This is a month for painful anniversaries. It is
10 years since the start of the benighted war in Iraq. It is also one year since
March 11, 2012, the day Staff Sergeant Robert Bales allegedly massacred 16
civilians in the Panjwai district of Afghanistan. But I'm more concerned about a
silent anniversary: the next day, March 12, 2012. It was an absolutely terrible
day for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, especially those looking for jobs. It was
a day – yet another day – when the headlines were about a trooper gone berserk.
This is true far too often: veterans involved in gun violence, suicide or
domestic abuse, homeless veterans, addicted veterans. The woes are endless. The
problems are real. But the vast majority of veterans don't suffer from them. And
there were no high-profile public figures to stand up and speak for the majority
in the days after the Bales massacre, especially for the thousands who were
thanked for their service – and then quietly turned down for work because
employers, well, they didn't want to take any chances.
Eric Shinseki, the secretary of veterans Affairs, should be the leading advocate
for these troops. He should have been everywhere in the days after the massacre,
promoting those veterans – and they exist all over in this country – who are
fabulous employees, fabulous first responders, brilliant entrepreneurs in both
the public and private sectors. But here's a question: When was the last time
you saw Shinseki say or do anything in public? He is universally regarded as an
exemplary man. But even his supporters say he's old-school military, stoic, wary
of the press. And his detractors, who are legion among the generation of Iraq
and Afghanistan veterans, say he lacks the creativity and leadership skills to
deal with Veterans Affairs' mind-boggling problems, like the
900,000 unprocessed disability cases.
In any event, he has been in office for four years, and the problems our
veterans face are worse than ever – and about to get still worse as the military
demobilizes tens of thousands of additional troops in the next few years. It is
time for him to step down.
To be sure, the problems are not all Shinseki's fault. There's been a lot of
flag-waving and patriotic blather from politicians, but there's also been a
scandalous absence of action. The First Lady has been a valuable spokesperson
for military families, but
record has been less than mediocre.
Take, for instance, the absolutely ridiculous scandal involving the inability of
the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs to come up with a united system
for electronic medical records that would allow troops to move seamlessly from
the military to the VA. Barack Obama has been heads-up about electronic record
keeping since the day he was elected. In 2009 he announced a plan to create a
seamless system for the military.
We have now spent $1 billion on developing such a system, and in February the
two departments announced that they had failed to come up with one. This was not
Shinseki's fault. The VA has an excellent record-keeping system called Vista.
The Defense Department wasn't sold, however. It hasn't decided what sort of
system it wants. If the President were on top of things – if he were as good as
his word about taking care of the troops – he would step in and force the
decision to be made. Yesterday.
Shinseki should, however, take the fall for the infamous 900,000 unprocessed
cases. Yes, the backlog doubled when the Obama Administration, rightly, enabled
Vietnam veterans to make Agent Orange claims. But the VA hasn't set the right
A Marine who was blinded and lost two limbs last
year in Helmand province goes into the same queue as a Vietnam veteran who wants
increased payments because his back is deteriorating with age.
First-time claims need to be handled before second, third, and fourth-time
claims; 100%-disability cases need to be handled before 20% disabilities.
Somehow that isn't happening.
I spend a lot of time with our returning veterans these days, and they see the
VA as an impenetrable disaster. They feel terribly isolated – some of them call
civilians "the 99%." They are creating their own communities, building their own
organizations. Groups like Team Rubicon have deployed thousands of veterans in
disaster-relief situations; Team Red, White & Blue organizes group
exercise-therapy programs. Research shows that these kinds of activities really
help with posttraumatic stress. On March 12, those two groups announced a
partnership to get more young veterans exercising and doing disaster relief
together. But it's disgraceful that while these young people continue to serve
us by cleaning up after hurricanes and tornadoes, the VA can't get it together
to take care of their most basic needs.