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Military breaks ground for new Walter Reed facility

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  • NEW: President Bush helps break ground for new Walter Reed military hospital
  • New facility will care for wounded veterans from all services beginning in 2011
  • The Washington Post revealed substandard care at existing Walter Reed in 2007
  • Veterans groups says care for wounded veterans has improved
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Less than two years after reports of decrepit conditions at the nation's most prominent military hospital, the military broke ground Thursday for the new Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

An artist's rendition shows what the new Walter Reed National Military Medical Center will look like.

President Bush attended and spoke at the groundbreaking, which comes after The Washington Post exposed substandard conditions and treatment for some of the wounded veterans at Walter Reed in 2007.

"At this new center, wounds will be healed, medical knowledge will be advanced, lives will be rebuilt, and those who wear our nation's uniform will be reminded that they have the enduring gratitude of the American people," Bush said.

The $970 million project, in Bethesda, Maryland, will create one main hospital in the Washington area for the primary care of wounded service members from all branches of the armed forces.

The president said the new facility will merge the existing Walter Reed center with the National Naval Medical Center, which is already at the Bethesda, Maryland, location.

The merged facility will make it easier for the doctors of the Army, Navy and Air Force to collaborate and for wounded veterans to see medical specialists, Bush said.

The existing Walter Reed facility in northwest Washington is slated to be closed as part of the Pentagon's Base Realignment and Closings recommendations. The decision to close the facility was made before the Post reports were published.

When finished in 2011, the 345-bed facility will add 2.5 million square feet of new or renovated space to the Bethesda medical campus.

News reports about soldiers living in substandard housing at Walter Reed or getting lost in the bureaucratic morass of the Army's medical system prompted major reviews of veterans' care by the Defense Department and White House.

The White House review was led by a committee co-chaired by former Sen. Robert Dole and Donna Shalala, former secretary of health and human services under President Clinton. Bush said the committee's recommendations were included in the planning for the new facility.

Those reviews led to increased spending and changes in the military health care system.

Some veterans advocates said the changes have led to improvements not only at Walter Reed but also across the military's medical system.

"Instead of fighting for money, facilities are now figuring out how to spend it," said Patrick Campbell, legislative director of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

Campbell, who regularly visits Walter Reed, said improvements there have made "a remarkable difference."

Until the Post's report, he said, the philosophy at Walter Reed was that since old buildings were being phased out under the base closure process, maintenance money should be saved for the move to the new facility in Bethesda. Now, Campbell said, the emphasis is making sure wounded veterans get proper care.

This change in attitude is having an impact beyond the hospital, he said.

"Wounded vets all over the country benefited from the exposé," Campbell said.

The Government Accountability Office also has been tracking care at Walter Reed since the scandal broke. It noted in a report published in February that some progress has been made in veterans treatment but said that challenges in finding enough staffing had undercut improvements.

CNN's Larry Shaughnessy contributed to this report.

All About Walter Reed Health Care SystemIraq WarAfghanistan War

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