TIME Veterans

The Next VA Secretary

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Eric Shinseki’s long and troubled tenure as Secretary of Veterans Affairs has come to an end. He left, apologizing for the mess he allowed to fester. This is a sad moment for an honorable man, who could not make the transition from military to civilian leadership. The question now is, how bold will the President be when it comes to replacing Shinseki? (Sloan Gibson, the Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs, who graduated from West Point in 1975, will be acting secretary until the Senate confirms a replacement.)

A few years ago, I wrote a TIME cover story about the Iraq-Afghanistan generation of veterans. It was a different sort of story, far more concerned with their civilian leadership potential than with their difficulties adjusting to civilian life. I wrote the story because I had embedded with the troops downrange and watched them apply the principles of “counterinsurgency” warfare in Iraq and, especially, in Afghanistan. Their job was, in effect, to govern the towns where they were deployed. They had public works funds at their disposal. They crowd-sourced the towns–for the first time in history, most likely–asking the people what sort of services they wanted. Then their leaders had to sell the people’s needs to the local Shuras, which often wanted something else (something that would line their own pockets). I watched Army Captains negotiate and contend with stubborn bureaucracies under fire.

One day in the town of Senjaray, just outside of Kandahar, I watched Captain Jeremiah Ellis negotiate with a local for the use of his house–and I realized: if he can do that here, he can run for mayor back home. Or be the Secretary of Veterans Affairs.

This generation of military veterans have been trained in the political skills that Eric Shinseki’s generation forgot after Vietnam. They have been trained in how to unlock stuck bureaucracies, how to talk to average folks, how to make moral decisions based on incomplete information under fire. I’ve spent the past few years writing a book about them and I know several who would be brilliant as VA Secretary–indeed, who have experienced and thought through the problems of the system. I’m not going to name names; there are plenty others I don’t know, who might be every bit as good. But the President should take a risk, inject some energy into his flagging Administration, and appoint one of them.

He probably won’t. He has become far more cautious about his appointees: they tend to be people he knows and trusts. But Robert Gates’ recent memoir demonstrates how invigorating an outsider can be in the claustrophobia of the White House. The President and First Lady care deeply about this generation of veterans; I know this for a fact. Now it’s time for Obama to demonstrate his faith in them by appointing an Iraq or Afghanistan veteran Secretary of Veterans Affairs.

TIME Veterans

Shinseki Removing Hospital Leadership Amid Mounting Calls for His Resignation

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki said Friday he's removing top officials at a VA hospital at the center of a weeks-long controversy that could cost him his job, just hours before he's set to meet with President Barack Obama at the White House to brief him on an internal VA report

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Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki told a veterans group Friday that he’s removing the senior leadership of a Phoenix medical facility at the center of a weeks-long scandal at his agency.

With his job hanging in the balance, Shinseki made the announcement barely an hour before he is set to visit the White House to brief President Barack Obama on the preliminary results of his review into wait-times at the Phoenix hospital as well as a broader audit of the entire VA health system.

In an interview with ABC hosts Kelly Ripa and Michael Strahan which aired Friday, Obama said he plans on having a “serious conversation” with Shinseki about whether the VA chief can remain in his post. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney on Thursday tied Shinseki’s future to the results of the reviews into the agencies.

The agency’s inspector general released a preliminary report into the Phoenix facility on Wednesday finding that 1,700 veterans were improperly left off the wait list to get medical care, possibly in connection with trying to doctor wait times. The VA’s IG is also reviewing 41 other VA facilities for similar activities. Shinseki told the homeless veterans organization Friday that he will announce the results of the VA-wide audit in the coming days while apologizing for the debacle surrounding his agency.

“Given the facts I now know, I apologize as the senior leader of the Department of Veterans Affairs,” Shinseki told the group. “I cannot explain the lack of integrity among some of the leaders of our health care facilities. This is something I rarely encountered during 38 years in uniform. And so I will not defend it, because it is indefensible, but I can take responsibility for it and I do.”

Shinseki also called on Congress to pass a version of a bill granting him additional authorities to remove underperforming executives from the VA. He added that no senior executive of the Veterans Health Administration will receive a performance bonus this year, and announced that he is ending the process of including VA wait times in the calculation of executive bonuses.

