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President Bush Vows to Fix Conditions at Walter Reed Hospital

March 30, 2007 at 5:10 PM EST
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JUDY WOODRUFF: There were handshakes, autographs, pictures with wounded soldiers and their families, even a brief workout today for the president during his three-hour visit to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

It was his first trip to the facility, which is about six miles north of the White House, since a series of newspaper articles led to public anger over the state of outpatient care at Walter Reed and other facilities around the country. The articles highlighted substandard conditions in some of the facilities, including moldy walls and carpets, as well as a frustrating maze of red tape for servicemembers and veterans.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: The problems at Walter Reed were caused by bureaucratic and administrative failures. The system failed you, and it failed our troops, and we’re going to fix it.

I met some of the soldiers who had been housed in Building 18. I was disturbed by their accounts of what went wrong. It is not right to have someone volunteer to wear a uniform and not get the best possible care. I apologize for what they went through, and we’re going to fix the problem.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Most of Walter Reed’s patients are veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The president also awarded 10 Purple Heart medals to wounded servicemembers. And he visited an outpatient facility where residents of the now-infamous Building 18 were moved during renovations.

In the wake of numerous stories and congressional hearings, three top Army officials were forced to step down: the commander of Walter Reed Hospital; Major General George Weightman; Army Secretary Francis Harvey; and the U.S. Army surgeon general, Kevin Kiley, who resigned on March 12th.

At least half a dozen investigations have been set up by the president, the Defense Department and Congress, in addition to a new 800 hotline for service members to report problems.

PHONE VOICE: Thank you for calling headquarters, Department of the Army, wounded soldiers and family hot line.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And while visible conditions at Walter Reed seem to be on the mend, reporters are continuing to find other problems throughout the Defense Department and Veterans Affairs health systems.

Today, the New York Times reported flaws in digital record-keeping that can lead to serious medical mistakes and delays in patient care. That came a week after the V.A. disclosed to news organizations, including the Associated Press, that a small number of the network’s “health clinics and hospitals were beset by maintenance problems, such as mold, leaking roofs and even a colony of bats.”

Mr. Bush’s visit was not without some criticism and protests. One neighbor’s home near the helicopter landing site urged the president to bring the troops home.

An 'accurate picture'

JUDY WOODRUFF: For more now on the care being given to soldiers and veterans, we turn to Steve Robinson, director of veterans affairs at Veterans for America, an advocacy and humanitarian organization. He had a 20-year career in the Army and retired as a senior noncommissioned officer.

And Peter Gaytan is director of the Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Division at the American Legion. He was an enlisted member in the Air Force in the 1990s.

We invited both the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs to participate in this discussion, but they declined.

Steve Robinson, let me begin with you. What did you make of the president's visit today and his comments?

STEVE ROBINSON, Veterans for America: We were glad that the president took ownership of this issue. It's something that we expect of our elected leaders. It's important that he has stepped up and let the soldiers know that he's going to really look at these issues and go after them.

There are a lot of things that still haven't been talked about, especially the mental health care needs of soldiers, for example, at Ward 54 at Walter Reed, no one visits those soldiers, no one goes up and finds out what kind of needs they have. So we're very pleased that he's taken ownership; he's apologized; and he's taking steps to correct the problem.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do we have now, Peter Gaytan, an accurate picture of what these wounded, returning servicemembers are experiencing in these systems?

PETER GAYTAN, American Legion: We do have an accurate picture, not only of the conditions they were living in, when we refer to Building 18, but also the process that these wounded servicemembers are having to go through to receive the benefits and care that they need and to transition from DOD health care to V.A. health care.

The American Legion has been concerned about that process since before these issues at Walter Reed were brought to light. And the American Legion wants to be part of the solution. We need to get past the finger-pointing and the blame-placing, and we have taken a proactive step, and we, the American Legion, have signed an MOU with Walter Reed leadership...

JUDY WOODRUFF: What is that?

PETER GAYTAN: It's a memorandum of understanding with Walter Reed's leadership and the transition office. The American Legion will now have two paid staff members in that transition office. One individual will help with all the aspects of transitioning, from health care to ensuring job opportunities

And the other staff member will focus specifically on physical evaluation boards and the military evaluation boards. The American Legion member will help the servicemember go through that process.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So two more staff people?

PETER GAYTAN: Exactly, two more American Legion staff members in that transition office.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That's going to make a difference, Steve Robinson?

STEVE ROBINSON: Well, they need about 15 people in there. And, really, it's great that the American Legion is doing this. They're doing something that the Department of Defense should be doing. And if Walter Reed would open up its doors to the veterans service organizations, other organizations would willingly come in and help.

Addressing mental health needs

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mentioned the servicemembers with mental health care needs. Are you saying that story has not been fully told yet?

STEVE ROBINSON: What I'm saying is that, when people go to visit Walter Reed, they often forget to stop by Ward 54. Ward 54 is the lockdown psychological ward, where soldiers who don't have the physical injuries that you can see, they have the unseen wounds of war.

They don't get Purple Hearts, and their stories need to be told. America needs to understand that all the wounds of this war are not just physical.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Are you saying that -- we read the stories in the Washington Post. There have been numerous follow-on stories since then. Is it your sense, Peter Gaytan, that that's another part of the story that we haven't heard fully yet?

PETER GAYTAN: The mental health care needs of returning servicemembers is going to be a major, major obligation of, not only DOD health care, but also V.A. health care. And Steve mentioned it's a major issue; it needs to be taken into account.

