WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush on Tuesday announced the nomination of retired Army Lt. Gen. James Peake to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Peake would be the first physician and first general to serve as secretary of the department, Bush said at a news conference that Peake, his wife and children attended.
"As medical officer and combat vet wounded in action, Dr. Peake understands the view from both sides of the hospital bed -- the doctors and the patients," Bush said, describing the thoracic surgeon as "an end of the chow line officer -- everyone else first."
Peake, 66, would succeed Jim Nicholson, who stepped down from the post more than three months ago. Since then, acting Secretary Gordon Mansfield has led the department.
"He will apply his decades of expertise in combat medicine and health care management to improve the veterans health system," Bush said.
As secretary, Peake would be the federal government's primary advocate for veterans and direct the second-largest Cabinet department, which runs a nationwide system of health-care services, benefits programs and national cemeteries for the country's veterans and their dependents.
The president said Peake's first task, if confirmed, would be to implement the recommendations of a commission led by former Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala and former Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kansas.
The panel was created after problems at the Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington came to light last year.
The Department of Veterans Affairs had a budget of more than $69 billion for fiscal year 2005 and employs about 230,000 people.
Peake retired from his last post -- as Army surgeon general -- in September 2004.
The nomination elicited concern from Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, a senior member of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs and a critic of the Bush administration's handling of veterans issues.
"Given Dr. Peake's past posts running the Army health care system, he will have serious and significant questions to answer about failed preparations for our returning wounded warriors," Murray said in a statement. "For months we've been hearing horror stories from Walter Reed and other military care centers, and I will want to know what role, if any, Dr. Peake played in the failures of the system."
But Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, also a member of the Veterans Affairs Committee, disagreed that Peake's position as Army surgeon general would weigh against his approval.
"We should view that as experience and not as a take-away," he said. "What you need in that position is someone with a very broad base because of the incredible spread of service they provide through the VA, so I don't see that as a disqualification."
Veterans groups had complained that Bush's failure to name a replacement for Nicholson quickly was a sign his administration does not place a high priority on veterans issues.
On Monday, four senators -- including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada -- sent Bush a letter calling on him to announce a nominee.
Peake, a St. Louis, Missouri, native, graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 1966 with a bachelor of science degree and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the infantry.
Peake served in Vietnam, where he was awarded the Silver Star, a Bronze Star with "V" device and the Purple Heart with oak leaf cluster. He then went on to medical school at Cornell University, earning his degree in 1972.
Peake also commanded the U.S. Army Medical Department Center and School and commanded Fort Sam Houston in Texas.
After retiring from the Army, Peake was executive vice president and chief operating officer of Project Hope, which helped a Navy ship respond to victims of the Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina.
Most recently, he was chief medical director and chief operating officer with QTC Management, which provides veterans with medical examinations and electronic medical records services. E-mail to a friend
CNN's Ted Barrett contributed to this report.
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