By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 7, 2007
President Bush yesterday named former senator Robert J. Dole and former secretary of health and human services Donna E. Shalala to co-chair a bipartisan commission that will examine the care that wounded U.S. troops receive after they return from the battlefield, one more among several high-level investigations spawned by recent revelations of squalor and bureaucratic woes facing veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
The review will encompass troops' reintegration into civilian life back home. Bush also announced that he has asked the secretary of veterans affairs to lead a Cabinet-level interagency task force to deal with immediate shortcomings in helping veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"We have a moral obligation to provide the best possible care and treatment to the men and women who have served our country," Bush told an audience of war veterans with the American Legion in Washington. "They deserve it, and they're going to get it."
He again said that the conditions at Walter Reed that were described in a series of Washington Post reports are troubling and unacceptable. "My decisions have put our kids in harm's way, and I'm concerned about the fact that when they come back they don't get the full treatment they deserve."
As Bush was speaking yesterday morning, members of the Senate Armed Services Committee were expressing dismay on Capitol Hill as they opened hearings on Walter Reed, with senators from both political parties criticizing Army and Defense Department leaders who apparently were unaware of systemic problems in outpatient care, despite multiple warnings.
Echoing what members of a House committee said on Monday at a hearing at Walter Reed, senators said that they believe problems such as mold and rodents at the medical center's Building 18 indicate larger issues with leadership and a stifling bureaucracy.
"Good leadership should have taken these steps long ago, without prompting by a series of embarrassing news articles," said Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), the committee's chairman, railing against what he sees as an overly complex system that shortchanges U.S. troops. "The American people are deeply angry about the shortfalls in care. The war in Iraq has divided our nation, but the cause of supporting our troops unites us."
Walter Reed's commander, Maj. Gen. George W. Weightman, and Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey both lost their jobs last week after the revelations.
Yesterday's hearing again put top Army officials in the line of fire. Lt. Gen. Kevin C. Kiley -- the Army's surgeon general, and Walter Reed commander from 2002 to 2004 -- was criticized for not addressing numerous problems with services for the wounded. A few lawmakers, including Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), questioned whether Kiley should resign. Kiley replied, "I still think I've got the right skill sets and the right experience to fix these problems."
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a presidential hopeful and former prisoner of war, said that he was "appalled" by the lack of immediate accountability and that he was "dismayed this ever occurred."
Kiley, who at times has been dismissive of the problems, appeared more contrite yesterday: "Simply put, I'm in command, I'm accountable and I share in the failures, and I also accept the responsibility and the challenges for rapid corrective action."
Bush's new commission and Veterans Affairs task force come as the House and Senate have begun hearings about the problems at Walter Reed and as Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates awaits the results from an independent review group that has 45 days to assess outpatient treatment. After senior officials had minimized the reports about dilapidated facilities and devastating delays at Walter Reed, Army officers dispatched soldiers to evaluate nearly a dozen hospital facilities nationwide in an attempt to locate similar problems.
Bush's executive order yesterday created the President's Commission on Care for Returning Wounded Warriors, a nine-member group that Dole and Shalala will lead. Its mission will be to examine how wounded forces transition from the battlefield to civilian society and to evaluate "the coordination, management and adequacy of the delivery of health care, disability, traumatic injury, education, employment, and other benefits and services."
The decision to pair Dole and Shalala is a nod to bipartisanship. Both are Washington insiders and popular within their own political bases. They are respected leaders who can approach the issue with the perspectives of the service member, the veteran and the health-care provider -- all with the difficulties of government bureaucracy in mind. Dole is a disabled veteran of World War II with 28 years of experience as a Republican senator from Kansas. President Bill Clinton appointed Shalala as HHS secretary in 1993, and the liberal political science professor served eight years in the position -- the longest tenure in history.
"I am truly honored that President Bush has asked senator Bob Dole and me to co-chair the commission that will review the care and services provided to our returning wounded service members," Shalala said in a statement. "We all owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to our fellow Americans who are serving our country in some of the most dangerous parts of the world. They deserve access to high quality health care and other benefits and services as they transition from deployment to other military service or civilian life."
Dole could not be reached for a comment yesterday. Dole and Shalala are scheduled to meet with Bush in Washington this morning to hear his priorities for the group. The commission has a June 30 deadline for its final report.
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), a senior member of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, praised Bush for "finally putting an emphasis on this crisis," but said that she is worried that the Dole-Shalala commission's findings will be ignored by a president that has pushed aside the recommendations of previous bipartisan panels, such as the Iraq Study Group.
"So we're right, I believe, to be wary of this new step from the president," Murray said on the Senate floor. "We need decisive action, not commission after commission and report after report that the president can choose to ignore."
Staff writer Michael Abramowitz contributed to this report.