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Generals tried to impede Afghan hospital probe, report says

WASHINGTON – The top U.S. general responsible for training the Afghan military and his deputy tried to impede their staff from contacting investigators about patient abuse at the largest military hospital in the war-torn country, according to the Pentagon’s inspector general.

The two generals sought in 2011 to restrict contact with a team of investigators probing allegations of corruption and substandard patient care – including the starving of Afghan military patients and filthy conditions – at Dawood National Military Hospital, according to an inspector general’s report obtained by Bloomberg News.

Army Secretary John McHugh should “take appropriate action against” Lt. General William Caldwell, who has since retired, and his deputy, Army Maj. Gen. Gary Patton, who now heads the Pentagon’s sexual-assault prevention office, the inspector general said in the Aug. 13 report.

The generals “attempted to limit” contacts and “required all communications” with the inspector general “be approved prior to release,” the report found. They acted after the training command’s own inspector general submitted a seven-page assessment in February 2011 documenting substandard patient care to the investigating team without the general’s knowledge.

While Caldwell has retired, he could be handed a reprimand and a demotion in rank that would result in reduced retirement benefits. Patton, who was cited for forwarding one of Caldwell’s emails ordering limits on outside contacts, also could face a reduction in rank or a reprimand.

Caldwell declined to comment for this story, according to Army spokesman George Wright. Patton also declined to comment, according to Army Lt. Col. Catherine Wilkinson, his spokeswoman at the Pentagon’s sexual-assault prevention office.

The report marks the fifth time this year that the Defense Department’s inspector general said it substantiated allegations of misconduct or abusive management style by senior Army officers. The previous cases involved officers in South Korea, the U.S. Africa Command, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and the Missile Defense Agency.

“We substantiated the allegations of restriction,” Acting Inspector General Lynne Halbrooks wrote McHugh. “The evidence established that LTG Caldwell issued restrictive orders via three e-mails to subordinate members of his command.”

Halbrooks asked McHugh for a response within 60 days. Wright said in an emailed statement that the service is “in receipt of the report, and it is currently undergoing appropriate staff review.”

Caldwell had ordered that all contacts on the hospital issue be approved by him after Army Col. Mark Fassl, the inspector general for the training command, went directly to the Pentagon inspector general’s team with the 2011 assessment.

It alleged shortcomings in patient care at the hospital, with “pictures of starving Afghan soldiers” that “reflected the poor treatment they received,” according to the Pentagon inspector general’s report.

Dawood, with 410 beds, is the largest of six Afghan-run national hospitals for that country’s soldiers and is supported by U.S. funding.

Wounded soldiers were “subjected to disgraceful conditions, abuse, starvation and neglect,” Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said in a Sept. 11 letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel demanding that the two generals be disciplined.

Afghan soldiers were “allegedly ‘extorted for medical care’ and there was no anesthesia for operations, no heat, maggots crawling from festering wounds and feces on the floor,” Grassley said, citing testimony by Fassl and other witnesses at a July 2012 hearing of a House subcommittee.

Caldwell told investigators that he and his staff were “caught completely off guard” when they were contacted about Fassl’s assessment, according to the report.

“Any commander would have been frustrated by this situation,” Caldwell said in a rebuttal included with the report.

Caldwell retired this month as commander of the U.S. 5th Army after a 37-year career and is now president of the Georgia Military College, a junior college and preparatory school based in Milledgeville, Georgia.

Patton facilitated the restrictive orders by forwarding an e-mail from Caldwell when he was in Brussels at a conference of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the report said. Patton wrote in his rebuttal that he acted in “an attempt to manage communications and synchronize the staff on an issue of great importance to the command.”

Patton said that information provided outside the chain of command wasn’t “protected communications” that fall under whistle-blower protection laws.

The investigative report found that Patton “was uniquely positioned to question the restrictive order, or at least ask for clarification. Not only did he not question LTG’s Caldwell’s orders, he forwarded them.”

Grassley, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, wrote to Hagel that the generals “engaged in a pattern of misconduct designed to effectively ’restrict’ five officers and a civilian deputy from reporting fraud and theft.”

Republican Representative Jason Chaffetz of Utah, chairman of the panel that held the House hearing on Dawood, said in an e-mail that “whistle-blowers need to be allowed unfettered access to the IG and members of Congress” and that he would follow up on the Pentagon’s response to the inspector general’s findings.

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