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Responsibility for Walter Reed lies at the top

Military leaders must ensure care gets to troops, not just offered to them

Following the money at Walter Reed
March 6: Was care at Walter Reed compromised by outside contractors? MSNBC's Joe Scarborough asks Iraqi War Veteran Paul Rieckhoff why warnings were ignored.
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Jack Jacobs
Military analyst

The revelations about malfeasance at Walter Reed Army Medical Center are making Americans angry, and for a number of very good reasons.

We have precious few brave patriots who have volunteered to protect our Republic, and they have been asked to fight a particularly frustrating and unpopular conflict. Furthermore, it seems clear that insufficient thought has been given to many aspects of fighting the war, and one could argue persuasively that the nation’s leadership has not deserved the magnificent troops it has employed.

The story about how Walter Reed Army Medical Center failed our troops, however, has focused America’s irritation much more efficiently than have the war’s tactical and strategic missteps. But just as we can distinguish between the troops and their mission, we need to distinguish between organizing to deliver medical care and the care itself.

Injured soldiers are in the best hands
The military establishment is providing superb, state-of-the-art medical care. I’ve visited hospitals in Iraq, for example, and discovered that, if a soldier arrives alive at a field medical facility, he has a 98 percent chance of surviving, no matter how grievous the wounds. By contrast, in Vietnam, it was often difficult to evacuate wounded soldiers, and many succumbed to their wounds before reaching a field hospital.

About a week ago, I had the opportunity to have a chat with Bob Woodruff, the ABC anchor who was badly wounded in Iraq. He, like I did about 40 years ago, received a head wound, and I regaled him with experiences like the frustration of trying to recall simple events, the loss of senses like taste and smell, a persistent (and annoying) ringing in the ears, and repetitive surgery.

Woodruff is in astonishingly good shape. At one level of analysis, his recovery is the result of rapid evacuation, an iron constitution, an optimistic outlook, and a supportive family. But it is also due to magnificent military medical care, the kind that saves our troops every day

Breakdown in care implementation
However, this good news does not offset the shabby administration of this care, and the chain-of-command is responsible for both the care and the way in which it is delivered. A commander is responsible for everything that happens -- or fails to happen -- in his organization. He has many subordinate leaders to assist in taking care of the troops, but there is no substitute for supervision. To quote Ronald Reagan’s apt observation: “Trust, but verify.” It is a basic tenet of leadership that is instinctive, but it is taught anyway to everyone who wears the uniform of our nation.

That is why it was so galling to hear testimony in which Lt. Gen. Kevin Kiley, the Surgeon General of the entire U.S. Army, admitted that he doesn’t “do barracks inspections at Walter Reed.”

He doesn’t? Then what does he do? Meetings? Lunches?

The responsibility of a leader
What is more important than spending as much time as possible dealing with the soldiers in your care? And if you don’t do barracks inspections, how can you be sure that your subordinates are inspecting? Indeed, unless you personally check, how can you be sure that anything that is supposed to happen is actually happening?

You can’t.

Those for whom leadership and responsibility are vague, disembodied concepts evidently find it easy to ignore them. And tragically, even those who understand these imperatives as young leaders often forget them when they rise to senior levels. After all, it’s a pretty heady thing to be a general officer. There are so many distractions and seemingly important, but really rather superficial, things to do. But leaders who eschew rolling up their sleeves should ponder how attentive they would be if their own sons and daughters were among those ignored.

Well, they are your sons and daughters.

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