"The problems at Walter Reed were caused by bureaucratic and administrative failures," Bush said during a nearly three-hour visit to the medical center - his first since reports surfaced of shabby conditions for veterans in outpatient housing. "The system failed you and it failed our troops, and we're going to fix it."
News that war veterans were not getting adequate care stunned the public, outraged Capitol Hill and forced three high-level Pentagon officials to step down. Bush met with soldiers once housed in Building 18, who endured moldy walls, rodents and other problems that went unchecked until reported by the media.
"I was disturbed by their accounts of what went wrong," Bush said. "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."
He did not visit Building 18, which is now closed.
Bush critics questioned the timing of the president's visit - six weeks after the problems were exposed and in the middle of the White House's battle with Congress over funding for troops in Iraq.
Retired Army Lt. Gen. Robert Gard, among retired military officers who took part in a conference call before Bush's visit, said the president needs to make sure the problems are corrected.
"We have been shortchanging these returning soldiers ever since the conflict began," Gard said. "Look at the inadequate funding in the Veterans Administration. That's caused by the fact that there has been a deliberate underestimate of the number of troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan who will need care. We've got to make this a seamless web between military facilities and the Veterans Administration so the soldiers are not hung out to dry."
Bush has set up three commissions to look into the problems facing military personnel who come off of active duty and are moving into veteran status.
The Defense Department's independent review group is to report back by the middle of next month with recommendations on how to improve conditions at Walter Reed. Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson is leading an interagency task force to find gaps in federal services received by wounded troops. A bipartisan commission, chaired by former Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., and Donna Shalala, President Clinton's secretary of health and human services, will complete its report this summer.
This week, the House voted to create a coterie of case managers, advocates and counselors for injured troops. The bill also establishes a hot line for medical patients to report problems in their treatment.
Bobby Muller, president of Veterans for America, said Bush didn't see 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 a picture-taking opportunity. She said it took some time to clear enough room on the president's schedule so he could spend time with patients and staff at Walter Reed, which he praised for providing "extraordinary health care." The president awarded 10 Purple Hearts during his visit to Walter Reed, his 12th as president. Bush went to a building that houses troops who once stayed in Building 18. Afterward, he visited a physical therapy room where a soldier with an artificial limb from one knee down was using an elliptical machine, and the president ran his hand over the buzz-cut head of Sgt. Mark Ecker Jr. of East Longmeadow, Mass. "I'm doing great," said Ecker, a double-amputee who was wounded by an improvised explosive device in Iraq. Bush noticed a large tattoo of a scantily clad woman decorating his left arm. "Make sure you get a picture of the tattoo," Bush said, eyeing photographers. "The man's proud of it." Bush walked up to Army Sgt. David Gardner, who lost a leg and sustained serious injuries to his other leg when a small bulldozer, being used to fill a hole caused by an explosion, ran over him in Iraq. "I was run over by a Bobcat while there was sniper fire going on," Gardner said as he did leg presses on a machine to exercise his wounded limb and get used to the other one now fitted with a prothesis. "It kinda hurts," said Gardner, an engineer stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C. "It hurts to put pressure on it." Gardner's wife, Beverly, who was pregnant when her husband was injured and gave birth to their daughter, Hailey, just days after he came out of a three-week coma, had no complaints about her husband's care at Walter Reed. "They've been great," she said. But Steve Robinson with Veterans for America tells a different story. "I was at Walter Reed yesterday. Within 10 minutes I was encircled by about 15 soldiers having problems with their medical discharge, telling me they needed to get in touch with their congressman or their senator," Robinson said. "The system is broke," he said. "We need him (Bush) to be personally affected by it."