TIME Veterans

Burr Duels With Veterans’ Groups

Sen. Johnny Isakson and Sen. Richard Burr
Senator Richard Burr, R-N.C., at the Senate hearing on Veteran Affairs, May 15, 2014. Bill Clark—CQ Roll Call/Getty Images

Fighting words from senior Republican senator on vets' panel

It’s always touching when a senator championing veterans’ issues fires a broadside at the leaders of groups representing veterans, on the eve of Memorial Day.

That’s what Senator Richard Burr, R-N.C., his party’s ranking member on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, did Friday. He issued a letter just before the holiday weekend saying that only the American Legion had the guts at a recent hearing to call for the ouster of Eric Shinseki, embattled chief of the Department of Veterans Affairs, for the lengthy wait times some veterans have had to endure.

The leadership of other government-recognized Veterans Service Organizations—VSOs—have been too busy cozying up to power to do right by their members, Burr said in an “open letter to America’s veterans”:

It became clear at the hearing that most of the other VSOs attending appear to be more interested in defending the status quo within VA, protecting their relationships within the agency, and securing their access to the Secretary and his inner circle… I believe the national and local commanders of every VSO have the interests of their members at heart, and take seriously their commitment to their members and their organization. Unfortunately, I no longer believe that to be the case within the Washington executive staff of the VSOs that testified. Last week’s hearing made it clear to me that the staff has ignored the constant VA problems expressed by their members and is more interested in their own livelihoods and Washington connections than they are to the needs of their own members.

Them’s fighting words from the distant relative of Aaron Burr, the former vice president of the United States famed for killing founding father Alexander Hamilton in an 1804 duel.

With his signature, Burr angered the Disabled American Veterans, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, the Paralyzed Veterans of America, the Student Veterans of America, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Vietnam Veterans of America—all of whom testified before Burr’s panel May 15 without calling for Shinseki to step down.

The VA mess has become a toxic stew featuring lengthy wars, nationalized health care and political opportunism. Republicans see it as a way to bash President Obama and his VA chief, even though the problem has existed for decades. And the medicine to cure the problem—more money—isn’t one the party is eager to embrace. Democrats fear if the problems are pervasive, they’ll hurt their re-election chances in November.

Burr’s letter triggered some tough responses from those he targeted.

“This is clearly one of the most dishonorable and grossly inappropriate acts that we’ve witnessed in more than forty years of involvement with the veteran community and breaches the standards of the United States Senate,” said the VFW’s William Thien, commander-in-chief, and John Hamilton, adjutant general, in a statement.

“Although Senator Burr attended much of that hearing, apparently all he wanted to hear were calls for the VA Secretary to resign,” Joseph Johnston of the Disabled American Veterans said. “Senator Burr may be enamored with the idea that all of VA’s problems and challenges can be overcome by replacing one Secretary, but the plain facts and simple logic indicate otherwise.”

But he didn’t attend the entire hearing, as Paralyzed Veterans President Bill Lawson and Executive Director Homer Townsend, Jr., noted in a letter: “Perhaps you should have shared with all veterans in your `open’ letter that you cared so much about their health care that you were not actually present during the testimony that the VSO representatives provided and you did not ask a single question to gauge our recommendations about how to fix the problems the VA health care system is facing.”

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