WASHINGTON — President Bush apologized Friday for the shoddy conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and promised during a visit to the facility for war veterans that "we're going to fix the problem."
Critics questioned the timing of Bush's visit six weeks after poor conditions and neglect of veterans were exposed there.
Bush toured the main hospital and Abrams Hall, where soldiers were transferred after they were vacated from the facility's Building 18, the site of moldy walls, rodent infestation and other problems that went unchecked until reported by the media. He said his conversations with those who had been in Building 18 left him "disturbed by their accounts."
Ten purple hearts awarded
"The problems at Walter Reed were caused by bureaucratic and administrative failures," the president told about 100 medical workers and patients at the hospital. "The system failed you and it failed our troops and we're going to fix it."
Among the areas of the hospital that Bush toured were a typical - but empty - patient room in Abrams Hall that featured a large wide-screen television and a Macintosh computer, and the physical therapy unit of the main hospital. Along the way, he awarded 10 Purple Hearts to soldiers recovering from serious wounds suffered in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"It is not right to have someone volunteer to wear the uniform and not get the best possible care," the president said at the end of his more than two-hour visit, cut short from its planned length by almost an hour. "I apologize for what they went through and we're going to fix the problem."
He said important steps, including the replacement of military leadership in charge of the hospital and the establishment of several commissions to study the facility and the broader military health care system, have been taken already.
But, Bush added: "We're not going to be satisfied until everyone gets the kind of care that their folks and families expect."
The president devoted much of his brief statement to praising the medical care that members of the military and veterans receive at Walter Reed.
"The soldiers and Marines stay here only for a few months, but the compassion they receive here stays with them for a lifetime," Bush said. "Americans must understand that the problems recently uncovered at Walter Reed were not the problems of medical care. The quality of care at this fantastic facility is great and it needs to remain that way."
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Retired Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, among retired military officers who took part in a conference call before Bush's visit, praised the president for seeing wounded soldiers. But, he added: "I'm convinced he would honor them more if he would refrain from using soldiers as props in political theater."
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"I would be very happy to see him do the Walter Reed visit more like the commander and secondarily as an inspector general, rather than as a politician," he said.
Bobby Muller, president of Veterans for America, said Bush wasn't seeing areas of the hospital 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. The DOD health care system is still broken. ... Our troops need their commander in chief to start working harder for them."
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino called it "an unfortunate characterization" to say Bush was using Walter Reed as merely a picture-taking opportunity. She said it took some time to clear enough room on the president's schedule to spend an afternoon with patients and staff at Walter Reed.
"There is no more personal moment that he has, and it's one of the memories that I cherish the most of working for the president, because you see his gratitude, and they share hugs, and they share laughter, they share tears," she said.
Perino also said that when the situation at Walter Reed first came to light, "the president immediately took action."
Walter Reed is considered one of the Army's premier facilities for treating the wounded. The revelations in mid-February of poor treatment and neglect of those wounded in war was an embarrassment to Bush, who routinely speaks of the need to support the troops and praises the care they receive back home.
Troops and veterans say many of the issues have been well-known for a while, and have long been in need of greater attention.
In the wake of reports of problems at Walter Reed, three high-level Pentagon officials were forced to step down and lawmakers on Capitol Hill were outraged. 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.
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