More than 100 members of Congress, including more than two dozen vulnerable Democratic lawmakers, have called for Shinseki’s firing. On Thursday, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rep. Steve Israel added his name to the list of Democrats calling on Obama to replace Shinseki.

TIME

The VA’s Real Problem: War on the Cheap

(FILES) In this February 25, 2003 file p
Eric Shinseki, then the Army chief of staff, at a 2003 Senate hearing where he estimated "several hundred thousand" troops would be needed to pacify post-invasion Iraq. STEPHEN JAFFE / AFP / Getty Images

VA woes are part of a troubling pattern

No one would argue that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were inexpensive. They’ve cost close to $2 trillion to date, and some projections put their estimated total cost at double that, once all the veterans of those campaigns have been buried.

But there is a pattern that links these wars to the current scandal enveloping the Department of Veterans Affairs and its embattled secretary, retired Army General Eric Shinseki.

“The past few weeks have been challenging,” Shinseki said Friday morning in a talk to a veterans group, where he was greeted with a pair of standing ovations. He is slated to visit the White House later Friday to brief President Obama on the unfolding scandal. The White House has grown noticeably cooler to Shinseki as the agency’s problems have expanded in recent weeks.

The Pentagon, writ large, has long been plagued by what insiders call a “plans-reality mismatch,” where funding for weapons on the drawing boards always falls short on the assembly line. That’s because the designers are too optimistic about the ultimate cost of their blueprints, and too often count on future budgets that shrink, or have been allocated to more pressing needs, once the future arrives.

Why should waging wars being any different than buying the weapons for them?

The White House, colluding with the U.S. military, low-balled the number of troops needed to do the job in both Afghanistan and Iraq. That’s why each spun out of control, requiring troop “surges” in both theaters to turn bad situations around sufficiently to declare some kind of un-defeat.

The repeated deployments of soldiers to both wars led to spikes in traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder, which in turn led to jumps in depression, anxiety, drug use, divorce, suicides and other problems. They would have been reduced if the same troops didn’t have to be recycled in and out of combat, but that would have required an even bigger Army. That was deemed politically untenable. As a result, mental health woes skyrocketed.

When that happened, the Army found it didn’t have sufficient mental health experts to deal with the brain-bruised troops coming home.

Now that many of those troops have hung up their uniforms and are counting on the VA for health care, the VA—surprise—has a shortage of doctors to tend to their needs. The lack of insufficient primary-care physicians—the VA says it has only 93% of the doctors it needs—is a key reason for the “gaming” of the VA’s waiting lists.

A random sample of 266 veterans seeking help at the Phoenix VA showed they “waited on average 115 days for their first primary care appointment with approximately 84 percent waiting more than 14 days,” the agency’s inspector general said in a report released Wednesday. Much of the gaming occurred because of “delays between the veteran’s requested appointment date and the date the appointment was created” by VA appointment schedulers.

The problems, like the proverbial pig in a python, have moved from the battlefield, to Army hospitals, to VA medical centers.

President George W. Bush, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and their commanders sought to wage war on the cheap. Congress, torn between appearing weak and giving the commander in chief a blank check, basically closed its eyes and crossed its fingers.

The only ones really paying for this sleight-of-scam are the troops, and their families. One of those, of course, is Shinseki. He incurred Rumsfeld’s wrath on the eve of the Iraq war when, as Army chief of staff, he told Congress that he believed “something in the order of several hundred thousand soldiers” would be needed in post-invasion Iraq.

TIME Veterans

Shinseki Losing Support on All Fronts Amid VA Scandal

Shinseki VA
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki testifies before a Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing on VA health care, on Capitol Hill in Washington, May 15, 2014. Jonathan Ernst—Reuters

The Veterans Affairs Secretary is watching elected officials on both sides of the aisle call for his departure

Updated 8:52 a.m. Friday, May 30

It didn’t take long after a damning report Wednesday for insiders to engage in a time-honored tradition of Washington politics on Thursday: abandoning a sinking ship.

Amid a high-profile scandal over patient wait times at health care facilities, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki looks to be losing the battle to keep his job. Last week, President Barack Obama offered up a halfhearted defense of his Cabinet official as dozens of Republicans called for his head. A week later, a White House official said Shinseki’s position is now far more precarious. This week’s inspector general report opened the floodgates for vulnerable Democrats looking to publicly break with an unpopular President in the doldrums of the second term. Now at least 10 Senate Democrats and 20 House Democrats, along with a host of candidates across the country, are calling for Shinseki to go, numbers certain to grow in the coming days and weeks.

