WASHINGTON — Senators vowed Tuesday to consider all options to fix a broken system of caring for wounded troops as President Bush said former Sen. Bob Dole and former HHS Secretary Donna Shalala will lead the administration’s investigation into problems at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
“The war in Iraq has divided our nation but the cause of supporting our troops unites us,” said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., who chairs the Armed Services Committee. “We will do everything we can possibly do — not as Democrats or Republicans — but as grateful Americans — to care for those who have served our nation with such honor and distinction.”
As his panel questioned top defense officials, Levin also used the revelations of bad conditions and outpatient care at Walter Reed to take a swipe at President Bush’s war polices.
“Today’s hearing is about another example of the lack of planning for a war that was premised on the assumption that combat operations would be swift, casualties would be minimal, and that we would be welcomed as liberators, instead of being attacked by the people we liberated,” he said.
Levin’s panel convened the second congressional hearing in two days regarding the poor conditions at Walter Reed. Reports of wounded troops battling excessive red tape and dilapidated living conditions have enraged Republicans and Democrats, who say they are worried that problems at Walter Reed point to a broader problem of neglect across the nation at military hospitals.
Bush names Bush, Shalala in inquiry
Meanwhile, Bush told an American Legion audience that had chosen bipartisan leaders — Dole and Shalala — to head the White House probe. “We have a moral obligation to provide the best possible care and treatment to the men and women who served our country,” Bush said in a speech to the American Legion. “They deserve it and they’re going to get it.”
Dole was a longtime Republican senator from Kansas and one-time GOP presidential candidate and Shalala headed the Department of Health and Human Services during the Clinton administration.
At Tuesday’s Senate hearing, David Chu, the personnel chief at the Pentagon, also promised action.
“I’m deeply chagrined by the events that bring us to this hearing this morning,” Chu said.
Video: Monday's hearing Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Congress in coming weeks will consider whether legislation or additional resources are needed.
“I am dismayed this ever occurred,” said McCain, top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, who was captured and wounded during the Vietnam War. “It was a failure in the most basic tenants of command responsibility to take care of our troops.”
Fears of ‘tip of the iceberg’
During a hearing Monday, two soldiers wounded in combat and a spouse of a wounded soldier recounted nightmarish stories of frustration as they tried to get medical attention and disability compensation.
“I’m afraid this is just the tip of the iceberg, that, when we (get) out into the field, we may find more of this,” said Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., a member of the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee that held the Monday session.
Army officials said they accept responsibility but denied knowing about most of the problems.
“As we’ve seen, in the last couple of weeks, we have failed to meet our own standards at Walter Reed. For that, I’m both personally and professionally sorry,” said Lt. Gen. Kevin C. Kiley, who was in charge of Walter Reed from 2000 until 2004, when he became Army surgeon general.
Kiley has said he had been aware of some issues, including an October service assessment citing problems with Walter Reed staffing, medical evaluations and patient handling. But Kiley told the Senate panel he was not aware of specific problems, including a backlog of maintenance orders and a lack of staff to conduct room inspections.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., said Congress might need to revisit an earlier decision to close Walter Reed in light of the increasing number of wounded troops from Iraq. Sen. John Warner, R-Va., said lawmakers should examine its own oversight process, which failed to unearth problems.
Democrats have vowed to add money to the Bush administration’s request for war spending to take care of wounded active-duty troops and improve health care for retired veterans.
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