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At Walter Reed, Bush apologizes

March 31, 2007|Joel Havemann | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — President Bush inspected the much-criticized Walter Reed Army Medical Center on Friday and reiterated his promise to fix the bureaucratic snafus that led to shoddy living conditions and treatment delays for wounded soldiers -- problems that sparked a shake-up of top-ranking military officials.

In his first visit since disclosure of squalid conditions earlier this year at what had been regarded as the nation's premier military hospital, Bush apologized for "bureaucratic and administrative failures."

"The system failed ... and it failed our troops," he said. "And we're going to fix it."

His visit did not silence the drumbeat of criticism over the issue. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), a leading advocate for veterans, called Bush's visit a "photo op" that would do nothing to cut through the red tape that has ensnarled their care.

"I would have liked to have heard the president say we have a crisis in military healthcare," Murray said. "I would have liked to have heard him give 60 days to fix not just the physical facilities but the bureaucratic delays that leave some returning servicemen and women sitting in those facilities for up to a year and a half waiting for treatment."

The problems at Walter Reed, first reported by the Washington Post, have given Democrats an opening to attack the administration for sending forces to Iraq but failing to help the wounded.

Bush, who has periodically visited Walter Reed's main medical center since the Iraq war began four years ago, on Friday spent most of his roughly two hours there talking with soldiers undergoing physical and occupational therapy.

Many of the problems discovered at the facility concerned its temporary housing and outpatient treatment programs.

"Americans must understand that the problems recently uncovered at Walter Reed were not the problems of medical care," Bush said. "The quality of care at this fantastic facility is great, and it needs to remain that way."

Still, he blamed bureaucratic foul-ups for depriving some returning soldiers of "the best possible care."

He said three commissions -- one centered in the Defense Department, one in Veterans Affairs and one that he appointed -- were working to fix the system.

Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey and Walter Reed's commander, Maj. Gen. George W. Weightman, were removed from their jobs. Lt. Gen. Kevin C. Kiley, the Army's surgeon general and a former commander at Walter Reed, retired under pressure.

joel.havemann@latimes.com

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