`System failed our troops'

Bush tells wounded at Walter Reed that he'll fix problems

March 31, 2007|By Joel Havemann | Joel Havemann,Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- President Bush inspected the much-maligned Walter Reed Army Medical Center yesterday and reiterated his promise to fix the bureaucratic bungling that led to shoddy living conditions and treatment delays for wounded soldiers - problems that sparked a shake-up of top-ranking military officials.

In his first visit to what had been regarded as the nation's premier military hospital since the disclosure of squalid conditions there earlier this year, Bush apologized for "bureaucratic and administrative failures."

"The system failed, and it failed our troops," he said. "And we're going to fix it."

Bush stopped to chat with Army Sgt. David Gardner, who had no complaints about his medical care.

"How you doing, buddy?" Bush asked the Iraq war veteran, who was doing leg presses on a machine to exercise his swollen and scabbed limb, still in a brace, and to get used to the other one now fitted with a prothesis.

Gardner was seriously wounded in Iraq when a small bulldozer, being used to fill a hole caused by an explosion, ran over him amid sniper fire.

His visit did not silence the drumbeat of criticism over the issue. Critics complained that Bush didn't visit Building 18, which is now closed, or other areas of the hospital most in need of change.

"Walter Reed is not a `photo-op,'" said Bobby Muller, president of Veterans for America, who cited Ward 54, where soldiers are suffering from acute mental health conditions, and outpatient holding facilities, where soldiers see long waits to get processed out of the Army.

"Walter Reed is still broken," Muller said. "The DoD health care system is still broken. ... Our troops need their commander in chief to start working harder for them."

Sen. Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat and a leading veterans' advocate, called Bush's visit a "photo op" that would do nothing to cut through the red tape that has ensnarled their care.

"I would have liked to have heard the president say we have a crisis in military health care," Murray said. "I would have liked to have heard him give 60 days to fix not just the physical facilities but the bureaucratic delays that leave some returning servicemen and women sitting in those facilities for up to a year and a half waiting for treatment."

The problems at Walter Reed, first reported by The Washington Post, have given Democrats an opening to attack the administration for sending U.S. forces to Iraq but failing to care for the wounded.

Bush, who since the Iraq war began four years ago has periodically visited Walter Reed's main medical center, spent most of his roughly two hours at the facility yesterday talking with wounded soldiers undergoing physical and occupational therapy.

Many of the problems discovered at the facility concerned its temporary housing and outpatient treatment programs.

"Americans must understand that the problems recently uncovered at Walter Reed were not the problems of medical care," Bush said. "The quality of care at this fantastic facility is great, and it needs to remain that way."

He stressed that three commissions - one centered in the Defense Department, one in the Veterans Affairs Department and one that he appointed, were hard at work on fixing the system.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino called it "an unfortunate characterization" to say that Bush was using Walter Reed as a picture-taking opportunity. She said it took some time to clear enough room on the president's schedule so he could spend time with patients and staff at Walter Reed.

The controversy resulted in Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey's losing his job. The commander of Walter Reed, Maj. Gen. George W. Weightman, was removed from his post, and Lt. Gen. Kevin C. Kiley, the Army's surgeon general and a former commander at Walter Reed, retired under pressure.

Joel Havemann writes for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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