Congress Promises Veterans Health Care Improvements

The ABC News special chronicling Bob Woodruff's inspiring recovery from brain injuries sustained while reporting from Iraq has focused the attention of the nation's most powerful lawmakers.

Pledges of increased support for both traumatic brain injury, or TBI, and wounded veterans returning from war have abounded after Woodruff's report, along with accusations of substandard conditions at Walter Reed, one of the country's leading military hospitals.

Congress Calls for Increased Vets Funds

Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, who chairs the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, is calling on his colleagues to approve an additional $300 million for the Department of Veterans' Affairs to treat brain injuries.

Akaka said the budget that President Bush delivered to Capitol Hill "underestimated" the costs of treating veterans with brain injuries.

"Looking at these young soldiers with such devastating injuries, we are reminded of the true costs of war," said Akaka in a statement released after the special aired on Tuesday night. 

"We know that the transition from Department of Defense to Veterans Administration can be tough," Akaka continued. "And this is even more true for veterans suffering from traumatic brain injuries.  At the start of this war, [the Veterans Administration] was wholly unprepared to deal with the number of service members returning with horrific injuries of all kinds." 

Walter Reed Shows Wounds of War

In a related matter, controversy continues to swirl around Washington's Walter Reed Medical Center, the facility at which Woodruff and thousands of returning veterans are treated for war-related injuries.

Last week, the Washington Post examined conditions at the former hotel turned medical facility and reported substandard conditions, including black mold, cockroaches, mouse droppings and stained carpets in the medical hold unit known simply as building 18.

Reaction to the expose was at first contradictory. At a press conference, Lt. Gen. Kevin C. Kiley described the newspaper's account as a "one-sided representation," but Kiley's comments seemed to directly contradict those made earlier at the Pentagon by Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Richard Cody.

"We were absolutely disappointed in the status of the rooms and found the delays and lack of attention to detail to the building's repairs inexcusable," Cody told reporters.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates quickly shouldered the blame and squared the dispute between the Pentagon and Walter Reed, calling the squalid conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center "unacceptable" and announcing an investigation that he said would ensure that those responsible would be held accountable.

"This is unacceptable, and it will not continue," Gates told reporters at an unusual news conference at the medical center.

In a marked contrast to his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, who was known to publicly criticize press reports, Gates took the unusual step of thanking the reporters who brought the story to his attention and met with Bush over the matter, calling the president "understandably concerned and emphatic" that the problems be resolved.

Gates also announced that he had formed an independent review group that will include eight officials to investigate rehabilitative care and administrative processes at Walter Reed and at the nearby Bethesda National Naval Medical Center.

Army Times Documents Retribution

In another unexpected twist to the ever expanding story, the Army Times, an independent newspaper covering military affairs, asserted that retribution was being taken against soldiers in the medical hold unit at Walter Reed.

According to an article from Kelly Kennedy, a staff writer for the Army Times, "One building 18 soldier said he woke up Tuesday morning to the sounds of sergeants pounding on doors and yelling, "Wake up! Wake up! Wake up!"

The article continued to claim, "The soldier said the outpatient soldiers at building 18 were issued garbage cans and cleaning supplies and told to keep their rooms clean and organized because of all the officials who would be making their way through the building during the investigation next week."

Officials have denied such retribution has taken place, but conditions at Walter Reed and the overall quality of veteran care are likely issues to be raised when Veterans' Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson appears before the House Budget Committee Thursday.

Congressional Legislation Tackes Health Care, Conditions

An independent review group that includes eight officials is set to investigate rehabilitative care and administrative processes at Walter Reed and at the nearby Bethesda National Naval Medical Center, but Congress is not waiting for their report to act.

Sens. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., will introduce the Wounded Warriors Act Thursday, calling for more frequent inspections at military hospitals and generally outlining the standards of veteran care.

On the specific subject of TBI, like that suffered by Woodruff and many soliders returning from Iraq, next Tuesday a bipartisan group of senators led by Sens. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, will introduce their reauthorization of the 2000 Traumatic Brain Injury Act.

That law was not specifically geared toward soldiers, but Kennedy and Hatch argue that their reauthorization will help TBI-afflicted service members returning from the war.

The act authorizes study of TBI and funding for state and federal programs that assist Americans with TBI. In addition to soldiers, children under 5 are also particularly susceptible to such brain injuries.

Passage of the reauthorization would also mandate a government study of TBI and the creation of official treatment guidelines. 

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., whose father was a disabled World War II veteran, said, "While Bob Woodruff has seen a tremendous recovery from his tremendous injury, I fear that the care he received has not been duplicated for thousands of others -- other troops when they return home."

Referring to Woodruff's special, Murray continued, "He detailed several cases of soldiers who were suffering from injuries and, unlike his own, the lack of care they received was clear when they entered -- when they left our flagship care centers for some of their smaller local hospitals."

Murray called on Defense Secretary Robert Gates to release Pentagon data collected on TBI, which Murray called the "signature wound" of the Iraq War.

Gates promised Murray an answer on whether the Pentagon would release the data within a week.

ABC News' John Hendren and Steven Portnoy contributed to this report.

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