Image: President George W. Bush
Charles Dharapak  /  AP
President Bush, left, praised the military medical staff's work and  said that the new Walter Reed complex would benefit from the work done by the Dole-Shalala woulded warriors commission.
updated 7/3/2008 1:39:18 PM ET 2008-07-03T17:39:18

President Bush turned a shovelful of dirt Thursday to begin construction of a military medical center that will replace the troubled Walter Reed hospital, but keep its famous name.

The new Walter Reed National Medical Center will merge the duties of the existing Army facility in Washington, which came under harsh criticism last year for shoddy care of war veterans, with the operations of the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda.

Bush didn't talk about the institution's problems, instead lauding the work of the military medical staff.

"You soothe the pain and fear of patients, you console families who keep constant vigil over their loved ones, you share the joy of a neurology patient's first recovered words and an amputee's first steps," Bush said at the groundbreaking ceremony in Bethesda.

"When required, you can show tough love, but you also like to remind patients that laughter is the best medicine," Bush said. "And we look forward to the day when the joy of recovery echoes through the halls of a new medical facility that will be built here."

When construction is completed in 2011, the 6.7 million-square-feet facility will have 345 beds. It will merge the resources of the Army, Navy and Air Force, and make it easier for medical professionals from all three services to collaborate and treat patients.

Video: 'Remarkable change' at Walter Reed The image of Walter Reed Army Medical Center, which had already been identified for closure in 2005, was tainted by news of squalid conditions and inadequate outpatient care. The disclosures 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 media. Bush later apologized to troops, saying that the problems at Walter Reed were caused by bureaucratic and administrative failures.

At the groundbreaking, Bush didn't criticize Walter Reed, saying only that the new complex will benefit from the work done by the Dole-Shalala wounded warriors commission, which issued recommendations for modernizing and improving the nation's military health care system. Bush created the commission, led by former Sen. Robert Dole, R-Kan., and Donna Shalala, President Clinton's secretary of health and human services, to make recommendations following the Walter Reed disclosures.

Bush was joined by military officials and U.S. troops for the outdoor event at the naval hospital, which was dedicated by President Franklin Roosevelt in the early years of World War II. Roosevelt, Bush said, called the military surgeons, nurses, scientists and technicians the "anonymous heroes" of the war.

"More than six decades later, our nation is engaged in a very different battle for our freedom, yet our success still relies on these anonymous heroes — the heroes who care for the troops, those troops who keep the American people safe," Bush said.

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