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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates apologized today for substandard conditions at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. It was the Pentagon's third apology this week for squalid conditions at an apartment house known as Building 18. And during a visit to Walter Reed this morning, Secretary Gates promised a full investigation.

NPR's Guy Raz reports.

GUY RAZ: In April 2005, somewhere towards the end of President Bush's speech at Fort Hood, Texas, he talked about medical care for troops.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Many of our soldiers have returned from war with grave wounds that they will carry with them the rest of their lives. And America will fulfill its duty by providing them the best medical care possible.

RAZ: Now, the Iraq war has the distinction of being the first war in human history with such a high wounded-to-dead ratio. So while a relatively small number of troops have died in Iraq, more than 40,000 have been wounded, and a lot of them are processed here in Washington, D.C. at Walter Reed.

It's home to the now infamous Building 18, where Iraq vets in wheelchairs, some of them, missing limbs and eyes, have languished in grim housing while recovering from their wounds.

Now, the story was exposed in the Washington Post last weekend, and ever since it's forced top military leaders - including Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who visited the hospital today - it's forced them into damage control mode.

Mr. ROBERT GATES (U.S. Secretary of Defense): Like many Americans, I was dismayed to learn this past week that some of our injured troops were not getting the best possible treatment at all stages of their recovery.

RAZ: The moldy walls and water-damaged ceilings in parts of Building 18 have already been repaired, and Gates promised an end to the bureaucratic maze that's left many wounded Iraq vets just trying to navigate past red tape.

Secretary GATES: They battled our foreign enemies. They should not have to battle an American bureaucracy.

RAZ: Now, for the third time this week, Pentagon officials have publicly apologized for what happened at Walter Reed, and that's left some critics of the Iraq war, like retired Colonel Douglas McGregor, scratching their heads.

Colonel DOUGLAS McGREGOR (U.S. Army; Retired): The generals seem to be falling all over themselves, anxious to mollify people and declare mea culpa. Whereas, there's been a complete unwillingness to admit to the multitude of errors on the ground in Iraq, and also in Afghanistan that have produced the current conditions, which are nothing short of disastrous.

RAZ: Privately, some Pentagon officials are pointing fingers at the Army's top medical commander. His name is Lieutenant General Kevin Kiley. And yesterday, Kiley showed reporters around at the hospital. And he was somewhat defensive about the accusations.

Lieutenant General KEVIN KILEY (U.S. Army Medical Command): While we have some issues here, this is not a horrific, catastrophic failure at Walter Reed. I mean these are not good. But you saw rooms that looked perfectly acceptable. You saw the dayroom with a plasma TV and the pool tables. And we're working every day to make that place better.

RAZ: But credit where credit is due. A disabled Wisconsin veteran named Larry Smith tells NPR that the pool table just mentioned was actually donated by a group of Wisconsin veterans; and Larry Smith now hoping to raise some more money to buy the recovering vets at Walter Reed some small coffeemakers and perhaps a microwave oven or two.

Guy Raz, NPR News, Washington.

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