Bush visits troops at Walter Reed, apologizes for poor conditions
Vows fix, blames bureaucracy for problems
WASHINGTON -- President Bush apologized to troops face to face yesterday for the shoddy conditions they have endured at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. He shook the artificial hand of a lieutenant and cradled a newborn whose father is nursing his remaining, severely injured leg back to health.
"The problems at Walter Reed were caused by bureaucratic and administrative failures," Bush said during a nearly three-hour visit to the medical center -- his first since reports surfaced of shabby conditions for veterans in outpatient housing. "The system failed you and it failed our troops, and we're going to fix it."
News that war veterans were not getting adequate care stunned the public, outraged Capitol Hill, and forced three high-level Pentagon officials to step down. Bush met with soldiers once housed in Building 18 who endured moldy walls, rodents, and other problems that went unchecked until reported by the news media.
"I was disturbed by their accounts of what went wrong," Bush said. "It is not right to have someone volunteer to wear our uniform and not get the best possible care. I apologize for what they went through, and we're going to fix the problem."
He did not visit Building 18, which is now closed.
Bush critics questioned the timing of the president's visit -- six weeks after the problems were exposed and in the middle of the White House's battle with Congress over funding for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan .
Army Lieutenant General Robert Gard, one of the retired military officers who took part in a conference call before Bush's visit, said the president needs to make sure the problems are corrected.
"We have been shortchanging these returning soldiers ever since the conflict began," Gard said. "Look at the inadequate funding in the Veterans Administration. That's caused by the fact that there has been a deliberate underestimate of the number of troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan who will need care. We've got to make this a seamless web between military facilities and the Veterans Administration so the soldiers are not hung out to dry."
Bush has set up three commissions to look into the problems facing military personnel who come off active duty and are moving into veteran status.
The Defense Department's independent review group is to report back by the middle of next month with recommendations on how to improve conditions at Walter Reed. Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson is leading an interagency task force to find gaps in federal services received by wounded troops. A bipartisan commission, chaired by Bob Dole, a former Republican senator from Kansas, and Donna Shalala, President Clinton's secretary of health and human services, will complete its report this summer.
This week, the House voted to create a coterie of case managers, advocates, and counselors for injured troops. The bill also establishes a hot line for medical patients to report problems in their treatment.
Bobby Muller, president of Veterans for America, said Bush didn't see hospital areas most in need of change. He 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 not a photo-op," Muller said. "Walter Reed is still broken."
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino called it "an unfortunate characterization" to say Bush was using Walter Reed as a picture-taking opportunity.
The president awarded 10 Purple Hearts during his visit to Walter Reed, his 12th as president.
Bush went to a building that houses troops who once stayed in Building 18. Afterward, he visited a physical therapy room and ran his hand over the buzz-cut head of Sergeant Mark Ecker Jr. of East Longmeadow, Mass.
"I'm doing great," said Ecker, a double amputee who was wounded by a bomb.
Bush noticed a tattoo of a scantily clad woman on his left arm. "Make sure you get a picture of the tattoo," he said to photographers. "The man's proud of it."
Bush walked up to Army Sergeant David Gardner, who lost a leg and sustained serious injuries to his other leg when a bulldozer, being used to fill a hole caused by an explosion, ran over him in Iraq.
"I was run over by a Bobcat while there was sniper fire going on," Gardner said as he did leg presses. Gardner's wife, Beverly, gave birth to their daughter, Hailey, just days after he came out of a three-week coma.