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Bush appoints team to look into veterans' care

Congressional Democrats consider a $5-billion funding increase on the second day of heated hearings.

March 07, 2007|James Gerstenzang and Richard Simon | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Struggling with political fallout over shabby treatment of wounded soldiers, President Bush on Tuesday named ex-Sen. Bob Dole and former Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala to lead an investigation into care provided at military and veterans' facilities.

Democratic leaders in Congress, meanwhile, launched an effort to increase funding for veterans' care.

The moves came as lawmakers, holding a second day of hearings on reports of substandard housing and poor outpatient treatment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, pondered whether the problems are more widespread.

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) said that, while the Army was moving to address the problems at Walter Reed, he thought Congress would find that the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs have "a system that simply shortchanges those who have served us."

Defense Department witnesses who appeared Tuesday at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing -- David Chu, the Defense undersecretary for personnel and readiness; William Winkenwerder Jr., the assistant Defense secretary for health affairs; Army Chief of Staff Peter J. Schoomaker; and Lt. Gen. Kevin C. Kiley, the Army's chief medical officer -- displayed varying degrees of contrition.

One senator after another challenged the ability and readiness of the Army to meet the medical care demands brought on by the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. A number of senators shared personal stories about their efforts to help wounded soldiers navigate the bureaucracy.

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), recalling his efforts to aid a soldier from his home state, said he called a nurse who was assigned to the patient. "This nurse was apparently very overworked and asked me why I was butting in," he said. "I got to thinking, you know, if a United States senator has trouble trying to cut through the bureaucracy, why wouldn't you expect the average family might have a very serious problem?"

The committee chairman, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), said that after the injured were well enough to be treated as outpatients, the system failed them. "This system places these soldiers in the position of having to fight for a disability rating that entitles them to medical treatment. After all they've been through, these injured soldiers should not feel that they have to fight for what we, as a nation, have a moral obligation to provide," he said.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a Vietnam veteran, said there had been "a failure in the most basic tenets of command responsibility to take care of our troops."

Schoomaker apologized and took responsibility for the conditions at Walter Reed and the failure to correct them. "I can't tell you how disappointed and how absolutely angry I am to have to sit before you today, and to stand accountable for what has occurred in the United States Army," he said.

Decrying the red tape that has tangled soldiers seeking care and decisions about whether they will remain in the service -- and what support they will receive if they leave -- the general added: "I will tell you that we all run in a bureaucratic morass.

"Life every day in this system is like running in hip boots in a swamp," he said. "And it sucks the energy out of you every day, not just in the medical system but in everything else that we do."

Chu, too, expressed regret, saying, "I'm deeply chagrined."

Congressional Democrats are looking at providing an additional $5 billion, perhaps more, for veterans' care -- including increases for treatment of veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injuries. They are considering making the increase part of a nearly $100-billion war-spending measure now moving through Congress.

Democrats also seized on the problems at Walter Reed to ratchet up their criticism of Bush's execution of the war as they consider attaching conditions to his war-funding request. But Bush said it was critical for battlefield commanders to have the flexibility to carry out their missions "without undue interference from politicians."

Bush announced his appointment of Dole, a disabled World War II veteran who was the Republican candidate for the presidency in 1996, and Shalala, who is president of the University of Miami, in an appearance before the American Legion in Washington. He asked the nine-member President's Commission on Care for America's Returning Wounded Warriors to issue its findings by the end of June.

"I am as concerned as you are about the conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center," Bush said, calling the problems at what is considered one of the top military hospitals "unacceptable."

"We have a moral obligation to provide the best possible care and treatment to the men and women who served our country," Bush said. "They deserve it and they're going to get it."


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