Presidential visits to wounded soldiers at Walter Reed should be non-political events worthy of non-partisan coverage, but the New York Times manages to shows its colors even in those solemn moments.
In the half-page “Obama’s Sacred Duty: Visiting the Wounded -- Trips to Walter Reed Take Toll and Inspire” for Wednesday’s edition, reporter Gardiner Harris brought a somber, emotional, personalized tone to the proceedings.
President Obama stood outside the room, rubbed sanitizer on his hands, set his face into a smile and knocked on the door.
No one answered. He looked at the hospital floor, polished to a sheen, and knocked again. Still no answer. So Mr. Obama turned the knob and gently pushed his way inside.
“Hello? Jeremy, what’s going on?” Maj. Jeremy Haynes remembers the president saying as he came into his room at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center two years ago.
It was the first of several visits the president paid Major Haynes, an Army officer who was told he would never walk, feel below his waist or have children again after his spine was hit by a Taliban bullet in Afghanistan. The visits, Major Haynes said, “were truly inspiring to me” and gave him hope for the life ahead of him.
On Tuesday, for his 23rd and probably last time as president, Mr. Obama traveled to the military hospital to spend an afternoon with the wounded from Afghanistan and Iraq. Because of the weather, he arrived in a motorcade, not his usual helicopter, but otherwise, his visit unfolded much as Major Haynes and hospital officials describe the ones he has paid before.
Spouses, parents and children are often present, and Mr. Obama always addresses them by their first names. He sometimes hugs wives, but if a mother is there, he invariably says, “And moms get hugs,” and embraces her.
After the greetings, Mr. Obama sometimes calls in a military aide so he can award a Purple Heart or other citation. He asks if they have any questions or concerns and calls in another aide to take notes and follow through. The most common question deals with retiring from active duty, a laborious and often frustrating process for the wounded.
The Times found that Obama’s visits even made believers out of political opponents.
In June, Mr. Obama visited the hospital’s physical therapy room, where amputees learn to walk again. One double-amputee gave him a push-up challenge, and Mr. Obama promptly shed his suit jacket, dropped to the floor and reeled off more than 20. Still wearing dress shoes, he joined another in jumping onto a 30-inch box.
“I can’t even put into words how impressed I was,” said Lt. Cmdr. John Terry, known as Jae, an amputee whose photo of himself doing lunges with Mr. Obama is among his most treasured possessions. “I will remember that day until I die.”
Not every severely wounded patient at Walter Reed meets the president. Some miss him by chance. A few refuse because they disagree with his politics.
But even some of the president’s critics say his presence ennobled their injuries and made them feel part of a larger plan.
Yet the tone was quite more brusque and abrupt, almost guilt-tripping, when it came to former President George W. Bush’s visits to the wounded at Walter Reed during the Iraq War, even down to the terse headlines, like this one from November 2004: “Bush Visits Wounded G.I.'s and Families at Hospital.”
As thousands of American-led troops continued their attack on the city of Falluja on Tuesday, President Bush spent two hours with wounded service members at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center and afterward wished godspeed to the troops in Iraq.
Mr. Bush, who had not been to Walter Reed since March, chose to visit on a day of the heaviest fighting in Iraq since the fall of Baghdad in April 2003. Military officials in Baghdad said that 10 Americans had been killed since the assault on Falluja began, and that there were reports that two Iraqi soldiers had been killed. There were no reports on how many insurgents or civilians had been killed.
In March 2007 a similarly humdrum headline, “Bush Visits the Wounded at Walter Reed Hospital,” greeted a Bush visit made in the midst of a political scandal over the treatment of soldiers there, under a report by Sheryl Gay Stolberg that took full advantage of the scandal to put Bush in the blame frame.
The president has repeatedly expressed concern over what he has called “real problems” at Walter Reed, and has appointed a bipartisan commission to study the care and treatment of wounded soldiers. But his trip on Friday was the first time he has apologized.
While at Walter Reed, Mr. Bush also visited patients undergoing physical therapy. Although the president does not ordinarily allow reporters or camera crews to accompany him when meeting wounded soldiers, he did so on this occasion, prompting some Democrats and at least one veteran’s group to accuse him of staging a photo opportunity.