By Michael A. Fletcher and William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, October 31, 2007
President Bush yesterday nominated retired Army Lt. Gen. James B. Peake to head the Department of Veterans Affairs, which is struggling to make the drastic changes needed to care for the large number of wounded troops returning home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"I'm pleased to announce my nomination of an Army doctor and combat veteran who'll be a strong new leader for this department," Bush said at the White House in a joint appearance with Peake, who served as Army surgeon general from 2000 to 2004. If confirmed by the Senate, the twice-wounded veteran of the Vietnam War will be the first physician and first general to serve as secretary of veterans affairs.
Peake's nomination comes as the administration and Congress are wrestling with the problems facing troops returning home with physical and psychological wounds from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Earlier this month, Bush sent legislation to Congress to restructure the health-care and disability system for U.S. troops wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan by eliminating duplicative bureaucracy and providing greater assistance to families dealing with the long-term effects of their injuries. The proposals are part of a broader effort by the Bush administration to overhaul how wounded service members are treated once they return from war, a project launched after revelations eight months ago of shoddy conditions and paralyzing red tape at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
Bush said Peake's first task in office would be to implement recommendations of a bipartisan commission that studied ways to improve care for wounded troops. Speaking after Bush's introduction, Peake declared that "fundamentally, I'm a soldier" and said it was a high honor to be offered the opportunity to continue his life's work taking care of fellow service members.
"Though it is an honor," he added, "this is not an honorary position, and there's a lot of work to be done," notably on implementing the recommendations of the commission. He said the U.S. disability system for veterans is "largely a 1945 product," and it is "time to do some revision."
Former senator Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), who co-chaired the commission to improve health care for wounded troops, said Peake seems to be a good choice.
"He's been on both sides," Dole said. "He was a patient after he was wounded in Vietnam, and he spent much of his career as a caregiver."
Still, Peake appears likely to face tough questioning in his Senate confirmation hearing on what he knew about poor outpatient care for wounded soldiers when he was Army surgeon general.
"Given Dr. Peake's past posts running the Army health-care system, he will have serious and significant questions to answer about failed preparations for our returning wounded warriors. For months we've been hearing horror stories from Walter Reed and other military care centers, and I will want to know what role, if any, Dr. Peake played in the failures of the system," said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), a member of the Veterans' Affairs Committee.
A 1966 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Peake, 63, was awarded a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart for his service in Vietnam as a platoon leader with the 101st Airborne Division. After Vietnam, he attended Cornell University Medical College.
More recently, he was executive vice president and chief operating officer of Project Hope, a nonprofit international health foundation with offices and programs in more than 30 different countries on five continents. He currently serves as chief medical director and chief operating officer of California-based QTC Management, which calls itself the largest private provider of government-outsourced occupational health and disability examination services in the nation.
Despite Peake's long experience, some veterans advocates worried that as an outsider he would not know enough to quickly make the changes needed at Veterans Affairs.
"We'd feel more comfortable having somebody with much more intimate knowledge of the VA than someone from outside," said David W. Gorman, executive director of Disabled American Veterans. "He's a gentleman, a professional, and he has dedicated his professional career to caring for active-duty military. But there is a line drawn between them and veterans, and there needs to be an understanding of that difference."