The Department of Defense (DOD) has often been unresponsive or slow to react to the needs of soldiers and Marines on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as in the United States when they return. “A lesson I learned fairly early on was that important elements of the Department of Defense weren’t at war,” and thus failed to support those who were in a wartime posture, said Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates. Instead, he explained, they were “preoccupied with future capabilities and procurement programs, wedded to lumbering peacetime process and procedures, stuck in bureaucratic low-gear. The needs of those in combat too often were not addressed urgently or creatively.” According to The New York Times, “In Iraq, Army officers say the Air Force has often been out of touch, fulfilling only half of their requests for the sophisticated surveillance aircraft that ground commanders say are needed to find roadside bombs and track down insurgents.” The DOD press office did not respond to a request for comment, but Gates has criticized the Pentagon’s slow initial procurement of MRAPs (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles), saying, “I believe that one factor that delayed the fielding was the pervasive assumption . . . that regimes could be toppled, major combat completed, the insurgency crushed, and most U.S. troops withdrawn fairly soon.” Gates sees a lack of accountability at the root of the problems, citing as an example Walter Reed Army Medical Center: “Over a year ago, The Washington Post broke the story about inadequate out-patient care at Walter Reed. I was disappointed by the initially-dismissive response of some in the Army’s leadership, who went into damage-control mode against the press and, in one case, blamed a couple of sergeants. Wrong move. I concluded responsibility lay much higher and acted accordingly.”
Gates made accountability and responsiveness to the current conflicts his signature. For example, he made MRAP procurement the number one DOD acquisition priority. Soon after the Walter Reed story broke in The Washington Post, Gates and Army Secretary Francis Harvey agreed to fire the chief of Walter Reed, General George Weightman. Harvey resigned soon after reports surfaced that Weightman’s interim replacement (whom Harvey selected) had ignored substandard conditions during an earlier stint as Walter Reed chief.