We're getting mental health care -- individuals from the combat who have mental health care needs. Some of these issues may not manifest themselves for five to 10 years down the road. We saw this in Vietnam.

What Congress has done has allowed any combat servicemember who's returned from Afghanistan and Iraq to receive two years of treatment in a V.A. health care facility. What if those mental health care issues don't manifest themselves within two years?

What we need to do is ensure that Congress, the administration, and we, as citizens of this country, meet our obligation to our wounded servicemembers who've come back and have sacrificed for our own freedoms, ensuring that they get the treatment they need. And we do that by funding V.A. and DOD at a level that will allow them to meet their obligations.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And that funding has been an issue.

STEVE ROBINSON: Right. And we're working with Congress right now. There is a flurry of legislation going around in this particular supplemental that talks about increasing the number of care providers, increasing the number of mental health care professionals, fully funding mental health care. Right now, DOD is at 60 percent capacity. We need to fill up that other 40 percent.

Department of Defense response

JUDY WOODRUFF: Steve Robinson, you've also -- I understand -- have some additional information to share with us about servicemembers coming back home, wounded, and then being sent back to the war zone. Is that correct?

STEVE ROBINSON: Yes, recently, I worked with Mark Benjamin from Salon.com, and he and I worked on a story in which soldiers had reported to us they were getting ready to be deployed to the war zone, and they had limitating profiles.

A P3 profile means you're not supposed to deploy. It's the kind of profile that means you can't do your job. You can't carry your weapon; you can't carry your rucksack. And these soldiers were saying they had those profiles, but they were being sent to the war anyway.

Mark wrote a story. A lot of soldiers got sent to Iraq, and the latest update that we have is that the DOD I.G. reports that some of those soldiers are being sent back home now. They were inappropriately deployed.

The Senate Armed Services Committee has been involved in this issue, the House Armed Services Committee, so people are starting to look at it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So there's some response from DOD?

STEVE ROBINSON: There's movement, but we haven't really heard exactly how many people got inappropriately deployed. What were their profiles? And what is DOD going to do to prevent this in the future at other bases?

JUDY WOODRUFF: This is something that you and others are following.

Peter Gaytan, we heard the president say -- he said this is the result of bureaucratic and administrative failures. He apologized. Is that the underlying cause, as you see it? Does that explain what happened here?

PETER GAYTAN: Well, the American Legion understands that, yes, it was bureaucratic and administrative shortfalls that have caused some of the administrative problems that our wounded servicemembers have experienced, not only at Walter Reed, but other locations.

But you need to couple that administrative shortfall with the amount of wounded servicemembers who are returning. By Congress's own admission, just two years ago, when they were providing funding for V.A., they did not anticipate the large number of wounded servicemembers that are returning.

And some of those wounded servicemembers, as we see every day, are going to Walter Reed. That's a large influx of patients. And the rehabilitative process is taking even longer than expected.

So you're getting a large amount of veterans going through that system at Walter Reed, and that needs to be addressed. And we can't ignore the fact that Walter Reed is also on the BRAC list, closure...

JUDY WOODRUFF: The bases being closed.

PETER GAYTAN: Walter Reed is scheduled for closure, Base Realignment and Closure list, so Walter Reed is being designated to be closed. So you have to ask yourself, how are the appropriate amount of federal funds being committed to a facility that's targeted for closure in the next eight years?

Administration's response

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what's the answer?

PETER GAYTAN: We need to take that into account. We shouldn't look at the need for closure; we should look at the demand for health care.

There are servicemembers in that facility right now and there are family members who are there helping their wounded servicemembers get through the process. Their immediate needs should be addressed in federal funding, not the anticipation of closure of Walter Reed, but the needs of those Americans who are wearing the uniform and coming back with wounds.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So when the president says, again, Steve Robinson, he acknowledges there are failures, he apologizes. Look at the overall picture, commissions have been appointed by the president, by the Department of Defense, Veterans Affairs. Is this administration responding as should be to these problems?

STEVE ROBINSON: Well, from this point forward, there is a response, and we're looking to see the results of the commissions. But one question I want to raise right now is, what about all the people that fell through the cracks that have now been kicked out of the military inappropriately, have lost their V.A. benefits forever because they weren't screened for mental health, or they didn't identify their traumatic brain injury?

If we're going to move forward from this point forward, draw a line in the sand and move forward, that's great, but let's make sure we take care of those people that have honorably served and didn't get the help that they need. Let's go back in time and correct those problems, too.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is any of that being looked at by the administration?

PETER GAYTAN: Well, I think the steps that we've seen recently, since Walter Reed issues have been brought to light -- the president's visit today and his commitment to moving forward, to saying, yes, we realize we have problems. Let's do the right thing. And the American Legion wants to be part of that solution.

The secretary of V.A. took one step immediately after seeing the conditions at Walter Reed, and he created 100 new patient advocates to be at the V.A. facilities. Making positive steps like that will solve the problems.

We as a nation need to hold our Congress and our administration to task and, when these issues are brought to light, allow them the opportunity and give them the assistance they need to correct the problems. The focus here should be the needs of our servicemembers, not who's to blame or how we're going to get there. Let's just get there together.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I'm glad you pointed that out. We did a get a statement from the V.A. today pointing out, not only these hiring of 100 patient advocates, they talk about the advisory committee they've created that includes servicemembers who were wounded and their families.

Well, this is a story that we are going to continue to follow, and we thank both of you for being with us, Peter Gaytan and Steve Robinson. Thank you both. We appreciate it.

STEVE ROBINSON: Thank you.

PETER GAYTAN: Thank you.