by Matt Spetalnick, Reuters
The Bush administration said on Tuesday problems in the treatment of wounded U.S. war veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan need to be fixed, after reports that many face neglect in the Army's medical system.
Democrats controlling Congress demanded a thorough investigation and promised legislation after a Washington Post series exposed deteriorating conditions for hundreds of outpatients at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, the premier U.S. military hospital.
The controversy poses a public relations problem for President George W. Bush, who has spoken often of America's debt to military personnel wounded in the wars, visited the hospital's wards and honored military amputees at White House functions.
The White House has irked the new Democratic majority in Congress by suggesting that they would be hurting American troops if they made any effort to cut off funds for the Iraq war, which faces growing public opposition.
The White House expressed concern at conditions for veterans after reports that many suffering physical and psychological problems lived in shoddy housing on or near the sprawling complex and faced long battles with army bureaucracy.
"I can tell you that we believe that they deserve better," White House spokesman Tony Snow told reporters. "Of course, there's outrage that men and women who have been fighting have not received the outpatient care."
"We need to make sure that whatever problems there are get fixed," he added.
But Snow declined to say what actions would be taken, referring inquiries to the Pentagon.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said the Defense Department was committed to the best possible care for wounded troops and that its senior leadership had discussed some of the problems detailed in the Post stories.
He said the Pentagon's top doctor was "very concerned" about such problems at a flagship hospital like Walter Reed, and was considering looking at other army medical facilities as well.
Two Democratic senators, Barbara Mikulski of Maryland and Patty Murray of Washington, wrote Defense Secretary Robert Gates urging a high-level investigation of "deplorable living conditions" at Walter Reed, where presidents, lawmakers and soldiers have been treated since 1909.
Two other Democrats, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, said they would introduce legislation to improve the quality of care and require more frequent inspections of active-duty military hospitals.
"Caring for our returning heroes is one of the things we can still get right about this war, and that's why the deterioration of the conditions at Walter Reed is both appalling and unacceptable," said Obama, a candidate for his party's 2008 presidential nomination.
(Additional reporting by Andrew Gray)
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