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Remarks by President Bush, Senator Bob Dole and Secretary Donna Shalala on Commission on Care for America's Returning Wounded Warriors Report Implementation

WASHINGTON, Oct. 16 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- The following is a transcript of remarks by President Bush, Senator Bob Dole and Secretary Donna Shalala.

THE PRESIDENT: Good afternoon. Thanks for coming. Welcome to the Rose Garden. I appreciate Senator Dole and Secretary Shalala and other members of their commission for joining me today. Welcome.

I just finished an inspiring meeting -- with Secretary Gates and Acting Secretary Mansfield -- with service members who were rebuilding their lives after being severely wounded in the service of our country. I wish all Americans could hear the service members talk about their strong desire to not only rehabilitate, but to enter -- be productive citizens here in America. I was most impressed by your spirit and your courage, and I -- welcome here to the White House.

I appreciate the fact that they are helping to find a -- to define a culture that says we're going to judge people by their potential, not their disabilities. I appreciate the fact that they are demonstrating the great breakthroughs in technologies that are now available for the wounded. I don't know if you noticed, two of them came in on a Segway.

Medical advances have enabled battlefield medics and hospitals to provide our wounded warriors with care that would have been unimaginable just a decade ago. Yet our system for managing this care has fallen behind; it's an old system, it's an antiquated system, it's an outdated system that needs to be changed.

You know, that's what happened at Walter Reed Army Medical Center earlier this year. First of all, the care that's provided there is magnificent. Our doctors and nurses at Walter Reed are great healers and care givers, and they've saved a lot of lives. But there were serious problems caused by bureaucratic delays and administrative failures. And we're not going to let those problems continue.

We took immediate steps to address the problems at Walter Reed. The building where out-patients were living that was substandard was shut down. They were moved to high-quality housing, and those responsible were held to account. And to ensure wounded troops at Walter Reed and other facilities across America get the care they deserve, I asked Senator Dole and Secretary Shalala to chair a bipartisan presidential commission. The commission conducted a comprehensive review of the care provided to service members returning from the global war on terror from the time they leave the battlefield through their return to civilian life.

At the end of this review, the commission submitted specific recommendations for modernizing and improving our system of care. My administration strongly supports the commission's recommendations. We've taken steps to implement them where we can through administrative action. And today we're sending Congress legislation to implement the recommendations that require legislative action.

The legislation will help us achieve three important goals. First, this legislation will modernize and improve the way we evaluate disabilities and award compensation for injured service members. Right now the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs both have their own systems for making these determinations. The commission found that this process is difficult to navigate and confusing for service members and their families. We need to streamline the system.

So this legislation will assign both departments clear and separate roles. The Defense Department will determine whether wounded warriors are still fit for service. Those unable to serve will receive a pension from the Defense Department based on their rank and length of service. Then they will move directly into the Veterans Affairs system, where they will receive compensation for their disabilities. This compensation will take into account both loss of earnings and the overall impact on the quality of life resulting from a service member's injury or disability.

This new system will also emphasize rehabilitation and retraining. It will provide new support and financial incentives for therapy and education. It will help our wounded warriors rejoin their communities. These men and women want to be productive, and they want to be active members of our society, and this legislation will help them achieve that goal.

Secondly, this legislation will strengthen support for families during the recovery process. When our service members suffer wounds, their families suffer with them. They pray beside hospital beds, they discuss the options with the doctors, and they help injured loved ones readjust to everyday life. These commitments often require family members to take long leaves of absence from work, yet many family members cannot get this time off without losing their jobs.

Our military families deserve better. So this legislation will give many parents and spouses the opportunity to take up to six months of unpaid leave when their loved ones are seriously wounded in combat. It provides severely wounded service members with aid and attended care services -- for instance, up to 40 hours per week of in-home help from an assistant -- so their families do not have to shoulder the responsibilities of caring alone.

Third, this legislation will improve treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The commission found that many service members still worry about the stigma associated with this serious condition. We need to end this stigma by encouraging those suffering to get help. This legislation will make it easier for our troops to receive care for this disorder, and it will help affected service members to move forward with their lives.

The need to enact these reforms into law is urgent, and I call on both Republicans and Democrats in Congress to come together and pass a good bill that I can sign into law. We also need to complete the Veterans Affairs appropriations bills that funds veterans' benefits and other ongoing programs. I fully recognize Congress and I have our differences on other appropriations bills, but the Veterans Affairs bill is one where we agree. I ask the House and Senate to work together to pass a bill that I can sign, and send it to my desk by Veteran's Day.

As we work with Congress on this legislation, my administration will continue to institute the recommendations of the Dole-Shalala commission that do not require congressional approval. We're acting on the commission's recommendations to form a new corps of well-trained recovery coordinators. These coordinators will work with families to establish recovery plans and monitor the healing process, facilitate the transition to civilian life, and ensure wounded service members do not get lost in the system.

We're also acting on the commission's recommendations to ensure health professionals working at the Defense Department and Veteran's Affairs facilities can easily share patient information. This will allow us to provide patients with better care as they move through the system. We're also developing a new secure web portal, where service members will be able to access all their medical files and benefit information in one place.

