WASHINGTON — Even the military's best friends in Congress dressed down Army leaders over conditions at Walter Reed.
"It was a failure in the most basic tenets of command responsibility — to take care of our troops," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., at Tuesday's hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Critics say part of the problem may be an Army decision last year to contract out maintenance and support at Walter Reed to a private company, even though government workers argued they could do it better, and for less.
"They were moving, come hell or high water, to contract these jobs out," says John Gage, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees.
The contract went to a company — International American Products, or IAP — that played a major role in the ice fiasco during Hurricane Katrina, when trucks roamed the country, delivering little and running up costs to taxpayers.
"They didn't seem to be doing a very good job even delivering the ice, and from what we now see, they didn't do a very good job at Walter Reed, either," says Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of the House Government Oversight Committee.
In fact, when the Army gave IAP a $120 million contract for administrative, managerial and operational services at Walter Reed, Pentagon watchdogs were investigating complaints that the company overcharged during Katrina and failed to meet ice delivery obligations.
Last fall, a Walter Reed commander warned of "possible mission failure" with skilled government workers leaving in droves, as the hospital's workload of wounded vets increased.
"There was just a void left, and that's what happened," says Gage.
The company declined comment Tuesday, but issued a statement on Wednesday saying, "Since beginning work on Feb. 4, 2007, IAP's personnel and staff have responded with a sense of urgency to address maintenance concerns throughout the Walter Reed Army Medical Center complex."
Congressional investigators say that last month about 100 private workers took over jobs previously performed by 350 government employees — with a huge task ahead.