World War II veteran Bob Dole knows Walter Reed Hospital from the inside. Of course, he also knows his way around Washington bureaucracy, which is why President Bush asked the retired senate leader to chair his "Wounded Warriors" commission with President Clinton's health secretary Donna Shalala.
Dole talked about his new appointment, how wounded soldiers should be treated and his predictions on both sides of the aisle for 2008.
Stephanopoulos: So bring us inside the room when President Bush asked you to take on this job. What does he want you to do?
Dole: Well, he told me and Secretary Shalala that if we can find, you know, one soldier who's not being treated properly as far as medical care and on the transition at the V.A. or back to their unit or to the Guard or the Reserve, you know, he wants us to fix it.
Because I had my reservations about commissions. I've seen a lot of commissions come and go.
So has Secretary Shalala. And we didn't want to be a part of something where they come down and a little photo op and four months later you hand the report in, or five months, they say thank you, and that's the end of it.
Stephanopoulos: You're confident that President Bush, Secretary Gates aren't going to limit your work in any way?
Dole: No, that's a question I asked and the president said, flatly, to both me and Secretary Shalala -- we were in the Oval Office: if anything you need, you're going to get it.
Stephanopoulos: So you have free rein?
Dole: Yes. Pretty much. I mean, we're going to look at not just -- you know, Walter Reed's been sort of -- sort of beaten that horse long enough. There are 154 V.A. hospitals, a total of 1,400 V.A. facility if you count nursing homes and other facilities. There are 70 DOD hospitals, Department of Defense hospitals. We're going to look at all of it and report to the president June the 30th, or no later than the end of July.
Stephanopoulos: And that's the big concern, isn't it, that there might be even bigger problems way out in the country?
Dole: Oh, I mean, you should see some of the e-mails I'm getting, people wanting to be on the commission, wanting to help, wanting to volunteer, saying you ought to come look at this place or this place.
But I must say in fairness, we're getting some very positive e-mails from people who have been in hospitals, been at Walter Reed, for example.
I've been at Walter Reed -- I've been there -- I've had a prostatectomy, a part of my colon removed, other -- kidney stones, I mean, all that, since I've been around Washington, D.C., at Walter Reed.
Stephanopoulos: And you've gone and visited the wounded soldiers.
Dole: I've been there a lot. I was there for Christmas dinner, Thanksgiving dinner. And if you want to go out, you know, Ward 57, you can visit some very seriously injured or wounded soldiers.
Stephanopoulos: How do you think it was that these conditions weren't revealed sooner?
Dole: I can't believe it.
You know, I'm even surprised that -- I'm not critical, but I'm surprised that one of the veterans' groups, because they visit there all the time, the Legion, the VFW, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans, you know, they send reps out there.
And I think most of it is sort of -- this Building 18 is sort of off-campus; it's across the street -- used to be a hotel.
And, you know, out of sight, out of mind, I guess.
Stephanopoulos: So you never saw anything like the conditions revealed by The Post?
Dole: No, I've been out there a lot and I've been with several different clinics where I met with staff people and others.
In the old days, we used to think they didn't keep us long enough, you know. They'd be rushing us out of the hospital. And when we left the hospital, that was the end of it. I mean, nobody followed up. You know, just went home, and that...
Stephanopoulos: Not at all?
Dole: That was over. Yes.
This was way back in World War II.
But now I think it's changed so much, that there are -- many of these soldiers think they're being kept too long and they're not being handed over to the V.A. or back to their unit or to the Guard or the Reserve or home. And -- and maybe if they go to the V.A. and they have, a, say a brain injury, there's nobody really equipped at that facility to give them appropriate care.
Stephanopoulos: And this really seems to be one of the special problems of this war, because medical care has advanced so much...
Stephanopoulos: So many more people are surviving the battlefield.
Dole: What are there, what, 17,000, 18,000 wounded? If this were World War II figures, that figure would probably be, what, 8,000 or 9,000? The others would not have survived.
But now you can be wounded in -- or injured in Iraq and be at Walter Reed hospital three or four days later. And...
