Having served 22 years in the military before beginning my career in television, words do not exist to adequately express how enraged I am at this egregious failure of leadership and breakdown of process. A delay in care for our veterans is shameful in and of itself; however, the apparent existence of a widespread scheme to avoid disclosure of the backlog is nothing short of a travesty. Veterans have reportedly died as a proximate result of this political game of hide-a-cup and the resulting national outrage is deservedly swift and fierce. We owe a lifetime commitment to those who have risked their lives for the freedoms afforded to us on a daily basis and this commitment should be a matter of national pride – a staple of who we are and what we stand for as American citizens.
Certainly, those responsible for this atrocity should be held to account. The families of those who have suffered and died needlessly deserve nothing less. Yet, as history has proven time and time again, our political system prefers to focus on finger pointing rather than solving problems. Amidst the endless debating of whether or not the Secretary should resign, what everyone seems to have missed is that we desperately need to take the patients – OUR veterans – OFF THE BATTLEFIELD, especially the political one. Convincing ourselves that stripping someone of their title or position is an actual solution to the greater problem at hand is akin to putting a Band-Aid on a freshly lost limb: it solves absolutely nothing. Instead, lawmakers need to roll up their sleeves and do some real work together.
We have been at war for nearly thirteen years, and while our troops were on the front lines receiving mortar fire and avoiding cleverly hidden IED’s, we had plenty of time to plan for the increased cumulative stress on the VA system. Yes, the VA budget has increased to “record” highs in recent years, but to suggest that it has expanded enough to account for the amplified strain placed on the system by the fighting in the Middle East is illogical at best and downright deceitful at its core. Considering this, what steps can we take to ensure that the VA receives the funding it deserves and if it does, what assurances do we have that the increased expenditures will be used to clear the existing backlog as opposed to subsidizing more waste?
I’ve not deluded myself to think that I can adequately answer these questions on my own, and at the same time – given the state of our political system – I’m not sure we ought to place any trust in Congress or the VA to answer them either. Does that mean we’re stuck between a rock and a hard place? If so, let’s be clear that it will be of our own making. Consider this thought – what if the President were to order the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, whomever it be, in collaboration with the Secretaries of Defense and HHS, to within thirty days report back with plans to execute a 90 day “surge” using the existing healthcare resources of the various Departments and such civilian support as may be necessary to entirely clear the backlog and establish a baseline such that we can accurately judge the resources needed to provide timely care to every veteran and honor the commitment that seems sadly to have been broken. If need be, Congress should appropriate such funds as may be necessary to do so.
In many ways, finger pointing is the smartest political move. It looks good to the masses and checks off the proverbial due diligence boxes. Better yet it distracts people from the far bigger task at hand: figuring out how to meet the rising demand for healthcare services at the VA. One CBO analyst predicted that it may require as much as a 75 percent increase in inflation-adjusted dollars. With many in Congress bent on indiscriminately cutting the federal budget at all costs, I seriously question whether our elected leaders have the courage in sufficient numbers to even begin to tackle this issue if they know the end result could be spending more money.
This is alarmingly contradictory, as we’ve repeatedly seen that Congress has no problem routinely wasting billions of dollars on airplanes that the military doesn’t want and funneling taxpayer dollars into any number of other ridiculously inflated and unnecessary programs – eliminating just a few would likely be sufficient to fund what I propose here. Therefore, I simply refuse to accept the notion that we lack sufficient resources to fund something so pivotal to who we all claim to be as Americans.
This problem is not new, nor is it limited to this President, this Secretary or this Congress. In fact the President’s speech this week simply illustrates the problem and the need to take veterans off the battlefield. The President’s remarks last week could have been taken to imply that the Government’s steadfast refusal to stand behind some of blue water Vietnam veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange was fixed – it is not – imagine how many of the 75,000 or so veterans in that category called in thinking they would finally get help only to be heartbroken yet again? Even one is too many for me, and it’s just one example of decades of mismanagement when it comes to the care of our veterans.
One thing I know for sure is that there are few obligations more fundamentally American than the keeping our collective promise, a sacred one in my opinion, to care for those who have served and are currently serving. As you read this, whether it be while sipping your coffee or lounging in your comfortable chair, consider that at this very moment some active duty enlisted man or woman is hunkered down in a country you’ve only seen pictures of avoiding incoming fire. At the same time, an aging veteran lives every day suffering from service related injuries of wars past– that is the human cost of the freedom you’re exercising right now. How dare we not do everything in our power to hold up our end of the bargain? A powerful question and one I hope we all take time to consider with Memorial Day upon us – saying “I support the troops” used to be in vogue, it’s time we mean it.
Montel Williams served 22 years in the Military, first in the enlisted ranks as a Marine before entering the Naval Academy and being commissioned a Naval Officer – he retired a Lieutenant Commander before launching his career in television.