What I found at Walter Reed

| March 3, 2007

I’d hoped this whole Walter Reed Army Medical Center thing would go away. I’ve gotten emails and PMs from as far away as Spain asking me questions so I reay couldn’t avoid it any longer. What I’m going to write isn’t going to endear me to the pro-military folks, nor will it make me warm and fuzzy with anti-Bush nutjobs – everyone will be equally pissed off at me.

I stopped short of writing about the real problem in order to protect my job, promotion potential and my readership because the real problem is in that subject category that we don’t discuss here in DC. But you can read it between the lines if you try hard enough.

This is the second time I wrote this, by the way. The first time, Bill Gates ate it, so as I remember unusually insightful comments that I made initially, before everything turned blue and died, and I wrote the second version hamstrung by extreme anger, I may add them here.

I’ve spent a good part of this week talking to people who’ve lived in Building 18, facility engineers, NCOs and civilian contractors about the problem off the record. Because it’s off-the-record, please don’t take what I write as gospel on the subject. I’m not a journalist, I’m not on active duty and I’m not a resident of Building 18. I’m just a guy with money enough for a blog and unique access to Walter Reed.

My history with Walter Reed goes back to 1993 when the Army finally discovered I had a severe hearing loss and sent me to Walter Reed from Fort Drum to get my spanking new hearing aids. I spent five days in a place called Walter Reed Hotel across Georgia Avenue from the Army facility. It was a shit hole; exposed wiring, filthy floors, rancid-smelling bedding, inattentive civilian staff, etc. But I was an infantryman – I was just happy to have a roof over my head That doesn’t excuse the conditions, but it does explain where I’m coming from. The building is still there, but as near as I can tell, the Army doesn’t use it anymore.

My next contact with Walter Reed was when my wife started working there in 2002 as a civilian contract healthcare professional. Since then, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting several civilian, reserve and active duty nurses, technicians and doctors on whom I’d bet my life. In fact, I moved my treatment for my heart disease to Walter Reed because of problems I’d had with the administrative staff at the VA (the same problem that we don’t discuss here in DC). My cardio doctor, a lieutenant colonel, is one of the nicest, most caring, and most professional doctors I’ve ever known.

I had my gall bladder removed in 2003 there at 1 AM one morning and the treatment I got there was definitely world-class. The surgical team and the folks who cared for me in recovery were real professionals. Anyone who says otherwise about the medical staff at Walter Reed will earn a world class asswhoopin’ from me.

Every Saturday morning, I eat breakfast at the Walter Reed messhall (I know it’s called a dining facility or D-FAC these days, but it’ll always be a messhall to me) mainly because I enjoy being surrounded by heroes – but also because I have a thirty-year love affair with SOS. This morning was no exception.

The first thing I noticed after we parked in the underground parking garage was a senior NCO going from his car to the hospital with some gear slung over his shoulder. His Shinseki beret was cocked on the back of his head and the flash was over his left ear. I know that doesn’t sound important to many of you, but as an old infantry NCO, it rankled me. NCOs just don’t do that, I don’t care who you think you are.

The hospital was busy for a Saturday morning, but that was understandable since the chief had been fired yesterday and his boss had quit soon after. But when I got in one of the elevators, I noticed one of the handrails was loose – the handrails that folks who need to steady themselves with when they’re on crutches, or guide themselves when they’re in a wheelchair. Any NCO with a leatherman on his belt could’ve fixed it – or supervised a private fixing it.

When we got to the third floor, I noticed an odor that every NCO who has ever inspected his barracks would recognize. The floor had been mopped with a dirty mop. Sure enough when I looked down, there were streaks on the tile floor where the dirt on the floor had been moistened and smeared across the tiles. The floor of the hospital outside of the dining facility was filthy.

Now, I’ve taken over platoons that had the same kind of symptoms Walter Reed seems to have. And I know what the cure is – some of my readers may have painful reminders of my treatments. But the place I’d start at Walter Reed is with the NCO corps. Firing the generals doesn’t fix problems when the problems are just attention to detail items like NCOs out of uniform, loose railings and dirty floors. The NCOs need to be taught to supervise. Some of you may remember how I fixed the broken platoon I took to Desert Storm by fixing the NCO corps.

