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Congress shares blame for Walter Reed mess

Jacobs: Lawmakers should complain less and work more on oversight

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Fixing Walter Reed
Feb. 22: The Army is now fixing the troubling conditions at Walter Reed that were exposed in a story by the Washington Post. Lt. Gen. Kevin Kiley is responsible for all of the Army medical facilities.
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Feb. 20: Dana Priest reports on the fallout from her Washington Post exposé about the treatment of vets at Walter Reed, and Sen. Claire McCaskill discusses legislation she is introducing with Sen. Barack Obama to fix patient care.

Jack Jacobs
Military analyst

Although the noise over the conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center may subside, the lessons, it is hoped, will endure.

A great deal of media attention was generated when Dana Priest of the Washington Post wrote an article in which she detailed that wounded soldiers were encountering decrepit conditions and insurmountable red tape.

Because as a nation we have matured enough to distinguish between the troops, whom Americans revere, and their mission in Iraq, which is held in disdain, most people found reprehensible the malfeasance depicted by Priest. The Department of Defense was quick to respond to the public outcry, with the Army’s surgeon general the point man and Secretary of the Army Francis Harvey calling the conditions “inexcusable.”

Meanwhile, some military leaders charged with supervising activities at Walter Reed have been relieved of their duties, and one expects that there will be punishments assessed. And in the media, the military leadership has been properly excoriated for the obvious lapses in giving the best care to our bravest young people.

But lost in all the invective is the fact that there is plenty of blame to go around, and among those who shoulder responsibility in this mess is Congress.

Although Rep. Nancy Pelosi has promised an investigation, and other elected officials have expressed their share of concern, there is, relatively speaking, a deafening paucity of vituperation from Capitol Hill. A clue lies in the congressional responsibility for oversight of the Defense Department’s activities.

While many senators and members of the House have visited Walter Reed, it took a reporter to bring the problem to light. There have been lots of highly publicized congressional visits to hospitals like Landstuhl in Germany, to which most wounded troops are first brought, and plenty of hand-wringing about the war when the legislators have been in front of cameras. But not a word about conditions at Walter Reed.

Both the House and the Senate have powerful committees that are supposed to keep an eye on what happens at places like Walter Reed, among them subcommittees that actually appropriate our money for these things. Members of these bodies include both ardent supporters and outspoken critics of the Bush administration, such as Sens. Carl Levin, John McCain, Edward Kennedy, Robert Byrd, John Warner and many others. With prominent legislators regularly carrying on like spoiled children about how the administration thwarts Congress in its proper function of defense oversight, you would think that they would leap at any opportunity to advertise when the Department of Defense is not doing its job, particularly as close to the Hill as Walter Reed is.

But you’d be wrong.

There is a firm principle in successful organizations: The boss is responsible for everything that happens or fails to happen. Harry Truman, whatever else you care to say about him, was right about his reliance on the concept that “the buck stops here.” And even Eldridge Cleaver, the Black Panther Party radical who was wrong about almost everything, was quite right in this context when he observed, “If you are not part of the solution, then you are part of the problem.”

So, if Congress is really interested in making a positive difference in the lives of wounded soldiers, the middle class, the downtrodden — indeed all of us — it should expend less energy complaining and more doing what it was elected to do.

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