Remarks by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Adm. Edmund Giambastiani
SEC. GATES: Thank you all for being with us this morning. I want to start by saying that like many Americans, I was dismayed to learn this past week that some of our injured troops were not getting the best possible treatment at all stages of their recovery, in particular the outpatient care. This is unacceptable and it will not continue.
I just met with the President this morning before coming out here, to brief him on the situation and on the actions that are under way. He is, understandably, concerned and emphatic in wanting the best possible care for our wounded soldiers and for their families.
I'm grateful to reporters for bringing this problem to our attention, but very disappointed we did not identify it ourselves. Our nation is truly blessed that so many talented and patriotic young people have stepped forward to serve. The men and women recovering at Walter Reed and at other military hospitals have put their lives on the line and paid a considerable price for defending our country. They should not have to recuperate in substandard housing, nor should they be expected to tackle mountains of paperwork and bureaucratic processes during this difficult period for themselves and for their families. They battled our foreign enemies; they should not have to battle an American bureaucracy.
To the best of my knowledge, there have not been complaints about the world-class level of medical care these troops have received, and that was true of the soldiers we just met with.
The issues raised this past week are about outpatient facilities and administration. These outpatient troops deserve a clean, relaxing place to recuperate from their injuries and ample assistance to navigate the next steps in their lives.
Today I'm announcing the formation of a independent review group. This group, which consists of eight military, medical and political leaders, will take a broad look at all our rehabilitative care and administrative processes here at Walter Reed and at the National Naval Medical Center. The co-chairs of this group are Togo West, former secretary of Veterans Affairs and secretary of the Army under President Clinton, and Jack Marsh, former secretary of the Army under President Reagan. The other members of the group are Dr. Joe Schwarz, former Republican congressman from Michigan; Jim Bacchus, former Democratic congressman from Florida who is now at Vanderbilt University; retired General John Jumper, former Air Force chief of staff; retired Lieutenant General Chip Roadman, former Air Force surgeon general; retired Rear Admiral Kathy Martin, former Navy deputy surgeon general; and retired Command Sergeant Major Larry Holland, formerly with the assistant secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs.
This group will inspect the current situation at Walter Reed here in Washington, the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda and any other centers they choose to examine.
I have no information to suggest there are problems at Bethesda or elsewhere such as we have learned about here at Walter Reed, but we need to know the scope of this problem.
I appreciate the willingness of each of these men and women to serve on this panel. This group will have special advisors in the areas of social work, rehabilitation, psychological counseling and family support issues. They will be given free and unrestricted access to facilities and personnel. The group will report back their findings and recommendations within 45 days to the secretary of the Army, the secretary of the Navy, and the assistant secretary of Defense for Health Affairs. Their report will be made available to the Congress and to the public.
A final point on the question of accountability. A bedrock principle of our military system is that we empower commanders with the responsibility, authority and resources necessary to carry out their mission. With responsibility comes accountability. It is my strong belief that an organization with the enormous responsibilities of the Department of Defense must live by this principle of accountability at all levels. Accordingly, after the facts are established, those responsible for having allowed this unacceptable situation to develop will indeed be held accountable.
I'd be happy to take some questions.
Q Secretary Gates, do you support Lieutenant General Kiley's comments yesterday that The Post story was one-sided and that there was not a breakdown in leadership and that he did not consider Building 18 substandard?
SEC. GATES: My recollection from reading that story was that he did not quarrel with any of the conclusions or any of the facts as presented in the article. I think his concern was more about tone.
I think that some of those issues remain to be seen, and those are the kinds of things that I want the review group to look at.
Q Mr. Secretary, you talked about accountability. Has anyone in the chain of command offered to resign over these problems?
SEC. GATES: No one. No one has offered to resign at this point.
Q How do you feel about that?
SEC. GATES: Well, first of all, there have been -- we are not going to wait 45 days to begin addressing these problems. And so there have been some people who are most directly involved, who have been relieved. But we will be looking and evaluating the rest of the chain of command as we get more information.
Q Can I ask you about the -- another subject, the call-up of National Guard units, the accelerated call-up for duty in Iraq next year? Can you explain why that was felt necessary?
SEC. GATES: That really is -- I'll ask the admiral to comment on this as well, but my understanding is that that really -- if you're talking about the article in the paper earlier this week, that really was about FY -- or into calendar year '08.
And it's the implications of our deployments to Iraq right now, including the reinforcement, and the impact of that on the call-up dates during 2008. Obviously, the situation and requirement will depend on the situation on the ground.
