Dole, Shalala Pledge Full Investigation Into Military Care

By William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 7, 2007; 4:34 PM

The co-chairmen of a new bipartisan presidential commission charged with looking into the care of wounded service members vowed today to conduct a comprehensive and vigorous investigation, possibly leading to recommendations that could change the system for decades.

Former senator Robert J. Dole, a Republican from Kansas who was seriously wounded in World War II, and former health and human services secretary Donna E. Shalala, a Democrat who served for eight years in the Clinton administration, told reporters after a meeting at the White House that President Bush wants them to look at the entire military care system following revelations of shortcomings at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Congressional Democratic leaders later called on Bush to include service members with experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as family members, on the commission, and they said Congress should be given a role in selecting the commission members and determining their responsibilities.

Bush yesterday named Dole and Shalala to head the commission, which he formed in response to a growing outcry over the care of wounded outpatient soldiers. Demands for corrective action arose among the public and in Congress after The Washington Post last month exposed squalid living conditions in a decrepit Army-owned building just outside Walter Reed and highlighted bureaucratic obstacles and delays in the outpatient treatment of soldiers who suffered serious injuries, including brain trauma, in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"This is going to be comprehensive; it's going to be vigorous," Shalala said as she and Dole stood outside the White House after their meeting with Bush. "And neither one of us are afraid of talking to the brass, whether it's the president of the United States or a general."

Bush said after the Oval Office meeting: "I am concerned that our soldiers and their families are not getting the treatment that they deserve, having volunteered to defend our country." He pledged that "any report of medical neglect will be taken seriously by this administration . . . and we will address problems quickly."

Bush said the nine-member commission "will analyze our health care both at the Defense Department and at the Veterans [Affairs] Department, to ensure that not only our soldiers but their families have got complete confidence in the government's upholding its responsibility to treat those who have been wounded."

The president expressed concern that "there may be flaws in the system" between the time a soldier is wounded and when he or she ultimately returns to the community. He said he was "confident that this commission will bring forth the truth" and that "there will be a quick response to any problems" the panel finds.

The rest of the commission members are to be named this week, the White House said yesterday.

In a letter to Bush today, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) welcomed the selection of Dole and Shalala as "a good first step," but they said that "more needs to be done to provide our troops and the American people confidence in the commission's work." They wrote, "First, it is essential the commission include both service members returning from Iraq or Afghanistan and their family members with a firsthand understanding of the flawed system."

In addition, they said, "we think the commission will be stronger and its conclusions will have greater credibility if members of Congress from both parties play a role in selecting the remaining members of this commission," including the veterans and family members.

Democrats drove home those points in a meeting this afternoon at the White House between Bush and a bipartisan group of lawmakers.

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