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Military chiefs defend veterans' care, shipbuilding costs

Most problems with treatment occur once the severely wounded have left the services and are waiting to get into other treatment programs, officials say.

Navy and Marine Corps leaders on Thursday had to respond to concerns from House Armed Services Committee members over the care of combat-wounded personnel and problems with several of their key procurement programs.

The questions posed to Navy Secretary Donald Winter, Chief of Naval Operations Michael Mullen and Marine Corps Commandant James Conway about casualty care were generated by recent news stories about gaps in treatment for wounded personnel recovering at the Army's Walter Reed Medical Center and a TV documentary about ABC reporter Bob Woodruff that dealt with care for brain-damaged troops.

The leaders said they had reviewed their medical facilities and found no similar problems at the Bethesda Naval Medical Center or at hospitals on their bases. Mullen noted that "very few" sailors were in the kind of long-term recovery as the personnel at Walter Reed.

He and Winter said most of the problems with treatment for the severely wounded occurred after they left the services and were waiting to get into other treatment programs.

Conway said care for wounded Marines has been a priority for him and he cited the "Wounded Warrior Regiment" that is being formed with units at the two largest Marine bases to ensure they are cared for during recovery or rehabilitation.

Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., noted the tragic incident of a wounded Marine Reservist from his state who committed suicide when unable to get VA treatment and said the Marine program should be "the absolute model" for extended care of battle casualties. "We need to ensure that they don't fall through the cracks, and they are," he said.

Most of the committee's attention, however, was focused on the soaring cost overruns and major development problems with several Navy and Marine procurement programs, with the Littoral Combat Ship the primary concern.

House Armed Services Chairman Ike Skelton, D-Mo., said the slow shipbuilding rate has reduced the fleet to 274 ships, which he called "a shocking number." He noted that Mullen's 30-year plan to rebuild the fleet to 313 ships depended upon buying 55 of the ships, but the first ones in the class were running at least 50 percent over the predicted cost of $270 million.

"I remain very concerned that cost growth in ships construction could cripple the plan as early as this year," he said.

In a statement read for the record, Armed Services ranking member Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., also cited the 30-year shipbuilding plan and said "you can't get there if every ship the Navy buys is over budget."

Winter acknowledged the problems with LCS and said reviews were being completed to determine the actual cost of the first two LCSs and how the program went wrong. But he said the Navy had determined it needed to exercise more control over its ship construction programs, would stop trying to build while finishing the design, as they did with LCS, and would not award construction contracts until they had a fixed design. That would allow them to use fixed-price-incentive contracts, instead of the cost-plus agreements used with LCS, he said.