A Washington Post series on out-of-control bureaucracy and substandard living conditions for some outpatients at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. has inspired three apologies this week from Pentagon leaders.
Friday, it was Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who promised a full investigation as he visited the base.
It's an embarrassment for the Bush administration, which has trumpeted the quality care at Walter Reed and other military hospitals.
"Many of our soldiers have returned from war with grave wounds that they will carry with them the rest of their lives," President Bush said in a speech in April 2005. "And America will fulfill its duty by providing them the best medical care possible."
Medical care for wounded troops is a recurring theme in the president's speeches – and for good reason. The Iraq war has the distinction of having the highest wounded-to-dead ratio of any war in history. More than 40,000 troops have been wounded there.
Thousands of them are treated in Washington, D.C., at Walter Reed Hospital.
"Like many Americans, I was dismayed to learn last week that some of our injured troops were not getting the best possible treatment at all stages of their recovery, particularly in the outpatient care," Gates said. "This is unacceptable and it will not continue."
The moldy walls and water-damaged ceilings in one building on base have already been repaired. Gates promised an end to the bureaucratic maze that's left many wounded Iraq vets – some with brain damage – trying to navigate past red tape.
"They should not have to recuperate in sub-standard housing, nor should they be expected to tackle mountains of paperwork and bureaucratic processes in this difficult period for themselves and their families," Gates said. "They battled a foreign enemy. They should not have to battle an American bureaucracy."
The copious apologies rankle some critics of the Iraq war, including retired Col. Douglas MacGregor.
"The generals seem to be falling over themselves, anxious to mollify people and declare mea culpa whereas there is a complete unwillingness to admit to the multitude of errors on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan," MacGregor says.
Privately, some Pentagon officials are blaming the Army's top medical commander, Lt. Gen. Kevin Kiley, who was somewhat defensive about the stories on Walter Reed while leading a tour for reporters Thursday.
"While we have some issues here, this is not a horrific, catastrophic failure at Walter Reed," Kiley said. "I mean these are not good but you saw rooms that look perfectly acceptable, you saw the dayrooms with the pool tables and plasma screen TVs, and we're working everyday to make those rooms better."
One of the pool tables was donated by a disabled veteran in January. Larry Smith raised the money to buy it in Wisconsin, where he lives.
Smith is now hoping to raise some more money to buy the recovering soldiers at Walter Reed small coffee makers and a microwave.