Like all tragedies associated with war, the recent evidence suggesting mismanagement at Veterans Affairs hospitals has led to veterans’ deaths is appalling. However, what it is not is political.
Or, at least it shouldn’t be.
Republicans have certainly capitalized on the opportunity to attack the Obama Administration and “big government,” citing the former’s support for the latter as the reason for the scandal.
The chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, Jeff Miller (R-FL) told CNN: “You’ve got an entrenched bureaucracy that exists out there that is not held accountable.” In other words, Miller says, the VA’s failures are big government run amok.
Even more scathing and direct are the remarks from Jim Nicholson, who was the Secretary of Veterans Affairs under President George W. Bush—a man himself not free of scandal. First, he questioned President Obama’s commitment to veterans because “he never showed up” to Veterans Affairs Committee meetings while he was a senator. More to the point, Nicholson stated, “What’s happening now is the President of the United States is not taking responsibility for this, and what I think the root problem is with these hospital directors is we’ve seen this kind of dishonesty and duplicity on the part of the President.” This was no minor politician looking to score points on C-SPAN: Nicholson was chairman of the Republican National Committee from 1997 to 2001.
Many Republicans criticize President Obama for not holding people accountable and, it seems, would have acted differently.
Or not. Let’s compare President Obama’s stance to that of these Republicans:
OBAMA: “I have said to Ric [Eric Shinseki, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs], and I said it to him today, I want to see what the results of these [VA Inspector General] reports are, and there is going to be accountability.” (5/21/2014)
NICHOLSON: “I think it’s premature to make that decision [to fire Shinseki]. There’s a lot of investigating that needs to go on.” (5/23/2014)
MILLER: “Secretary Shinseki doesn’t need to go until we’ve seen the final [VA Inspector General] report.” (5/25/2014)
There seems to be a consensus that the solution is not simply to fire General Shinseki, but to investigate further. That is precisely what President Obama is doing.
Even Republican House Majority Leader John Boehner agrees with President Obama, stating: “I have not called for Gen. Shinseki to resign.” Indeed, he cites the problem not with Obama, but with administrators below Shinseki: “This isn’t about one person. This isn’t about the Secretary. It is about the entire system underneath him.”
Indeed, we have consistently failed veterans, regardless of the president’s party. In 2003, hundreds of thousands of veterans were waiting more than 180 days to receive medical care. In 1991, eight patients died from poor treatment in a Chicago VA hospital; similarly, inadequate care spurred a 19-day hunger strike in 1974. And perhaps most famously, the Bonus Army, a grouped of retired WWI vets, occupied a Depression-era Hooverville in 1932 in protest of delayed benefits.
The biggest predictor of a VA failure isn’t big government or Democrats; it’s war.
We must remember that there is no need for a Department of Veterans’ Affairs without an active Department of Defense.
According to the Washington Post, almost one out of every two veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan file for disability. There were more claims last year than any previous year, with 611,000. Even now, there is a backlog of 300,000 cases which have been dealt with for more than 125 days.
“The other area that we have to talk about is that 2 million new veterans coming in in the last few years,” said Bernie Sanders, chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. “Do we have the staff in all areas of this country to accommodate the needs of those veterans? Frankly, between you and me, I’m not sure that we do.”
So yes, we must solve the current VA backlog and punish those administrators who were duplicitous. But we must also recognize the greater problem: a growing civil-military divide that allows these failures to happen.
Hundreds of thousands of Americans go abroad to defend this nation and their service is rarely on the top of our minds, even when they return. Kimberly Tan powerfully explains that civilians have very little idea of the reality of war. Perhaps if they did, we wouldn’t have spent so long in Iraq. Perhaps if they did, there would have been fewer wounds to heal.
Last Wednesday, Matthew Colford and Tim Hsia asked you to reflect on our soldiers’ service. I echo their challenge to bike past Memorial Auditorium and remember what others have given for us to be here. But I also would like to push you to think about when that service should be invoked.
My answer? Rarely.
Contact Nick Ahamed at [email protected].