We're acting on the commission's recommendation to create incentives for medical professionals and administrators to work at Walter Reed. One out of every five wounded service members passes through this hospital. While Walter Reed is set to close at 2011, we will ensure it remains a state-of-the-art facility until the last day of operation.

By taking these steps, we'll honor a shared commitment to care for those who defend our freedom. One of those people is Ryan Groves. While serving with the Marines in Iraq in 2004, he lost his left leg and severely injured his right leg in a rocket attack. Today, he refuses to allow his disability to stop him from living his life. He's going to Georgetown. He wants to be a lawyer. He travels using the Segway. He's an amazing fellow. He's an inspiration for all Americans. And we need to build a system of care that is worthy of the sacrifice that he and others have made.

I look forward to working with Congress to achieve this goal. Together, we can give our wounded warriors the best possible care and help them build their lives of hope and promise.

And now it's my honor to introduce Secretary Donna Shalala.

SECRETARY SHALALA: Thank you very much, Mr. President. First, let me compliment your administration on the implementation of 90 percent of our recommendations. When we proposed our recommendations, we separated them between what Congress needed to do and what the administration could do. And Secretary Gates and Acting Secretary Mansfield have been relentless in trying to get these recommendations implemented here in Washington.

But as you pointed out, our recommendations do require legislation, particularly to modernize the disability system. We have a very old-fashioned system. As Senator Dole has pointed out, it was the Bradley Commission, General Bradley, that made the first recommendations on disability.

We have a modern health care system. We have changed attitudes about disability, making investments in these young men and young women on the front end, making sure they get educational benefits, making certain that their parents and loved ones, that their wives and husbands are not responsible for coordinating care, for fighting the bureaucracy. That's our responsibility -- the American people's responsibility, the government's responsibility.

But more than anything else, Congress now -- and as Senator Dole and I will testify tomorrow -- must modernize the disability system. It is old fashioned, it doesn't reflect modern medicine, it's too slow, it's too confusing. We need a system in which any soldier, any sailor, any Marine, any member of their family understand it and can make it work.

And so I thank you, Mr. President. Senator Dole and I will be on the Hill tomorrow to make our case to the Senate. And you're absolutely right -- we can do this. Our commission members believe we can do it; the young Americans who have been injured, many of them severely, believe we can do it. And we must do it. Thank you very much.

SENATOR DOLE: Well, first I want to thank you, Mr. President. I remember when I was asked to be on this commission -- I think Josh Bolten and I had a discussion, and Secretary Gates and with yourself -- I said, at my age, I don't need any -- to be on a commission that's going to gather dust, like most commissions do. But I'm here today to attest to your commitment and to the tremendous work of the White House staff.

I've been around -- not the White House as long as I'd like -- (laughter) -- but I've been around Washington for quite a while. And I know when the staff is working. And I've been here for at least five or six meetings, and they weren't 15, 20 minutes; they were two hours, three-hour, four-hour meetings. So because of the dedication of the Veterans Administration and the Department of Defense, the President of the United States and the President's staff, we're where we are today.

And we're honored to have a number of our commissioners here today. It might -- well to point out that five of the nine commissioners had disabilities. So it wasn't a group of people who had never focused and never had to deal with problems. Four had disabilities, and one was the wife of a man who was burned over 70 percent of his body. So out of the nine, we had a good representative group.

And I can't think of a better person to work with, except she works too hard, than Secretary Shalala. I mean, she's 24-7; I think that's where it started. But we did the work. We know there are some veterans groups that are a little skeptical about certain things. They're living now with a 600-page of band-aids and amendments and things that are well-intended, but we're dealing with a new generation, and they're seated right over in this group. There are five -- well, there is Sarah, who takes care of her husband, Sarah Wade and her husband, and four other young men over there are amputees. And it's this generation. I mean, it's a different generation than my generation, than the Vietnam generation. And the treatments are different.

And the survival rates in World War II, for every one killed, maybe one would survive. Now the ratio is one to, I think, 18. I mean, it's a big, big difference because of the great medical care received the moment you're wounded on the battlefield until you arrive at Walter Reed or Brooke Hospital in Texas, or wherever it may be.

This is -- maybe the benefits are going to be a little better for this group. We never talked about cost. We never talked about politics. I knew Secretary Shalala's; she knew mine; we didn't know anybody else's. That wasn't important. We never talked about cost. I remember the President telling us in the Oval Office -- he just said three words: Whatever it takes. And so we set about to do whatever we thought it would take. And we believe we've done a good job.

We've had experts in electronic transfer information, with Dr. Martin Harris, who is a specialist at the Cleveland Clinic. We've had a lot of great assistance from staff, from outstanding staff that we were able to assemble, and from cooperation from the DOD and the VA. So I've been around long enough to know that nothing is perfect. And we didn't have -- some people say, you should have done the whole system. Well, our charter was limited to Iraq and Afghanistan. And we didn't have time to do the whole system. We had about four months. And we finished our work on July 31 of this year.

So we're here today to thank the President, to thank these young men and women who are serving their country. Whatever your views may be on the war, we have one common view, on taking care of those who are wounded or injured, whatever it takes.

Thank you. (Applause.)


4:39 P.M. EDT

SOURCE White House Press Office
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