Navy Admits Failure to Create New 'World Class' Walter Reed National Military Medical Center at Bethesda

10/18/2009 12:44 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

" I appreciate your passion for wanting the best facility possible and can sense your frustration. ... I know this may not seem to make sense but it is how the construction process works."

Thus begins an e-mail from a Navy Captain in a senior leadership position to an irate Army Colonel (Ret) emergency room chief decrying the plans and construction for the new Walter Reed National Military Medical Center at Bethesda. Apparently at Bethesda, integrity and character are becoming issues similar to when Walter Reed's command structure failed to properly look after our wounded troops not all that long ago.

From at least the days of Rome, the mantra of the outstanding military officer was 'first, the horses, then the men, then you'. Department of Defense (DoD) seems to have forgotten both this mantra and those traits. I am not speaking of major betrayals of the troops as in the Tillman Case. I am talking about the insidious onset of 'cooperation, kindness and professionalism' (from the Captain's e-mail) which can lead to necessary but often treacherous attempts to "do the best we can with what we have'.

Serious integrity and character flaws can develop when immediate superiors oppose identifying areas as not meeting the needs of the troops or the mission. A classic example is the Marine Corps failure to procure MRAP ( Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) vehicles because it might jeopardize procurement of other programs. Marines died in less armored vehicles. Or what happened at Walter Reed when maintenance personnel were cut to levels impossible to accomplish the duties assigned. The result was wounded troops housed in horrendous conditions. In both cases, no one had the courage and integrity to speak up for the troops when those troops needed it most.

There is risk to bearing bad news and there is reward in being silent and doing the best you can in the circumstances. This is why character and integrity are so important in leaders and leadership. The e-mail identified medical treatment and operation issues but the problem is much larger. Simple support of wounded and sick troops and their families will suffer with this transition. Before the war, the average length of stay at Walter Reed lodging's 283 rooms was 22 days which ballooned to 12 to 16 weeks as our wounded soldiers receive specialized, top quality treatment. This lodging is dedicated to providing affordable lodging to service members and their families coming to Walter Reed Medical Center for treatment. Bethesda provides approximately 100 rooms. Given the cost of hotel rooms in Washington DC, this failure to support the military family is unconscionable. What else is inadequate - patient and visitor parking, access roads? Let's request time from Congress to do this right.

Not to personally malign the Navy Captain, I know nothing of the man, but his e-mail displays the classic example of an organization failing to acknowledge that the task and time line are impossible to achieve with resources provided. Now appears to be the precise time to be brutally honest with Congress, the administration and the American military and people. Dr. Stephen Schimpff, retired CEO of the University of Maryland Medical Center and author of "The Future of Medicine -- Megatrends in Healthcare." and a member of a Defense Health Board subcommittee, voiced concerns about the new Walter Reed.

"...I hope it will encourage those in decision-making capacities to move ahead with a master facility plan, a true demand analysis and appropriate renovations to ensure that these issues and others get resolved before the new Walter Reed opens in a few years. It may require some rebudgeting, but our military personnel deserve no less than world-class facilities..."

The task from the BRAC (Defense Base Closure and Realignment) commission and Congress is to build a world class military medical facility. While true, that people are the heart and core of any world class facility, world class facilities attract and enable world class people. The Navy Captain's e-mail clearly indicates that, within the time and funding constraints allowed, a true world class facility cannot be constructed.

It is long past time, for DoD, the Navy and the Joint Chiefs to review the entire project. They must admit that the construction of a true world class facility cannot be accomplished within the time and funding constraints established by Congress. Will our military and civilian defense leadership display both the character and the integrity to guarantee our military receives the world class facility promised by Congress or will they saddle our military with an inadequate facility and hidden costs far into the future? Only DoD and this administration can answer that question. One thing I do know; the answer to that question will be known soon.