ADM. GIAMBASTIANI: What this is about is the secretary last month talked about unit mobilizations and alertments for our National Guard, for example. And when we do this, we are going to do this mobilization period for a year. The intent of us doing that was to give them sufficient time ahead of time and alert them well in advance, so that we could get lots of the training, all of the types of administrative items done so that when they came in, they would be mobilized for just a short period of time: that one year, as opposed to 18 or 24 months. That is something that all of us military leaders wanted to do -- was limit the mobilization period to short ones. And the National Guard leaders across all of the states are very much in support of that.
Q (Off mike) -- meeting with some of the outpatient soldiers. Did you have a message for those in uniform and their families about where we go from here?
SEC. GATES: Well, I think that the senior leadership at the Department of Defense knows how strongly I feel about this.
I walked into my staff meeting Tuesday morning with the two articles from The Washington Post in my hand.
I think that the senior military leaders -- and I certainly share their view -- feel very strongly about this because this is about our family, and it appears to us that some of our family may not have been treated the way they should have been. And it's not just the facilities. Based on the soldiers we were just talking to and some of the things we've heard, there are some real problems in terms of the size of staffing, in terms of administrative tie-ups, bureaucratic or paperwork issues.
Everybody agrees that the medical care that they have received here at Walter Reed is just unsurpassable, that it is the best they could ever have hoped for. And their treatment while here, and their families', has been superb. It's the outpatient aspect of this. And we are just determined to fix it. These wounded soldiers deserve the best of everything, as far as all of us are concerned. And, you know, there's a lot in the papers about disagreements on Capitol Hill, and so on. I'll tell you, if there's one thing that everybody is unanimous on, it is how these soldiers need to be treated. And so we're determined to fix it and fix it fast.
Q Mr. Secretary, there have been two cases in which rape allegations have been leveled against Iraqi security forces. Are you concerned that this will aggravate sectarian violence there? And what has the U.S. military done? What actions has the military taken either to investigate or otherwise?
SEC. GATES: I don't know the answers to your question -- to the second part of your question. The first part, there certainly has been a lot of publicity attached to these rape allegations. I think anything like that has the potential to aggravate the situation. I hope it won't.
Q (Off mike.)
SEC. GATES: Well, there are some immediate fixes that we can take, just like there are some immediate fixes on the facilities. We really have just a snapshot at this point from talking to five soldiers, but it sounds like they have some very dedicated case officers who work extra hours, who work seven days a week, who are really dedicated. But some of them, maybe many of them, are overwhelmed. There's just too much work for the number of people that are available. So that's one thing that can be addressed pretty quickly.
In terms of whether there are deeper and more difficult problems, those are the kinds of things I think that the review group will take a look at.
Q Mr. Secretary, you told us a few weeks ago we are not planning a war against Iran. In an interview with ABC recently, the vice president said we have not taken any options off the table, which makes it sound as if there is at least some kind of contingency planning for possible future action against Iran. Can you elaborate?
SEC. GATES: I think that there's nothing incompatible between those two statements.
Q (Off mike.) China is due to announce its defense budget -- (off mike). Is there a concern that that state budget may not reflect the full thrust of China's -- (off mike) -- and that the Chinese, in fact -- (off mike)?
SEC. GATES: Well, I think that in the absence of something like congressional oversight, it's pretty easy for other states to disguise exactly how much they're spending on their military forces. This obviously was a huge problem with the Soviet Union. My suspicion is that the Chinese are probably spending more on their military than will be reflected in the state budget.
Q (Off mike.)
SEC. GATES: There are developments under way with respect to the Chinese military capabilities that are a concern, yes.
Q Mr. Secretary, back on Iran, with the U.N.'s determination yesterday that they're not following the rules and they're closer to a bomb than anybody thought, does this move military action up at all on the list of options? Or is the administration perhaps preparing to accept a nuclear-armed Iran, like it has had to accept a nuclear-armed North Korea?
SEC. GATES: I think the administration's focus at this point continues to be on a diplomatic solution to the problem.
Q Following up on a question asked earlier, General Kiley called The Washington Post articles one-sided. Do you agree with that characterization?
SEC. GATES: I don't know how to characterize the articles other than I'm not going to use other people's characterizations. All I can tell you is that I read the articles on Sunday and Monday, and I was upset by them. And I have not seen anything or heard anything in the time since then to lead me to believe that those articles were in any substantial way wrong.
Thank you, all, very much.
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