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President Bush went to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. today. It was his first trip there since press reports uncovered deplorable living conditions for wounded soldiers in outpatient housing. Mr. Bush used the visit to apologize to veterans for what they endured during their recovery, and he vowed again that the problems will be fixed. NPR's Don Gonyea reports from the White House.
DON GONYEA: The stories about problems for outpatients at Walter Reed first appeared in the Washington Post, prompting a congressional hearing held right at the medical center. It included this account from U.S. Army Specialist Jeremy Duncan, whose injuries included a broken neck.
Specialist JEREMY DUNCAN (United States Army): The conditions in the room, in my mind, were just - it was unforgivable for anybody to live - it wasn't fit for anybody to live in a room like that.
GONYEA: At first top officials at Walter Reed were defensive, but Army Surgeon General Kevin Kiley did offer this before that House committee.
Surgeon General KEVIN KILEY (United States Army): As we've seen over the last several days, the housing condition here in one of the buildings at Walter Reed clearly has not met our standards, and for that I am personally and professionally sorry.
GONYEA: But Kiley also drew strong criticism when he responded to a question about why he didn't know about poor living conditions by telling the committee that he doesn't do barracks inspections. Kiley has since been forced to step down because of the scandal, as have two other top Army medical officials. Since then the president has also created a bipartisan commission, co-chaired by former Senator Bob Dole, who is a wounded World War II veteran, and former Clinton administration cabinet secretary Donna Shalala.
Today, the president toured Walter Reed himself. He did not, however, visit the now-infamous Building 18, where soldiers face shoddy and unsanitary surroundings in addition to coping with their war wounds. The White House said there was no reason for Mr. Bush to stop there because it's now closed and undergoing renovations. Outpatients have now been transferred to Walter Reed's Abrams Hall. Here's the president.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: I met some of the soldiers who had been housed in Building 18. I was disturbed by their accounts of what went wrong.
GONYEA: The president blamed the problems on bureaucratic failures.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: I apologize for what they went through, and we're going to fix the problem. That's exactly what this government's going to do. We're not going to be satisfied until everybody gets the kind of care that their folks and families expect.
GONYEA: Still, the president came under criticism himself today. Some wondered why it took him so long after the story broke to personally get out to Walter Reed, and they asked why he didn't take a first-hand look at the repairs being done at Building 18. Democrats said the problems at the Army medical center are part of a larger picture, that of an administration that has cut funding for veterans programs and which didn't adequately plan for the war or for the number of U.S. service personnel who would need treatment and long-term rehabilitation. Don Gonyea, NPR News, The White House.
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