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Inside Politics

Witness slams 'nightmares' of Army medical system

Story Highlights

Hospital's fired ex-commander testifies before House panel
Cheney: "There will be no excuses, only action"
Army chief of staff: "I couldn't be more embarrassed and ashamed"
House panel holds hearing on poor conditions at top Army hospital
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Witnesses told a House panel Monday that wounded U.S. soldiers are forced to struggle against a nightmarish and untrustworthy Army medical system that leaves veterans stranded in unfit conditions.

Two Iraq war veterans and the wife of a third gave heartbreaking, at times stunning, tales of neglect at the now notorious Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

The panel was convened in the wake of a scandal triggered by The Washington Post's detailing of problems at the hospital.

Annette McLeod, wife of Cpl. Wendell McLeod, who received an injury to his head in the war, said her husband "has been through the nightmares of the Army medical system."

"I'm glad that you care about what happened to my husband after he was injured in the line of duty. Because for a long time, it seemed like I was the only one who cared. Certainly, the Army didn't care. I didn't even find out that he was injured until he called me himself from a hospital in New Jersey."

"This is how we treat our soldiers -- we give them nothing," she said. "They're good enough to go and sacrifice their life, and we give them nothing. You need to fix the system." (Watch emotional testimony about Reed's problems Video)

A series of stories in The Washington Post in February documented a variety of problems at "Building 18," a one-time motel converted to a long-term outpatient dormitory at the Washington hospital. The newspaper found troops who lost limbs and suffered traumatic brain injuries or post-traumatic stress were quartered for months in moldy and rodent-infested rooms with inadequate follow-up care.

The panel chairman, Rep. John Tierney, called "the unsanitary conditions" and other problems at Walter Reed hospital "appalling."

"But we also realize that not only is it flat wrong, that's the tip of the iceberg," said Tierney, a Massachusetts Democrat. "For too many occasions, the soldiers at Walter Reed wait months, if not years, in sort of a limbo. And they must navigate through broken administrative processes and layers upon layers of bureaucracy to get their basic tasks accomplished."

The congressman said he believes the problems "go well beyond the walls of Walter Reed, and that they are problems systemic throughout the military health-care system. And as we send more and more troops into Iraq and Afghanistan, these problems are only going to get worse, not better. And we should be prepared to deal with them."

Maj. Gen. George Weightman, whose duties included overseeing the facility before he was fired over the scandal, said, "It is clear mistakes were made and I was in charge. We can't fail one of these soldiers or their families, not one, and we did."

He added, "We did not fully recognize the frustrating bureaucratic and administrative processes some of these soldiers go through. We should have and in this, I failed."

But Annette McLeod described Weightman as a "fall guy."

"Mr. Weightman, in my opinion, he was just shoved into a situation that was already there, and because somebody had to be the fall guy, he was there," she said.

McLeod said her husband at one point waited four months for the results of an important medical test. She said the Army refuses to acknowledge that her husband suffered a brain injury. He once told the military he had needed special help with certain school subjects when he was young, and now the Army is using that "against him," she said.

Room 'wasn't fit for anyone'

During earlier testimony, a soldier who said he once lived in a recovery annex at Walter Reed described unfit hospital conditions.

Wounded Army Spc. Jeremy Duncan told the panel he spent some of his recovery in Building 18. Duncan said that his room "wasn't fit for anyone."

"I know most soldiers that come out of recovery have weaker immune systems and black mold can do damage to people," Duncan said. "The holes in the walls -- I wouldn't live there even if I had to."

After taking his complaints through the chain of command, nothing was fixed, Duncan said.

"That's when I contacted The Washington Post."

Asked what happened after the Post reported what he had to say, Duncan replied, "I was immediately removed from that room. And then the next day they were renovating the room."

Duncan rejected recent public statements from some military officials that they were unaware of the problems. "There's no way they couldn't have known," he said. "I mean, everybody had to have known somewhere. If they wanted to actually look at it or pay attention or believe it, it's up to them."

'I want to leave this place'

Another patient, Staff Sgt. John Daniel Shannon, said the revelations were no surprise. "Two years after first being admitted, I'm hearing the same thing that I heard two years ago," Shannon said. He described his many extensive efforts to get needed treatment and better conditions.

"I want to leave this place," said Shannon. "I have seen so many soldiers get so frustrated with the process that they will sign anything presented to them just so they can get on with their lives. We have almost no advocacy that is not working for the government, no one that we can talk to about this process who is knowledgeable and we can trust is going to give us fair treatment and informed guidance."

As testimony began, Vice President Dick Cheney was making a speech Monday to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, saying that President Bush has made clear "there will be no excuses, only action."

"We're going to fix the problems at Walter Reed, period," Cheney said.

Gen. Peter Schoomaker, Army chief of staff, said, "I couldn't be madder, and I couldn't be more embarrassed and ashamed."

Lt. Gen. Kevin Kiley, the Army's surgeon general, acknowledged Walter Reed "has not met our standards" and added, "For that I am sorry."

Kiley's statement came after Acting Secretary of the Army Peter Geren told the committee that "we have let some soldiers down."

"We're going to fix that problem," Geren said.

Geren stepped into his role after Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey's resignation Friday.

In addition to Harvey's resignation, the outcry over the conditions some outpatient soldiers faced at Walter Reed led to Weightman's removal. (Watch why the Army secretary and hospital commander lost their jobs Video)

On Friday, House Democrats released documents showing Weightman was warned in September that the Army's decision to turn over support services for the facility to a private contractor sparked an exodus of skilled staff. That left patient care "at risk of mission failure," Weightman's deputy, Col. Peter Garibaldi, warned in a memo to the general.

Changes being made

Jim Nicholson, secretary of Veterans Affairs, said that the health-care system is not perfect, but steps are being taken to make sure veterans get the best care possible.

"I still worry that there are those cases where these things are not happening the way they should be," he said Monday on "The Situation Room." (Watch Nicholson talk about what's being done Video)

Nicholson said he ordered the hiring of 100 patient advocates to attend to patients in the VA system.

"If that's not enough, we'll hire more," he said.

Nicholson said the system has new procedures to screen Iraq veterans receiving any type of care for traumatic brain injuries and post traumatic stress disorder.

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Annette McLeod said her husband has been "through the nightmares of the Army medical system."

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