WASHINGTON - Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey abruptly stepped down Friday as the Bush administration struggled to cope with the fallout from a scandal over substandard conditions for war-wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
Harvey's departure, announced on short notice by a visibly agitated Defense Secretary Robert Gates, was the most dramatic move in an escalating removal of officials with responsibilities over one of the military's highest-profile and busiest medical facilities.
Hours earlier, President Bush ordered a comprehensive review of conditions at the nation's network of military and veteran hospitals, which has been overwhelmed by injured troops from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Gates said Harvey had resigned, but senior defense officials speaking on condition of anonymity said Gates had privately demanded that Harvey leave. Gates was displeased that the officer Harvey had chosen as interim commander of Walter Reed - Lt. Gen. Kevin Kiley, the current Army surgeon general and a former commander of Walter Reed - has been accused by critics of long knowing about the problems there and not improving outpatient care.
"I am disappointed that some in the Army have not adequately appreciated the seriousness of the situation pertaining to outpatient care at Walter Reed," Gates said in the Pentagon briefing room. He took no questions from reporters.
Harvey was at Fort Benning, Ga., on Friday morning when he cut short his visit to return to Washington to meet with Gates.
In an interview in his office shortly after the announcement, Harvey said he offered Gates his resignation because he believed the Army let the wounded soldiers down. He said the furor has depressed the staff at Walter Reed, and he wanted to prevent any others from leaving or being fired.
"We can't have them leave," he said. "We can't have them be so demoralized that they leave. So I figured what the heck, if I offer my resignation that may stop all this bleeding and it was accepted."
Asked if Gates prodded him to leave, Harvey acknowledged the secretary wasn't happy with the way the Army handled the matter. But he said he had been thinking about stepping down for a few days and, "I submitted my resignation."
He added, "We let the soldiers down, I'm the head of the Army. I thought it was necessary to do that."
On Thursday, Harvey fired the medical center's previous commander, Maj. Gen. George Weightman, for failures linked to the outpatient treatment controversy. Many had speculated that Weightman would be relieved of command, but Harvey's departure was a surprise. His last day in the job will be March 9.
Peter Geren, the undersecretary of the Army, will serve as Harvey's temporary replacement until Bush nominates a new secretary.
As Army secretary, Harvey is the service's top civilian official. He commands no troops. Along with the four-star general who is Army chief of staff, the secretary has statutory responsibility for training and equipping the Army. That includes responsibility for budgeting, recruiting and other personnel and resource policies.
The Army announced Friday that Maj. Gen. Eric B. Schoomaker, 58, will be the new commander of Walter Reed, which is located in Washington.
"From what I have learned, the problems at Walter Reed appear to be problems of leadership," Gates said. "The Walter Reed doctors, nurses and other staff are among the best and most caring in the world. They deserve our continued deepest thanks and strongest support." Harvey said the Army was addressing the problems but added that since the revelations have now ruined Weightman's career and that of several other lower level solders, perhaps his own departure will "will stop further dismissals." The revelations about shoddy facilities and wounded soldiers enduring long waits for treatment have embarrassed the Army and the Bush administration at a time when the White House is scrambling to shore up eroding support for the Iraq war. It has prompted numerous calls in Congress for more information, and sullied the reputation of what is supposed to be one of the military's foremost medical facilities. An internal memo from Weightman last fall requested funding and additional personnel, saying that if shortfalls and the loss of skilled staff were not addressed "patient care services are at risk of mission failure." Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, applauded Harvey's departure. "I commend him for taking responsibility for the problems at Walter Reed," Skelton said. The defense secretary indicated he was unhappy with the way Army leaders had responded to the Walter Reed disclosures. "Some have shown too much defensiveness and have not shown enough focus on digging into and addressing the problems," Gates said. "Also I am concerned that some do not properly understand the need to communicate to the wounded and their families that we have no higher priority than their care and that addressing their concerns about the quality of their outpatient experience is critically important. Our wounded soldiers and their families have sacrificed much and they deserve the best we can offer." The White House said the president would name a bipartisan commission to assess whether the problems at Walter Reed exist at other facilities. Last week, Gates created an outside panel to review the situation at Walter Reed and the other major military hospital in the Washington area, the National Naval Medical Center at Bethesda, Md. The actions come after The Washington Post documented squalid living conditions for some outpatient soldiers at Walter Reed and bureaucratic problems that prevented many troops from getting adequate care. Harvey has been Army secretary since November 2004. He is the second consecutive Army secretary to be removed abruptly from office. In April 2003, then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld fired Thomas White, who had engaged in public disputes with Rumsfeld. A former businessman trained as an engineer, Harvey counted as one of his proudest achievements a turnaround of the Army's recent recruiting slump. The Army missed its recruiting goal 2005 for the first time since 1999, and that same year Harvey instituted a series of changes that led to a recovery in recruiting. (AP) Associated Press writer Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report. (AP) On the Net: Defense Department: http://www.defenselink.mil AP-CS-03-02-07 2119EST