In his last months as president, Harry Truman sat in the Oval Office and contemplated the fate that would befall Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, the World War II hero who would be his successor.
“He’ll sit right here, and he’ll say, ‘Do this! Do that!’ And nothing will happen. Poor Ike — it won’t be a bit like the Army. He’ll find it very frustrating.”
Unfortunately, that sums up Gen. Eric Shinseki’s frustrating experience since becoming secretary of Veterans Affairs. Mr. Shinseki, a much-decorated, twice-wounded officer in the Vietnam War, entered office determined to give orders that would finally fix a VA’s documented history of forcing veterans to fight new battles at home just to get treatment and benefits they’d earned fighting our wars.
So Mr. Shinseki ordered VA hospitals to limit patient wait times to 14 days and, whistleblowers claim, some VA hospital officials responded with a bureaucratic equivalent of a one-fingered salute. VA sources and memos say some officials used double-listing schemes to cover up lengthy treatment delays at VA hospitals, and 40 military veterans reportedly died awaiting treatment at the Phoenix VA facility.
Wednesday, President Barack Obama met with Mr. Shinseki and then said such cover-ups, if true, would be “dishonorable. I will not stand for it — not as commander in chief but also not as an American.”
But Truman’s prophecy of the frustrating fate that can befall generals in government can also befall a president who never served in the military until he commanded it. Mr. Obama, after all, was famously blindsided by officials whose lapses led to the early collapse of his health-care website. Now comes the VA.
But what makes the latest VA debacle so frustrating — so infuriating — for all Americans is that neither Mr. Shinseki nor Mr. Obama should have been blindsided by the VA’s problems. After all, the full depth and fundamental nature of the VA’s problems had been well documented back when Obama was campaigning for president and promising VA reforms.
As one who documented the VA’s decades of problems — and proposed some bold and fundamental solutions in my 2007 book, “Vets Under Siege: How America Deceives and Dishonors Those Who Fight Our Battles,” and in numerous newspaper columns — I long ago concluded that Mr. Obama and Mr. Shinseki don’t seem to get it. They don’t understand what is fundamentally wrong at the VA and why no one has seemed able to fix it.
(Example: “Vets Under Siege” opens with a heart-wrenching story that could have been written yesterday. It is about an Army veteran of the Persian Gulf War who was exposed to Iraq’s chemical weapons and later developed a growth on his forehead that was diagnosed as an infection. He experienced extended delays when requesting an MRI at the Dallas VA hospital. By the time he got his MRI, his aggressive cancer was inoperable. Army E4 Specialist William Michael Bill Florey died on New Year’s Day 2005.)
Just days ago, at a Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing, Mr. Shinseki chose to draw a fine and artificial line when asked whether, as reported, 40 veterans had died while on a waiting list at the Phoenix VA hospital. Mr. Shinseki said it hasn’t been determined whether veterans died “because” they were still on the waiting list; maybe treatment wouldn’t have saved them.
But the point is they deserved to be treated, but weren’t, and they died.
Mr. Shinseki’s parsing is part of what’s wrong at today’s VA. We cannot prove Bill Florey would be alive today if he’d gotten his MRI when he asked for it. But we all know the VA’s delay was unconscionable.
So yes, Mr. Obama and Mr. Shinseki deserve credit for opening VA benefits for veterans exposed to the Agent Orange defoliant in Vietnam or suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and so on. But neither one of them has grasped the depth or urgency of the deep-rooted problems at the VA.
While many thousands of dedicated people work at the VA, an adversarial mindset has been allowed to fester within the department. And no VA reforms can succeed until it is scrubbed and replaced with a bureaucratically positive mindset.
Veterans who have no choice but to go through VA bureaucratic cycles often feel they are dealing with a culture that emphasizes only delay or deny. No wonder they come away feeling the VA must stand for Veterans’ Adversaries.
One thing Mr. Obama could do to signal a new era is to change the VA’s name. Let the VA become the Department of Veterans Advocacy.
Let all who work at the VA know their job isn’t about delaying or denying — it is about helping our veterans get the treatment and benefits they earned by fighting our battles half a world away.
Martin Schram is a columnist for McClatchy-Tribune (email@example.com).