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US Veterans, Family Members Testify on Military Medical Care


US lawmakers are pledging strong action in the wake of the latest revelations regarding poor conditions wounded soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan have faced at a key Army medical hospital. VOA's Dan Robinson reports on an unusual public hearing at the facility, steps under way in Congress and what President Bush has said about the situation.

The scandal over unsanitary and other sub-standard conditions at a building at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center has already resulted in the dismissal of the secretary of the Army by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the replacement of the head of the facility.

However, House and Senate lawmakers want more done. They are demanding the creation of an independent commission and a wider government probe into bureaucratic and other problems affecting veterans.

The first in a series of hearings took place Monday when members of a House subcommittee went to the Walter Reed facility.

"This is absolutely the wrong way to treat our troops, and serious reforms need to happen immediately," said Democratic Congressman John Tierney.

Wounded veterans and family members testified about tangled bureaucracy slowing or preventing urgently needed care.

Jeremy Duncan, a U.S. Army Specialist receiving treatment at Walter Reed for wounds suffered in an explosion in Iraq, testified about conditions he saw in a building there.

"There is no way they couldn't have known," he said. "Everybody had to have known somewhere, if they wanted to actually look at it or pay attention or believe it."

U.S. Army Staff Sergeant John Shannon, who lost an eye after being shot during a battle near the Iraqi city of Ramadi, says system-wide reforms are needed.

"A system that fires people down the chain, once again in my opinion is indicative of a system that is trying to protect itself whether it fixes the problem or not, and in my opinion [is] clearly not focused on fixing the problem," he said.

Military officials who have been in charge at the Walter Reed facility offered apologies during the hearing.

Major General George Weightman was the commander before he was dismissed last week.

"It is clear [that] mistakes were made, and I was in charge," he said. " We can't fail one of these soldiers, or their families, not one, and we did."

Weightman's temporary replacement, Lieutenant General Kevin Kiley, called steps to simplify bureaucracy urgent, and had this apology for conditions at Walter Reed.

"I am personally and professionally sorry and I offer my apologies to the soldiers, the families, the civilian and military leadership of the Army and Department of Defense, and to the nation," he said.

Documents Congress is examining include an internal Army memo indicating high-level officials at Walter Reed and the U.S. Army Medical Command were warned in 2006 that a process of privatizing positions dealing with patient care, and an influx of wounded from Iraq and Afghanistan, threatened to overwhelm the system.

Republican Congressman Tom Davis says the Pentagon was unprepared for the number of wounded, currently at least 22,000 from Iraq alone.

"The Pentagon somehow failed to anticipate that deploying unprecedented numbers of reserve component troops into combat would produce an unprecedented flow of casualties," he said. "As a result, the defense department has been scrambling ever since to lash together last century procedures and systems to care for returning citizen soldiers."

Controversy about conditions for wounded veterans comes as President Bush faces sharply eroded public support for the war in Iraq, and opposition to new troop deployments.

White House spokesman Tony Snow was asked by reporters Monday what specific steps the president and others are taking.

"What he has been doing is making sure that people take a good look to find out what this situation is," he said. "No excuses, get the facts, get it fixed."

The president asked Congress for $87 billion for the Veterans Administration for 2008. He said that military health care spending has gone up by 83 percent since 2001.

While the Walter Reed scandal puts pressure on all members of Congress to come up with a solution, it also poses challenges for majority Democrats.

Before last November's mid-term congressional election, they accused Republicans of short-changing military veterans in the government budget.

Facing a tight budget situation, Democrats must now determine how to respond to long-standing flaws and correct deficiencies in the nationwide military health care system.