Fix Walter Reed: Name A Commission

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Yuri Gripas / Reuters

Sergeant John Kriesel, who was wounded in Iraq, is comforted by his wife during a therapy session at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, February 9, 2007

The front-page stories about frustrated Army spouses and televised hearings with perspiring generals under congressional attack were only the prelude. The Walter Reed imbroglio has now morphed into a real Washington scandal with President Bush's announcement Tuesday morning that he is creating a commission to investigate the problem of poor care and bureaucratic snafus in the nation's military and veterans' hospitals. To lead the commission, Bush's White House deftly picked a severely wounded ex-soldier, former GOP Senate leader and Presidential candidate Robert Dole, and an expert on health care, former Clinton Cabinet member Donna Shalala.

When a potato becomes too hot to handle, Presidents like to appoint commissions. Never mind that the taxpayers are paying tens of billions of dollars annually to run military and veterans' health care, and that we elected lawmakers to make sure that the job is being done (and that the lawmakers, in turn, have created the Government Accountability Office to help them out, with its 3,000 employees and a $500 million annual budget). When all of these institutions fail, creating a commission is the equivalent of punting on third down: You're not going to score, but it suggests you're doing something to get the situation under control. That's why Presidents and Congresses have outsourced responsibility by creating commissions to look into every challenge facing the nation from the problems with Social Security to the nation's obliviousness to what al-Qaeda was doing before 9/11.

As a young Army officer in World War II, Dole was seriously wounded in action in the Italian Apennine Mountains. He spent years recovering from his wounds before becoming a U.S. senator from Kansas and running unsuccessfully for President in 1996. Shalala was Secretary of Health and Human Services under President Clinton. She is now president of the University of Miami. Members of the American Legion applauded when Bush announced their appointments. "We have a moral obligation to provide the best possible care and treatment to the men and women who served our country," Bush said. "They deserve it and they're going to get it."

Creating a commission is such an obvious idea, in fact, that the Pentagon has already beaten the White House to it. On February 23, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he was launching a panel to examine the care at Walter Reed and any other military medical facilities it chooses to examine. Headed by two former Army secretaries, the eight-member group will have 45 days to investigate and report back on its findings. Of course, it isn't being called a commission; that turf belongs to Presidents and lawmakers. The Pentagon's board is more modestly called an "independent review group."

Robert Scales, a retired Army major general who once ran the Army War College, points out that soldiers see hospital accomodations as a big step up from the conditions they're forced to endure daily in barracks. "If you want clean bed sheets and unstopped toilets, lose a leg," he quotes one soldier. "Otherwise, suck it up and drive on, soldier." A general who had been in Walter Reed told Scales that "the barracks at Fort Stewart, at Fort Bragg, at Fort Drum and at Fort Polk are far, far worse than anything I saw at Building 18," where some Walter Reed outpatients lived amid squalor, rodents, mold and cockroaches. "The sense is that Walter Reed is the symptom of a far larger disease," Scales says. "Now that they've got all this fanfare and political theater, let's find out if they make life better for soldiers."

The U.S. military is a huge bureaucracy, and its medical components, while having its share of gems, also has its slums. That's how the gleaming wards of Walter Reed could stand so close to the vermin-ridden, mold-covered walls of Building 18 across the street. Even as the war generates more tenants for Walter Reed and other military hospitals, its $1 billion a week cost has sucked money out of stateside garrisons and hospitals. Last year, the Army had to trim spending by more than $500 million for posts at home and abroad to help pay for the war. That sounds like a lot of money. But it's really just a rounding error at the Pentagon. After the Bush White House said last month it would need $93.4 billion to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan through the end of September, Administration and congressional aides now say the White House will seek an additional $2 billion. That could buy a lot of paint and d-Con.