President Bush named former Sen. Bob Dole and former Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala on Tuesday to lead an investigation of problems at the nation's military and veterans' hospitals.
"We have a moral obligation to provide the best possible care and treatment to the men and women who served our country," Bush said in a speech to the American Legion. "They deserve it and they're going to get it."
Already grappling with low approval ratings and eager to avoid charges that he failed to act promptly, Bush said an interagency task force of seven Cabinet secretaries, led by Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson, would be convened to determine what can be done immediately to improve veterans' care.
The president announced last Friday he had ordered a comprehensive review of conditions at the nation's network of military and veteran hospitals, which has been overwhelmed by injured troops from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The review came in the wake of disclosures of shoddy outpatient health care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, one of the nation's premier facilities for treating veterans wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"I am concerned as you are about the conditions of Walter Reed Army Medical Center," the president said. He said troops wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan were being subjected to bureaucratic delays and required to live in substandard conditions.
"I'm concerned about the fact that when they come back they don't get the full treatment they deserve," Bush said.
His appointment of Dole and Shalala was greeted with applause.
Dole, as a young Army officer during World War II, was grievously wounded in action in the Italian Apennine Mountains. He spent years in treatment and underwent numerous surgeries. He went on to become Senate majority leader as a Republican lawmaker and later ran unsuccessfully for president.
Shalala was secretary of Health and Human Services under President Clinton. She is now president of the University of Miami.
Nicholson -- who on Monday announced new measures to speed the processing of military benefit claims and cut through red tape for soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan -- said Tuesday the horror stories emerging from the hearings were "unacceptable."
"It breaks my heart," Nicholson told CBS' "The Early Show." But he drew a distinction between the benefit claims backlog and the delivery of needed medical treatment. "If they come to us for health care they are admitted immediately," he said.
By Terence Hunt, AP White House Correspondent
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)