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Bush taps retired general to head Veterans Affairs

Peake is a former surgeon general for the US Army

James Peake was decorated for his Vietnam service. James Peake was decorated for his Vietnam service.

WASHINGTON - President Bush yesterday nominated retired Army Lieutenant General James Peake to direct the embattled Department of Veterans Affairs, which is strained by the influx of wounded troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

"He will work tirelessly to eliminate backlogs and ensure that our veterans receive the benefits they need to lead lives of dignity and purpose," Bush said.

Peake, 63, is a physician who spent 40 years in military medicine and was decorated for his service in Vietnam. He retired from the Army in 2004 after being lead commander in several medical posts, including four years as US Army surgeon general.

"He will be the first physician and the first general to serve as secretary," Bush said, standing next to Peake in the Roosevelt Room.

The nomination is being made as the administration and Congress struggle to find clear answers to some of the worst problems afflicting wounded warriors, such as receiving adequate mental health treatment and timely payment of disability benefits. Disclosures emerged in February of shoddy outpatient treatment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Peake is chief medical director and chief operating officer of QTC Management Inc., which provides government-outsourced occupational health, injury, and disability examination services. If confirmed by the Senate, Peake would lead the government's second-largest agency, with 235,000 employees, in the waning months of the Bush administration.

In his new post, Peake, the son of a medical services officer and Army nurse, would manage the VA, which has been criticized for poor coordination in providing medical treatment and disability benefits to millions of veterans.

Earlier this year, a presidential commission chaired by former senator Bob Dole, Republican of Kansas, and Donna Shalala, former Health and Human Services secretary during the Clinton administration, proposed sweeping changes that could add to the VA's backlogged system by shifting most of the responsibility in awarding disability benefits from the Pentagon to the VA.

Veterans Affairs Secretary James Nicholson resigned in July, effective Oct. 1. Gordon Mansfield, the VA's deputy secretary, has been serving as acting secretary.

The VA's backlog is 400,000 to 600,000 claims, with delays of 177 days. Nicholson in May pledged to cut that time to 145 days, but he has made little headway with thousands of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan returning home.

"There is a lot of work to be done as we move forward on implementing the Dole-Shalala commission recommendations," Peake said. "The disability system is largely a 1945 product, 1945 processes around a 1945 family unit. About everybody that has studied it recently said it is time to do some revisions."

Senator Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington and a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said Peake will have to prove he is up to the task of improving the veterans care system.

"The burden is on Dr. Peake to prove to veterans around the country that he can be the honest, independent advocate we need to turn the VA around," Murray said. "Given Dr. Peake's past posts running the Army healthcare system, he will have serious and significant questions to answer about failed preparations for our returning wounded warriors."

Among the likely questions: what Peake knew about the problems of poor care at Walter Reed when he was Army surgeon general from 2000-2004.

In March, the Army forced out Peake's successor as surgeon general, Lieutenant General Kevin C. Kiley, who also headed Walter Reed from 2002 to 2004, following the disclosures of squalid living conditions and bureaucratic delays at the hospital. Nicholson announced his resignation in July as the Bush administration struggled to defend continuing allegations of poor treatment at Walter Reed as well as VA facilities.

Peake, a graduate of the US Military Academy at West Point, was awarded the Silver Star and Purple Heart for his service in Vietnam as a platoon leader with the 101st Airborne Division. He was wounded twice in battle and received his acceptance letter to Cornell University Medical College while in the hospital recovering from injury.

As surgeon general of the US Army, he commanded 50,000 medical personnel and 187 Army medical facilities across the world.

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