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Army forces surgeon general to retire — 3rd major dismissal in Walter Reed controversy

WASHINGTON — Army Surgeon General Kevin C. Kiley abruptly stepped down under pressure from military superiors, the third top Army official forced out in the fallout from revelations of shabby treatment of wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
    The Army said Monday that Lt. Gen. Kiley had submitted a request to retire over the weekend. Acting Army Secretary Pete Geren had asked Kiley for his retirement, said a senior defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk about the events.
    Kiley’s removal underscored how the controversy, which began with reports of dilapidated outpatient housing and a nightmarish bureaucracy at the Army’s flagship hospital, has snowballed into a far broader problem for the Bush administration.
    Congressional committees and a slew of investigative boards are scrutinizing the treatment of wounded troops and veterans by the military’s entire medical system, as well as by the Department of Veterans Affairs, headed by Jim Nicholson. The probes come with the administration already struggling to defend its widely unpopular war policies in Iraq, and the Democratic-led Congress citing poor care for troops as the latest instance of incompetent administration planning for the conflict.
    Kiley, 56, who headed Walter Reed from 2002 to 2004, has been a lightning rod for criticism over conditions there and has been a frequent target of hostile questions at congressional hearings.
    ‘‘The events of late — failures by some, failures in our system — have tarnished the reputation of us all,’’ Geren told 280 Walter Reed workers Monday. ‘‘The American people expect us to fulfill our obligation to those who have borne the battle’’ and are angry and disappointed when they see failure.
    Geren has had his position for less than two weeks, having replaced Army Secretary Francis Harvey, who was dismissed March 2. Maj. Gen. George W. Weightman, who had been in charge of Walter Reed since August 2006, was ousted from his post the day before.
    In a statement released by the Army, Kiley said, ‘‘I submitted my retirement because I think it is in the best interest of the Army.’’ He said he wanted to allow officials to ‘‘focus completely on the way ahead.’’
    ‘‘We have failed to meet our own standards at Walter Reed. For that, I’m both personally and professionally sorry,’’ he said last week.
    He has said he had been aware of some issues, but he told the Senate Armed Services Committee he was not aware of specific problems including a backlog of maintenance orders and a lack of staff to conduct room inspections.
    A specialist in obstetrics and gynecology, he has had numerous medical posts in his Army career including service in South Korea and then in Saudi Arabia during the 1991 war with Iraq.
    Soldiers and their families have complained that some outpatient living quarters at Walter Reed had mice, mold and other shoddy conditions and that there were bureaucratic delays at the hospital overwhelmed with wounded from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
    Maj. Gen. Gale Pollock, current deputy surgeon general, assumed Kiley’s job while a permanent replacement is sought. Kiley remains on active duty during the retirement process, which could take up to two months.
    Some lawmakers welcomed Kiley’s departure.
    However, Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said Kiley’s firing alone won’t solve the problem. ‘‘With the installation of new leaders, the real test will be making sure that the work fixing problems actually gets done,’’ he said.
    Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia, top Republican on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, said Kiley ‘‘did not seem to understand the scope of his job.’’
    And Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said Kiley’s tenure had been ‘‘riddled with serious blunders.’’
    ‘‘We still lack a system that meets the needs of our troops from the battlefield to the local VA and everywhere in between,’’ said Murray, a member of the Senate Democratic leadership.
    Amid the focus on Walter Reed, VA Secretary Nicholson on Monday ordered his department’s clinics to provide details about their physical condition by next week to determine if squalid conditions found at Walter Reed exist elsewhere.
    Nicholson has been under pressure to reduce claims backlogs and improve coordination at the VA’s vast network of 1,400 hospitals and clinics, which provide supplemental care and rehabilitation to 5.8 million veterans.
    In another sign of the administration’s effort to contain political damage, President Bush asked Congress Saturday for $50 million in emergency war funding to improve the medical treatment and rehabilitation of service members.
    The conditions at Walter Reed were detailed last month by The Washington Post. Since then, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has forced Army Secretary Francis Harvey to resign. Gates was displeased that Harvey had initially chosen Kiley as interim commander of Walter Reed, officials said privately at the time.
    Bush has appointed a bipartisan commission to investigate problems at the nation’s military and veteran hospitals. Separate reviews are under way by the Pentagon, the Army and an interagency task force led by Nicholson.
    The Army moved within days of the Post story to paint and fix some of the outpatient rooms. Officials also have added caseworkers, financial specialists and others to work with soldiers’ families on problems such as getting disability pay and obtaining loans.
    ‘‘We’ve made a good start, but much remains to be done,’’ Geren told staff members Monday. ‘‘I share in your conviction that we will do whatever it takes to do it right.’’
    ———
    Associated Press Writer Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report.

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