The problem at Walter Reed is deeper than that, though. Walter Reed is located in one of the worst neighborhoods in Washington, DC. It draws it’s labor force for day-to-day maintenance operations from that neighborhood. Many of them think that the hardest part of their job is the interview, the rest is all downhill from there. Sometimes the hallways are lined with maintenance staff resting or standing about bullshitting. Hollering to your buddy or to a pretty lady in the halls of the wards is commonplace and tolerated by the military staff because they really don’t know how to talk to civilians. I’ve even observed horseplay on occasion behind the serving line in the messhall.

I’ve also talked to people who tell me that even though work orders are put in for dangerous and potential sanitation violations, the maintenance staff either ignores their responsibilities, or makes half-assed repairs that must be work ordered again later. Most of these employees are tenured either by the job position or by personal relationships and don’t have to fear being fired – short of committing murder. And since the military are not accustomed to interacting with the local civilian staff, shortcomings are overlooked.

That particular problem has been remedied though. Walter Reed is slated for closure and its facilities are being moved to upscale Bethesda, MD and to Fort Belvoir, VA where a more reliable workforce will be eager, at least initially, to tend to their responsibilities. That is why the DC government is so worried about the local job-loss for the current crop of derelicts mopping the floors with dirty mops at Walter Reed.

Although I’m not completely exonerating the Bush Administration for the maintenance infractions at Building 18, I honestly don’t believe that they are completely to blame. Apparently, the money was available, but the maintence staff was negligent.

But it is also my considered opinion that the NCO corps at Walter Reed is largely to blame, for allowing their standards of soldiering to slip. I hesitate to use the term “REMFS” or “pogues” because only a few of the NCOs at Walter Reed haven’t been to a theater of combat recently, however, they’ve let duties in the rear relax their standards which ultimately cost their boss his job.

If I were the Sergeant Major at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, I’d start Monday morning with an in-ranks inspection of every NCO assigned there, remind them that NCOs are ultimately responsible for the reputation of their commander, as well as the Army and rebuild my NCO ranks from there.

Basic soldiering is the best soldiering.

Category: Support the troops, Walter Reed

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

It’s something that needs to be said. When senior NCO’s are not “kicking ass and taking names”, to coin a phrase, something is already broken.

One of the most dysfunctional commands I was ever in was where I arrived as leading PO and the division chief stated to me that, “this division runs itself.”

Uh, no it doesn’t, Chief. Admirals and generals may make policy, but it’s the chiefs and sergeants who make sure that policy is carried out. And when they don’t do their job, the whole system breaks down–and it doesn’t matter how many O-gangers (officers) pout, stamp, and scream about what’s wrong.

I totally agree that the CSM at Walter Reed needs to go to each and every single staff member there–both military and civilian–and explain in no uncertain terms the standards that WILL be met, ALL of the time, NO exceptions.

Civilians are getting too comfortable in the civil service environment. Performance would markedly increase if they knew that there were consequences for substandard performance.

However, one thing to consider is the fact that WR IS in fact closing. It’s kind of the old, “What are you going to do–put me out of a job?” mentality going on.

What pisses me off is that WR was slated for closing BEFORE adequate bed space was available at Fort Belvoir or Bethesda. Now we have to endure this situation for at least four more years.

Don’t get me wrong–military medicine for ER and initial treatment is on par with anyone in the world. I’d have a hard time asking for better treatment from anyone after traumatic injury (and that includes Johns Hopkins). However, long-term treatment at both WR AND the VA facilities needs to dramatically improve. While only five percent of the VA caseload is from Afghanistan and Iraq vets, those vets are coming back with generally more traumatic injuries than their predecessors in Vietnam, Korea, and WWII.

Time to wake up and put some pride and professionalism back into the Medical Corps.


EEOC, Affirmative action, Liberal lawyers,ACLU, Liberal Judges, Have just about ruined the military, the government and the ability of leaders to effect accountibility in all areas of work!