KAI RYSSDAL: You know, it must be nice to be the president. Let’s say you’ve got a major problem that’s getting terrible press. You need to make a speech to announce your blue ribbon commission. So you call up some people you know and ask if you can swing by. Sure, they say.
And so President Bush spoke to the American Legion today. He announced former senator and World War II veteran Bob Dole and former Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala will investigate the problems at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. But there was no mention of why the hospital wasn’t ready for the surge in the first place.
We got in touch with Gordon Adams to talk about that, and how to fix it. He’s a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. Mr. Adams, good to speak with you.
GORDON ADAMS: Yes sir.
RYSSDAL: Is this a problem that the White House can fix with just money?
ADAMS: It’s gonna take two things to fix it. One may be a little bit of money or attention to the money. And the other is going to be dealing with the way the bureaucracy operates and some of the attitudes and personnel who are dealing with these medical issues down at the level of places like Walter Reed.
RYSSDAL: The president made a speech today in which he talked about how much he’s increased the budget for military and medical care. Is that money actually getting to where it needs to go?
ADAMS: Well, it’s pretty clear that it’s not. There really are two issues at Walter Reed. Issue number one is a maintenance issue. That is things like, you know, the paint peeling and the rats running through the building. That problem is not solely one of Walter Reed, it’s a general problem for bases in the United States. Because the operations and maintenance money that generally would go to things like base maintenance get sucked away regularly to deal with the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and then doesn’t get backfilled for some time. The other question though, really, is the question of bureaucracy. Do you have enough people? That’s money. Are they the right people? Are they trained to run the process right? And do they have the right attitude about how we deal with the soldiers and the Marines that are going through this system?
RYSSDAL: Carl Levin
, the senator from Michigan who’s the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee said today that it’s his opinion that this reflects a lack of war planning. That it goes back to not being ready for what was going to come.
ADAMS: I don’t think they were ready, and that’s of course a much bigger problem. The beginning of this war, of course, the Administration and the military assumed it would be short and sweet, and by the end of 2003, most of the Americans would be home and casualties would be very low. As a consequence, the system really was not beefed up and prepared to handle the workload it’s got coming in. The V.A. system is swamped. The Walter Reed hospital system is swamped. And there aren’t enough people and enough quality people and the right attitude to process people through the system in a helpful and courteous way.
RYSSDAL: But we’re four years into the war now, Mr. Adams.
ADAMS: Yeah, it has been. . . . You would think after about a year or two of this that they would figure out in the Army this is going to be a real problem and we’re going to have to beef up this system and deal with it. That’s really a problem on the Army’s shoulders.
RYSSDAL: Is it a question of the actual medical care, or the apparatus for delivering that care?
ADAMS: It’s not really so much a question of medical care as it is a problem of dealing with processing people through the system and out into the Veterans Administration system. The Veterans hospital system, for example, was really improved over the last 10 or 15 years, but not ready for the kind of hundreds of thousands of case loads that it’s now taking in as a result of the people cycling through. And Walter Reed’s been experiencing delays of things like 200 days — you know, essentially six months worth of time — before they get somebody with serious wounds coming back from Iraq and being processed either into the V.A. or the retirement system.
RYSSDAL: Wasn’t the Army talking about closing Walter Reed not too long ago?
ADAMS: They have, in fact, officially been earmarked for closure. The Base Closing Commission said Walter Reed will close. They’re three or four years away from that being actually the case and it’s being closed. Congress is now taking a look at that and saying, “Well, gee, maybe we were premature in allowing the commission to make that kind of decision and agreeing to it.” The problem that the Congress has is if they reverse a Base Closure Commission decision on some place like Walter Reed, they’re gonna have every congressman and every installation from here to Hawaii coming in and saying, “Hey, save us too. We’re desperately needed now that the situation as changed.”
RYSSDAL: Gordon Adams at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. Mr. Adams, thanks for your time.
ADAMS: You’re welcome.
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