Bush Visits Walter Reed Friday

Friday, March 30th 2007, 7:59 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ President Bush carried a promise of better treatment for neglected war veterans on a tour of Walter Reed Army Medical Center Friday, but critics questioned the timing of the visit six weeks after shoddy conditions were exposed there.

Bush first toured a typical _ but empty _ patient room in Abrams Hall, where soldiers were transferred after they were vacated from the facility's Building 18, where moldy walls, rodent infestation and other problems went unchecked until reported by the media. The room Bush saw featured a wide-screen television and a Macintosh computer on a desk.

``I appreciate that soldiers have got a Mac'' to communicate with their families, the president said.

Also during the more than three-hour visit, Bush was touring the main hospital, and awarding 10 Purple Hearts to soldiers recovering from serious wounds suffered in Afghanistan and Iraq. Before leaving, the president was speaking to about 100 medical workers to explain what his administration is doing to improve care for veterans at facilities nationwide.

Retired Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, among retired military officers who took part in a conference call about Bush's visit, praised the president for seeing wounded soldiers. But, he added: ``I'm convinced he would honor them more if he would refrain from using soldiers as props in political theater.''

``I would be very happy to see him do the Walter Reed visit more like the commander and secondarily as an inspector general, rather than as a politician,'' he said.

Bobby Muller, president of Veterans for America, said Bush isn't going to see areas of the hospital most in need of change. He cited Ward 54, where soldiers are suffering from acute mental health conditions, and outpatient holding facilities where soldiers see long waits to get processed out of the Army.

``Walter Reed is not a photo-op,'' Muller said. ``Walter Reed is still broken. The DOD health care system is still broken. ... Our troops need their commander in chief to start working harder for them.''

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said ``I would disagree with the characterization'' that Bush was using Walter Reed as merely a picture-taking opportunity. She said it took some time to clear enough room on the president's schedule to spend over three hours with patients and staff at Walter Reed, and that Bush intends to find out from them what more needs to be done.

``He is going to spend ample time there to hear from them,'' Perino said. ``He will talk about ... bureaucratic and administrative failures that need to be addressed.''

Walter Reed is considered one of the Army's premier facilities for treating the wounded. The revelations in mid-February of poor treatment and neglect of those wounded in war was an embarrassment to Bush, who routinely speaks of the need to support the troops and praises the care they receive back home.

Troops and veterans say many of the issues have been well-known for a while, and have long been in need of greater attention.

Bush declared the situation at Walter Reed unacceptable and ordered a full-scale review of care for veterans. He appointed a presidential commission to study the problems. The Pentagon, Veterans Affairs Department and Congress are conducting a slew of reviews.

In the wake of reports of problems at Walter Reed, three high-level Pentagon officials were forced to step down and lawmakers on Capitol Hill were outraged. This week, the House voted to create a coterie of case managers, advocates and counselors for injured troops. The bill also establishes a hot line for medical patients to report problems in their treatment.