WASHINGTON -- A prominent veterans group whose members have occasionally been critical of the Bush administration says it is being blocked from meeting with patients at the nation's leading Army hospital, which President Bush visited yesterday to mark the one-year anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq.
Officials from Disabled American Veterans, a nonprofit service group that counsels wounded veterans and tells them what government benefits they are entitled to, say that since Iraq war veterans began returning to the United States last year, Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington has limited their access to patients, citing privacy and post-Sept. 11 security concerns.
The group has challenged the Bush administration on its support for various veterans' benefits, including payments to retirees and the size of the Veterans Administration budget, at a time when the president and the presumptive Democratic nominee, Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, are sparring over veterans' issues.
DAV leaders stop short of accusing the administration of blocking their access to veterans for political purposes, but said both the hospital and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld have yet to explain the change to their satisfaction.
"The question that we have been asked many times is, `What's really behind this?' " said DAV spokesman Dave Autry. "Is it that they don't want people to know the cost of this war in blood and in treasure? We don't have an answer to that question."
Joan Malloy, a spokeswoman for the hospital, said the new policy was prompted both by post-9/11 security concerns and the need to meet a patient-privacy law that took effect in April 2003.
"It is a closed post now," Malloy said. "The world has changed for everybody, including people who want to visit the hospital."
Malloy said other groups like the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion have visited soldiers at the hospital after the change. "We have never had any complaints from them that Walter Reed won't grant them access to patients," she said.
Bush's administration has come under criticism for preventing photographers from seeing caskets and wounded veterans arriving from Iraq, even as the president himself has sought to display his concern.
His meeting with wounded soldiers at Walter Reed yesterday was private, as have most of his dealings with wounded troops or the relatives of those who have been killed. Still, Kerry and other Democrats have accused Bush of using soldiers as props while endangering their lives with reckless policies in Iraq and cutting veterans' benefits at home.
After visiting wounded troops yesterday, Bush said: "Every time I come to Walter Reed, it confirms that which I know, which is we're providing the very best -- the best care, the best compassion. Several soldiers told me today, badly injured soldiers, that they want to get well quickly and get back on their duty stations in Iraq. They want to serve our nation."
Autry said that before wounded troops began coming home, his group was given broad access to soldiers at Walter Reed.
"Before, we could pretty go in and tell them we'd like to visit the folks on the ward," Autry said. "We were pretty much given free rein of the place."
But that's no longer the case, Autry said, adding that DAV representatives reported being told that they needed to have the name and approval of wounded veterans before being granted access to them. DAV could not get the names of wounded soldiers from the Department of Defense, Autry said. And hospital officials, citing post-Sept. 11 security concerns, began escorting DAV representatives to meetings with soldiers they had gotten approval from.
DAV Executive Director David W. Gorman wrote Rumsfeld in January to complain.
"With combat casualties returning to military hospitals in the United States, it is essential that these wounded soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines be made fully aware of their rights, benefits, and health care options even before they leave military service," Gorman wrote.
But Colonel James R. Greenwood, deputy commander for administration at the hospital, wrote Gorman and told him that laws passed by Congress limited what information could be released.
"All military health care facilities are required to comply with these medical information privacy rules," he wrote, adding that "there is no exception for organizations such as the Disabled American Veterans, whether they possess a congressional charter or not."
Gorman wrote Greenwood back and contended that "you repeat the same flawed rationale to deny accessibility."
"The DAV simply seeks to talk to these men and women to make them aware of their rights and benefits as wounded veterans," Gorman wrote. "We do not seek access to their medical records, only the patients themselves. It is inconceivable to me that this present administration would deny these wounded men and women knowledge of their rights and benefits by using a cloak of obfuscation and ignorance against them."
DAV has been sharply critical of the Bush administration. In February, for instance, the group issued a news release blasting the president's 2005 budget. "The Bush administration has broken faith with the nation's sick and disabled veterans by failing dismally to request adequate funding for the Department of Veteran Affairs health care and benefits delivery system," the group stated.
In May 2002, the group ripped what it saw as a move by the White House to cut veterans' retirement benefits.
A White House official yesterday dismissed the notion of any connection between limited access for DAV and the group's criticism of the administration.