WASHINGTON – President Bush apologized Friday for the poor conditions of the military health-care system endured by U.S. soldiers recovering from injuries suffered in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“The system failed you and it failed our troops,” Bush said during a visit to Walter Reed Army Medical Center. “We’re going to fix it.”
It was Bush's first visit to the facility in Washington, D.C., since news of the poor conditions there — accounts provided by soldiers themselves who were patients — hit newsstands six weeks ago. The president met with some of the soldiers who lived in Building 18, a facility with moldy walls, rodents and other problems.
“I was disturbed by their accounts of what went wrong. 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,” Bush said.
The president also awarded 11 Purple Hearts to soldiers during the more than three-hour visit.
Retired Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, among retired military officers who took part in a conference call before 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 wasn't seeing 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 called it "an unfortunate characterization" to say 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 an afternoon with patients and staff at Walter Reed.
"There is no more personal moment that he has, and it's one of the memories that I cherish the most of working for the president, because you see his gratitude, and they share hugs, and they share laughter, they share tears," she said.
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.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.