Stephanopoulos: Yet you'll be dealing with this brain injury for 30, 40, 50 years.
Dole: Right. And -- and I haven't made any judgments, but it seems to me that, if the V.A. is not equipped and Department of Defense hospitals are not equipped to deal with these very complex, say, brain injuries, then they ought to go to some private hospital where they are equipped and where they've been doing it for 30, 40, 50 years.
Stephanopoulos: You've also written eloquently about the hidden scars that a lot of these veterans are going to be coming back with. PTSD, post-traumatic stress.
Stephanopoulos: Depression. How do we handle that?
Dole: That doesn't show up, you know, sometimes. You can be home, you can be back in your unit, you can be anywhere when that happens.
And there have been, what, 1.3 million young men and women have either gone through Iraq or Afghanistan.
So, I don't know, it's something we're going to have to touch on in our commission. The other members of the commission were named today.
Stephanopoulos: And some of those members include soldiers, Marines, who have actually served and been wounded...
Dole: That's right. We're gonna make certain of that. We have a family member. We have two -- one enlisted man, one officer -- who have been severely wounded. One lost an arm, one has critical -- severe injuries to his leg. And, you know, we're looking for solutions.
Stephanopoulos: General Kiley took a real beating on Capitol Hill this week.
Rep. Paul Hodes: General Kiley, I think this is a massive failure of competence in management and command. And do you agree that the buck stops with you on these problems?
Gen. Kevin Kiley: Yes, sir. ]
Dole: It was a pretty weak performance. And he'd been there for a couple of years, and even though he had other responsibilities, I mean, obviously somebody dropped the ball. I mean, these things shouldn't happen.
Stephanopoulos: One of the issues that did come up this week was the idea that Walter Reed had been slated for closing in the base closing commission.
Gen. Peter Schoomaker: When you announce that you're going to close something, that it has an impact on the people that man it.
Rep. John Murtha: That was a mistake to say we're going to close Walter Reed -- a mistake. And we knew it.]
Dole: Yes, which I think is a mistake myself, but that's a personal –
Stephanopoulos: Do you think it will be turned around now?
Dole: I don't know. Apparently, it's made a lot of prog -- it's gone down the line, let's put it that way. And they started the process closing, which some say, "Well, that's probably why they didn't take care of this building." But that is no excuse for that. You don't house people in rat-infested, cockroach-infested, moldy buildings, particularly when they're willing to risk their lives and have risked their lives in uniform.
But, I don't know. I think Walter Reed has so much history that it shouldn't be closed.
Stephanopoulos: Finally, because I can't let you go without talking some politics, do you have a candidate yet in 2008?
Dole: We have a Kansas senator running for president, Sam Brownback. But, you know, there are -- I'm a great, good friend of John McCain's, and I don't know Giuliani quite that well, or Mitt Romney. But how convenient -- we have a lot of candidates with probably another one coming tomorrow morning.
Stephanopoulos: Do you think Chuck Hagel's getting in?
Dole: I think he'll probably announce he's running.
Stephanopoulos: Maybe Speaker Gingrich, too, your counterpart when you were majority speaker.
Dole: Maybe Fred Thompson. You know, Senator Baker has been looking around for opportunities. And he'd be a very exciting, interesting candidate.
Stephanopoulos: The Wall Street Journal had a poll the other day that said that Republicans were less satisfied with their field than the Democrats are right now.
Do you think Republicans need to have a bigger field?
Dole: I think our field is big enough. We just maybe need a little more focus. I think the people who are dissatisfied may be the more conservative Republicans who don't quite -- well, Brownback would be fine and maybe Huckabee, but in the top tier candidates, the top three, they're not quite certain.
Stephanopoulos: And are you one of those Republicans who's convinced that the Democratic candidate's going to be Hillary Clinton?
Dole: I thought so, and I still think so. But, you know, I would have bet the farm on it two months ago. Now I think I'll just maybe hedge a bit and bet, you know, part of the farm, maybe the barn, the house, not the whole farm.
Stephanopoulos: Well, we'll come back in two months and see how much you'll bet then.
Senator Dole, thank you very much.
Dole: Thank you.