By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 31, 2007
President Bush yesterday paid his first visit to Walter Reed Army Medical Center since the uproar over shoddy conditions at the facility and emerged after a two-hour tour to publicly apologize for the physical and bureaucratic ordeals inflicted upon soldiers recovering from injuries on faraway battlefields.
The president inspected new accommodations for patients who had been living in squalid quarters and visited a physical therapy room to talk with soldiers who lost arms or legs in Iraq only to find themselves lost in a broken system back home. The stories they told him about their frustrations at Walter Reed, he said later, left him troubled and reinforced his commitment to resolve their grievances.
"I was disturbed by their accounts of what went wrong," he said in a speech to hospital staff members after the tour. "It is not right to have someone volunteer to wear our uniform and not get the best possible care. I apologize for what they went through, and we're going to fix the problem."
The visit provoked more emotional responses on an issue that has stirred deep anger across the country, triggered congressional hearings, and resulted in the dismissal of the Army secretary and two generals. Some derided Bush's tour as a political stunt, while others expressed appreciation for the symbolism as long as it will be accompanied by real change at Walter Reed and throughout the system of medical care for veterans.
"What they don't want is another photo op," Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who visited the facility on Wednesday, said in an interview. "They are very angry and frustrated with that. We all go up and stand with them and get back in our vans and go away. They stay behind, angry in their wheelchairs."
The interest in Walter Reed peaked after a Washington Post series published in February documented the poor living quarters and bureaucratic breakdowns endured by soldiers wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. They lived in the dilapidated Building 18 amid mold, leaky ceilings, rot, mice and cockroaches and described nightmarish tangles of red tape as they tried to secure ongoing care.
For Bush, the resulting furor proved a political blow, and his team responded quickly by firing officials deemed responsible and by cleaning up the physical conditions. Patients were moved out of Building 18 for renovations, and the president appointed a bipartisan commission led by former Senate majority leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) and former health and human services secretary Donna E. Shalala to investigate care provided to veterans.
Bush had visited Walter Reed 11 times before yesterday, most recently just days before Christmas, in largely unpublicized appearances, but he had never been inside Building 18. Aides described him as upset by the stories. But it took weeks to schedule a visit to demonstrate that.
The president was not taken into the shut-down Building 18 yesterday but was shown a well-kept, empty dormitory room equipped with flat-screen television and desktop computer in Abrams Hall, where some Building 18 patients have been moved. He then visited with soldiers in occupational therapy and physical therapy rooms, shaking the prosthetic right hand of one soldier and jumping onto a stair machine next to another whose right leg had been amputated. He awarded Purple Hearts and handed out presidential coins.
Journalists were allowed to take pictures and watch for only a few minutes before being ushered out, though not before Bush told photographers to take pictures of Sgt. Mark Ecker's tattoo of a naked woman. Reporters were not allowed to interview patients in Abrams Hall, hospital officials said, citing logistics. The hospital instead made available two doctors, who spoke glowingly about the president's visit and had no information to provide about the facility's problems.
In his 10-minute address to hospital staff, Bush drew a distinction between the medical care, which he termed exemplary, and the living conditions and bureaucracy that caused such hardships. "The problems at Walter Reed were caused by bureaucratic and administrative failures," he said. "The system failed you, and it failed our troops. And we're going to fix it."
Some who were failed by that system were skeptical of Bush's tour. "The president will see exactly what they want him to see," said Annette McLeod, the wife of a National Guardsman who was at Walter Reed. "Nobody will have access to the president except the people they want him to see. They ought to have an open forum and let these people speak freely."
Marine Sgt. Ryan Groves, 26, an amputee who lived at Walter Reed for 16 months, agreed that Bush will not see the real situation but praised him for going. "Of course he wants it to get better, of course he cares about wounded troops," Groves said. "But here's a theory -- let's have the president come every Friday. That'll change things real quick. Now that's not realistic, but . . . maybe the president could come once a month. We are in a war on terror. He could come to visit."
As the president wrapped up his visit an hour earlier than scheduled, his administration moved to improve care. The Office of Personnel Management approved a measure to streamline the hiring of medical workers to fill 115 positions at Walter Reed related to patient care.
But the government continues to debate what to do with Walter Reed in the long term. The Pentagon's 2005 base closure plan proposed shutting it down, but the war spending bill passed by the House last week would bar funds from being used to shutter it. Gen. Richard A. Cody, the Army vice chief of staff, this month suggested the proposed closing be reexamined while the Iraq war continues.
But acting Army Secretary Pete Geren said in a statement yesterday that he favors closing Walter Reed, adding that a planned consolidation and expansion at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda will improve the medical infrastructure in the Washington region. "Closing Walter Reed . . . will improve the health care of our service members and their families," Geren said.
Staff writer Steve Vogel contributed to this report.