FORT RILEY, Kan. The Army's top civilian leader has acknowledged that the military has made mistakes in caring for wounded soldiers and said the system is being fixed.
During his first visit to an Army post since being confirmed by the Senate last week, Army Secretary Pete Geren spent several hours Friday touring Fort Riley's Irwin Army Community Hospital, including a unit that began operating in June as a response to care problems at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
"We have a lot to learn. We had soldiers who slipped through the cracks," Army Secretary Pete Geren told soldiers during the tour. "We have soldiers who let other soldiers down."
Geren became acting Army secretary in March after Francis Harvey resigned over reports of poor conditions at Walter Reed and bureaucratic obstacles to proper care and disability payments. Geren has testified and spoken several times about efforts to change conditions.
During Friday's tour of the Warrior Transition Unit, which helps soldiers recover so they can rejoin their units or return home, Sgt. David Carr of the Missouri National Guard told Geren that he has had bulging discs in his back and was concerned he wasn't getting prompt care.
"I know my congressman is on standby if I don't get it fixed," said Carr, 50, who works at an ammunition plant in Independence, Mo.
Geren and hospital officials said that they would look into his case and that they were pleased he was willing to speak up if not satisfied.
"We're building a new system, and we want the system to work. The only way it will work is if you are frank and candid," Geren said.
The Army has been under increasing pressure to improve conditions at its medical facilities since the Walter Reed discovery. In recent weeks, it has announced new initiatives to address medical care, including more support for soldiers returning from war with mental illness and mild brain injuries.
Geren, nominated by President Bush in May, was an assistant to former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and was a Democratic congressman from Fort Worth, Texas, from 1989 to 1997. He also is a former acting secretary of the Air Force.
During his visit to Fort Riley, Geren also was to meet with families of deployed soldiers and check on the effort to train military advisers. Fort Riley is preparing Army, Air Force and Navy personnel for 12-month missions to Iraq and Afghanistan, where they work to train those countries' army and police forces.
The Army continues to invest in family and soldier support, including $100 million to increase the presence in each battalion, Geren told a breakfast gathering of state and local officials. At Fort Riley, that means 22 new staff positions to assist families.
Geren also discussed the future of the Army and its reserve components, saying the Army must do a better job of equipping National Guard forces to go to combat and continue their state missions.
"This is a challenging time for our Army," Geren said.