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Pentagon Vows to Fix Problems at Army Hospital

Senior U.S. defense officials pledged Wednesday to address problems in the living conditions and bureaucracy at one of the military's premier medical facilities, the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. VOA's Al Pessin reports from the Pentagon.

After the Washington Post reported a variety of problems at Walter Reed in long articles on Sunday and Monday, senior Pentagon officials drove the 15 kilometers on Tuesday to see for themselves. At a news conference Wednesday the Assistant Secretary for Health Affairs, Dr. William Winkenwerder, said he is a regular visitor to Walter Reed, but still did not know what the Post reporters found by spending several weeks with wounded soldiers and their families at the compound.

"This news caught me, as it did many other people, completely by surprise. I visit Walter Reed regularly," he said. "We regularly ask the questions, 'Do you need help? What do you need? If you need anything, we want to make sure that you have it.' And I think that we were surprised."

The deputy chief of the U.S. Army, General Richard Cody, took a share of the responsibility for the problems at the hospital complex, and pledged they will be fixed quickly.

"Clearly we've had a breakdown in leadership, and of bureaucratic, medical and contractual processes [that] bogged down a speedy solution to these problems. I can assure you that the appropriate vigor and leadership is being applied to this issue and we will correct any problems immediately."

The general, who said he also visits Walter Reed regularly, says he was "disappointed" that he had to learn of the problems from the newspaper. But he stressed that the issues are related to housing and personal services, not to medical care. Walter Reed is one of the premier military medical facilities in the world, handling a variety of battlefield injuries using state-of-the art techniques, some of which its staff has developed.

The Washington Post reported several problems at the facility, including poor maintenance and a rodent infestation in one residential building for long-term care patients. It also reported bureaucratic obstacles that leave families frustrated over financial issues and other concerns. General Cody said the hospital already has a center to help the families and he has ordered it to be upgraded.

"I will not be satisfied until we have a Family Assistance Center at Walter Reed, where it's one stop and the families and the soldiers all can take care of their financial issues, their scheduling issues, their follow-up care issues, as well as any other issues that they or their family members have," he added.

The officials who spoke Wednesday said the problems at Walter Reed were not caused by a lack of money or an excessive number of patients, even though the hospital has processed more than two thousand battle injuries from Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years.

To find out exactly what is wrong and how to fix it, the Pentagon announced Tuesday two reviews of its medical facilities and procedures. One of the review groups will look not only at Walter Reed but also at the U.S. Navy's premier medical facility nearby in Bethesda, Maryland, and at other U.S. military hospitals around the world if necessary.

A Pentagon spokesman says Secretary of Defense Robert Gates wants reports from the review groups within 45 days after they are created, which is expected to be soon.