in receiving benefits. Specifically, the living conditions in Building 18 at Walter Reed were criticized as sub-standard.

At a Pentagon press conference Wednesday, Gen. Richard Cody, the Army's vice chief of staff, described a lack of "rigor of inspections."

"I will personally oversee plans to upgrade Building 18," Cody said, "this is an anomaly that will be fixed and addressed."

Cody also said that there had been a "breakdown in leadership," but no one had been relieved of command or fired as a result of the problems at Walter Reed.

Democratic Sens. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland and Patty Murray of Washington urged Defense Secretary Robert Gates in a letter Tuesday to launch an inspector general's investigation into what they called the "deplorable living conditions facing returning Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans." They urged him to investigate conditions at the Navy's top hospital — the National Naval Medical Center — in Bethesda, Md.

"If conditions at Walter Reed, the crown jewel of military health care facilities, have degraded to the point where mouse traps are handed out to patients, how can we feel confident that our troops and veterans truly have the care and transition assistance they have been promised at any facility across the country?" the senators wrote.

Two other Democratic senators — presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and freshman Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. — said they are working on legislation to improve the care of war veterans, including measures designed to improve how they are treated as outpatients while still on active duty. The legislation would require more frequent hospital inspections, establish timelines for repairs to facilities that don't meet standards and improve access to psychological counseling, Obama's office said in a statement.

The Pentagon responded Tuesday by announcing that the Army has begun a review of medical care at Walter Reed and the Navy has undertaken a similar review at its National Naval Medical Center. The Pentagon also said an independent review group would be formed to investigate outpatient and administrative issues at the two military medical centers.

The Pentagon said the reviews would be done "promptly," but it gave no specific timetable.

The problems at Walter Reed also caused a stir at the daily press briefing at the White House, where presidential spokesman Tony Snow deflected all requests for comment to the Pentagon.

"The president is committed to these people, committed to men and women who have served. We need to make sure that whatever problems there are get fixed," he said. "What I'm telling you is, let's sort through the facts."

Snow at first was unable to say how President Bush learned of the problems. Later, he amended the transcript of his briefing with a statement saying Mr. Bush first heard of the allegations from the Post stories.
  • Joel Roberts

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