WASHINGTON - One of the grimmest consequences for a president who wages war is coming face-to-face with men and women he sent into battle and who returned wounded.
On Friday, President Bush and first lady Laura Bush went to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in northwest Washington to visit the bedsides of U.S. troops wounded during the war in Iraq.
Later, they were heading to the National Naval Medical Center in nearby Bethesda, Md., spending a total of about three hours with hurt soldiers while battlefield successes multiplied and Saddam Hussein's regime appeared in tatters.
However, the war is in its fourth week with no sign the Bush administration is ready to declare it over.
Bush visited with 40 Army soldiers sent stateside for treatment at Walter Reed, and planned to honor a dozen with purple hearts. At the Naval Medical Center, the president was to visit 33 patients, award four Purple Hearts and stand witness as two wounded Marines become U.S. citizens.
White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said the president views the afternoon "as a time to honor men and women who have been injured so that Iraqi people could have freedom."
On Saturday, rescued POW Jessica Lynch is to leave a U.S military hospital in Germany and fly to Washington for further treatment at Walter Reed.
Lynch, a 19-year-old private first class from Palestine, W.Va., has spent the last week at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in western Germany being treated for a head wound, an injury to her spine and fractures to her right arm, both legs and her right foot and ankle.
As of Thursday, the Pentagon's count of Americans wounded in action in Iraq stood at 343. Another 105 have died, the Defense Department said, while 11 are missing and seven captured.
There has been no tally of the Iraqi military's dead and wounded, either from the coalition or from the Iraqi government. Iraq has said that nearly 600 civilians have been killed and more than 4,000 wounded since the war began.
The visits have become emotionally wrenching rituals of Bush's presidency that visibly wear on him.
"I know that every order I give can bring a cost," Bush said in a somber January address to soldiers at Ford Hood, Texas, while he was still contemplating war.
Later in January, Bush went room-to-room at Walter Reed visiting five soldiers badly injured in Afghanistan, emerging with tears in his eyes. Two days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the president and first lady went to Washington Hospital Center to see 11 military and civilian workers critically burned in the Pentagon attack. Separately, Mrs. Bush appeared at Walter Reed on her own to see soldiers injured in the same attack.
Some Democrats have called the events hypocritical, because Bush has proposed some cuts in the VA health care system.
That health care system was opened by a 1996 law to almost all veterans, and now serves millions more than its traditional clients - low-income veterans with service-connected diseases and injuries. Bush administration VA officials have said the cuts are needed to preserve the care for those traditional VA patients, whose number is expected to rise with casualties from the Iraq war.
Bush proposed a 7.7 percent increase, to $27.5 billion, for veterans' medical care in the fiscal year starting Oct. 1, but included fee increases and limits on access, which are unpopular with veterans.
Bush's budget also proposed charging veterans who earn about $24,000 a year or more an annual enrollment fee of $250. And it proposed increasing copayments for higher-income patients, from $15 to $20 for outpatient primary care and $7 to $15 for prescription drugs.
And to the disapproval of many veterans' groups, the Veterans Affairs Department in January suspended through 2003 all new enrollments by higher-income veterans to the health care system, a move expected to affect about 164,000 veterans.
After the hospital stops, Bush was flying to the Camp David presidential retreat in the Maryland mountains, where he has spent every weekend since the war started March 19.
On Friday morning, Bush called President Gloria Macapagal of the Philippines to discuss developments in Iraq and express appreciation for the Philippines' commitment to provide post-conflict assistance. The two leaders also discussed developments in the war on terror in the Philippines, Fleischer said. The president also spoke on the phone with Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who has supported the coalition's war against Iraq.