The Army today fired the top administrator at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, following embarrassing news reports that prompted a Defense Department probe of an outpatient center for roach and mice infestation, mold, rot and nightmarish red tape.
Although a 45-day Pentagon review has only started, Army officials informed Maj. Gen. George W. Weightman this morning that the nation's oldest military service had "lost trust and confidence in the commander's leadership abilities to address needed solutions for soldier-outpatient care" at the hospital. Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey made the decision yesterday, Army officials said.
The Army's civilian overseer said the service is acting quickly to respond to problems at the venerated Army hospital.
"We'll fix as we go; we'll fix as we find things wrong," Harvey said. "Soldiers are the heart of our Army and the quality of their medical care is non-negotiable."
Weightman was head of Walter Reed for only about six months. He came to the hospital in late August, after serving as commander of the U.S. Army Medical Department Center and School at Fort Sam Houston, Texas.
"I want to inform all of you personally that as of today I have been relieved of command here at WRAMC," Weightman wrote today in a message to Walter Reed staff. "I thank all of you for the professional support and dedication that you have brought to all of our issues and that I am confident that you will continue to do a great job as we work our separate lanes to enhance warrior care at WRAMC. You're a great team and I have been honored to work with you."
Defense Secretary Robert Gates released a statement saying he endorsed the decision to remove Weightman.
"The care and welfare of our wounded men and women in uniform demand the highest standard of excellence and commitment that we can muster as a government," Gates wrote. "When this standard is not met, I will insist on swift and direct corrective action and, where appropriate, accountability up the chain of command."
"The command staff at Walter Reed needs to show they care," said John Allen of the North Carolina National Guard.
The Army said within the next 30 days its own internal review will focus on accountability to the hospital's soldier patients, health and welfare, infrastructure, a much criticized medical administrative process and information dissemination. The Army is separately cooperating with a larger Pentagon review, due in April.
Weightman will be replaced temporarily by the head of U.S. Army Medical Command, Lt. Gen. Kevin Kiley, until a general is selected, the Army said in a statement. Kiley, who has previously overseen the hospital, has also been criticized for failing to act on previous reports of serious problems at Walter Reed.
The hospital now faces new allegations that it has long known of the problems and retaliated against whistle-blowing patients.
Soldiers in the now notorious building 18 have been told they must wake up at 6 a.m. each morning and face unusual daily 7 a.m. inspections and have been told not to speak to reporters.
"Some soldiers believe this is a form of punishment for the trouble soldiers caused by talking to the media," one soldier in the unit told the Army Times newspaper, on condition of anonymity.
Problems at the facility have caused public outrage and prompted 2008 presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., to offer a bill today that aims to resolve the site's problems.
"That can't be the proper response, silencing and punishing our injured soldiers for trying to get the mold off their walls," Obama said.
Minutes later, rival candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., called for an independent investigation to determine "what senior Army officials knew about the conditions and treatment of patients at Walter Reed and when they knew it" in a letter to the Army inspector general.
"Our nation has a duty to honor and support those who have served and sacrificed so much in the defense of our nation," Clinton wrote. "Yet these recent news reports indicate that for nearly four years since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began not enough has been done to assist these courageous men and women in recovering from the wounds of battle. For these reasons, we must know what Army leaders knew, when they knew it and why they failed to take corrective actions."
In a news conference last week, Kiley, now the Army's surgeon general, said the problems found in the building "weren't serious and there weren't a lot of them."
That view was strongly contradicted by Gates, who later last week called conditions at building 18 "unacceptable." Gates said he will hold the responsible officials accountable after he receives the results of a 45-day review, which he said will be released to Congress and the public.
"We take this very seriously," a Pentagon spokeswoman told ABC News today.
Yet some critics have called that concern belated. In the latest story in a series on the site, the Washington Post reported that members of Congress, veterans groups and other officials have complained of serious problems at Walter Reed since at least 2003.
Adm. Edmund Giambastiani promised members of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense today that he would look into the allegations of retribution.
"I think it's important, though, chairman, that we say that that's not our standard, to tell people to keep quiet," Giambastiani said. "If they've got problems, we want to hear about them."
Steve Robinson, director of veterans affairs at Veterans for America, said in 2003 he voiced his concerns to Kiley.
"I told him that there were people drinking themselves to death, there were soldiers at Walter Reed that Walter Reed didn't even know were there and living in the barracks, and that no one was taking care of the soldiers," Robinson said.
Some missed appointments because Walter Reed officials had lost track of them, Robinson said.
Among the others who brought the problems to the attention of Kiley and other Walter Reed and military officials, according to the Post:
Retired Maj. Gen. Kenneth L. Farmer Jr., who commanded Walter Reed for two years before leaving in August, said he was aware of outpatient problems and reported them both to his commander, Kiley, and to his successor, Maj. Gen. George W. Weightman.
Rep. Bill Young, R-Fla., stopped visiting Walter Reed after voicing his complaints. His wife, Beverly, complained to Kiley that she visited a soldier lying in urine on his mattress. "I went flying down to Kevin Kiley's office again and got nowhere," she told the paper. "He has skirted this stuff for five years and blamed everyone else."
Joe Wilson, a clinical social worker in the psychiatry department, briefed colonels at the hospital about a survey that found 75 percent of outpatients called their experience there "stressful" and many were "unsatisfied, frustrated, disenfranchised."
Joyce Rumsfeld, wife of then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, asked a staffer during a visit if her husband was seeing only patients handpicked to show the hospital's good side and was told yes.
In addition to the Defense Department review, the hospital is now in the second day of a two-day inspection by the Joint Commission, a hospital accreditation agency formerly known as the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Health Care Organizations.
"These are serious wounds, and these folks aren't getting the care they need at Walter Reed, right in the backyard of the capital," former Lt. Paul Rieckhoff, a veteran and founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, told CNN. "I think there are a lot of people who work very hard and care very deeply in Walter Reed and also in the [Veterans Administration] hospitals around the country. But what we consistently hear is that they're under-resourced."
ABC News' David Kerley contributed to this report.