Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey abruptly stepped down today as the Bush administration struggled to cope with the fallout from a scandal over substandard conditions for wounded Iraq soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
The surprise move came one day after Harvey fired the two-star general in charge of the medical center in response to disclosures of problems at the hospital compound.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Harvey had resigned. But senior defense officials speaking on condition of anonymity said Gates had asked Harvey to leave. Gates was displeased that Harvey, after firing Maj. Gen. George Weightman as the head of Walter Reed, chose to name as Weightman’s temporary replacement another general whose role in the controversy was still in question.
“I am disappointed that some in the Army have not adequately appreciated the seriousness of the situation pertaining to outpatient care at Walter Reed,” Gates said in the Pentagon briefing room. He took no questions from reporters.
The revelations about shoddy facilities and wounded soldiers enduring long waits for treatment have embarrassed the Army and the Bush administration at a time when the White House is scrambling to shore up eroding support for the Iraq war. It has prompted numerous calls in Congress for more information, and sullied the reputation of what is supposed to be one of the world’s foremost medical facilities.
Gates said a permanent replacement for Weightman would be announced by the Army later today.
The defense secretary indicated he was unhappy with the way Army leaders had responded to the Walter Reed disclosures.
“Some have shown too much defensiveness and have not shown enough focus on digging into and addressing the problems,” Gates said. “Also I am concerned that some do not properly understand the need to communicate to the wounded and their families that we have no higher priority than their care, and that addressing their concerns about the quality of their outpatient experience is critically important. Our wounded soldiers and their families have sacrificed much and they deserve the best we can offer.”
Before Gates’ announcement, President Bush ordered a comprehensive review of conditions at the nation’s network of military and veteran hospitals in the wake of the Walter Reed disclosures.
The White House said the president would name a bipartisan commission to assess whether the problems at Walter Reed exist at other facilities. Last week Gates created an outside panel to review the situation at Walter Reed and the other major military hospital in the Washington area, the National Naval Medical Center at Bethesda, Md.
The actions come after The Washington Post documented squalid living conditions for some outpatient soldiers at Walter Reed and bureaucratic problems that prevented many troops from getting adequate care.
Harvey has been Army secretary since November 2004. Gates said Harvey will depart March 9. Gates said the Army under secretary, Pete Geren, will become acting secretary until Bush nominates a permanent replacement.
Harvey is the second consecutive Army secretary to be removed abruptly from office. In April 2003, then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld fired Thomas White, who had engaged in public disputes with Rumsfeld.