WASHINGTON — President Bush on Tuesday nominated retired Lt. Gen. James Peake as the next secretary of veterans affairs, putting the department in the hands of the former Army surgeon general.

Peake will replace former secretary Jim Nicholson, who stepped down from the post on Sept. 30. If confirmed, he will be the first former general and first physician to serve as head of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“He will apply his decades of expertise in combat medicine and health care management to improve the veterans health system,” Bush said Tuesday. “He will insist on the highest level of care for every American veteran.”

Peake, who served as Army surgeon general from 2000 to 2004, is a 1966 West Point graduate and Vietnam veteran who served as a platoon leader with the 101st Airborne Division. He received a Silver Star and Purple Heart for actions there.

Since retiring from the Army, Peake has worked with a variety of medical groups, most recently as chief medical director and chief operating officer of QTC Management Inc., and occupational health and rehabilitation firm.

There he worked alongside QTC Chairman Anthony Principi, who preceded Nicholson as secretary of the VA.

On Tuesday Peake said his initial focus will be implementing recommendations from the President’s Commission on Care for America’s Returning Wounded Warriors, and improving communication between the VA and Department of Defense.

“Though this is an honor, this is not an honorary position,” he said. “There is a lot of work to be done.”

The move came just a day after Senate leaders sent an angry letter to Bush criticizing him for not filling the secretary post quicker.

Nicholson announced his retirement from the department in July. Since October, Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs Gordon Mansfield has served as interim secretary.

In the letter, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and other senate leaders said Bush had not made filling the post a high enough priority.

On Tuesday, one of the letter signers, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said she expects Peake to answer questions before the Senate about his role in scandals involving poor oversight at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, which came to light earlier this year.

“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,” she said.

No timeline has been announced for Peake’s confirmation hearings before the Senate.

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