“Look, I have tremendous respect for the general, for his service to his country, to his four stars. But if it’s going to take his resignation to turn over a new leaf at the VA … then, yes, then he should resign,” Representative Steve Israel of New York, who chairs the House Democrats’ campaign committee, said Thursday on CNN.

“The inspector general’s preliminary report makes it clear that the systemic problems at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs are so entrenched that they require new leadership to be fixed. Secretary Shinseki must step down,” Democratic Senator Mark Udall of Colorado said on Wednesday. “We need new leadership who will demand accountability to fix these problems and ensure the VA is providing Coloradans the services they’ve earned.”

The Republican National Committee has already launched robocalls against Democrats hitting on the VA scandal, while GOP congressional campaign committees pile on vulnerable lawmakers. It was a sign of just how worried Democrats are about the political blowback in an election year that Israel added his name to the list of lawmakers calling on Shinseki to be replaced.

Shinseki defended himself in a USA Today op-ed Thursday, writing that “we are doing all we can to accelerate access to care throughout our system and in communities where veterans reside.”

Obama is set to meet with Shinseki Friday morning, according to the President’s public schedule.

Just how long Shinseki stays now depends on how long congressional discipline holds and how great the White House’s appetite for punishment is. Obama has long been wary of parting with senior officials, even — and in some ways especially — when they become political lightning rods. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius was kept around after the rollout of the troubled HealthCare.gov website, only announcing her resignation earlier this year at the end of a six-month enrollment period. Often, it’s in an Administration’s interest to leave the vulnerable official in place to absorb the brunt of criticism until the full scale of the problem is known, at which point a successor can be brought in to turn the page.

The report Wednesday found that 1,700 veterans were found to be waiting for an appointment to the VA’s Phoenix Health Care System without their information being included in an established electronic waitlist. The inspector general said more work would be needed to determine the motivation of VA employees involved, as well as whether any veterans died as a result of delays.

Wednesday’s report was only preliminary — and from a single health system. The inspector general is probing 41 more facilities, while a senior Obama aide has been dispatched to the VA to launch an even broader review of how the agency treats the nation’s retired service members.

“If he does not think he can do a good job on this and if he thinks he has let our veterans down, then I’m sure that he is not going to be interested in continuing to serve,” Obama told reporters last week.

On Wednesday, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough briefed Obama on the report. “The President found the findings extremely troubling,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said.

By Thursday, Carney was unwilling to say whether Obama still has confidence in Shinseki’s ability to lead the department, suggesting Shinseki’s fate would be determined after his forthcoming review.

“I think that the President identified last week that he expected a preliminary report from Secretary Shinseki’s internal audit very soon, and when he receives that he’ll be able to evaluate those findings along with what we’ve seen from the interim report from the inspector general, and then assess where we are at that time,” Carney said.

Lawmakers on both sides and the White House acknowledge that firing Shinseki would not solve the longstanding problems at the VA by itself. But that simple fact won’t save him, either.

TIME Veterans

Veterans Affairs Secretary Defends Response Amid Scandal

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on May 15, 2014, before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing to examine the state of Veterans Affairs health care.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on May 15, 2014, before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing to examine the state of Veterans Affairs health care. Cliff Owen—AP

Shinseki called the findings in Wednesday's report "reprehensible" and said the VA is "not waiting to set things straight."

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki publicly defended in an op-ed Thursday his department’s response to findings of poor treatment of former servicemen and women.

“We are doing all we can to accelerate access to care throughout our system and in communities where veterans reside,” Shinseki wrote in USA Today. “I’ve challenged our leadership to ensure we are doing everything possible to schedule veterans for their appointments.”

The VA chief has faced calls to resign from members of both parties since reports surfaced that at least 40 military veterans died while waiting for treatment at a VA health center in Phoenix, though he has retained the backing of the White House. An internal interim report released Wednesday found “systemic” problems in the department, including that 1,700 veterans were waiting for care but missing from the system’s official wait list.

In the op-ed Thursday, Shinseki—a retired 4-star general—called the report’s findings “reprehensible” and said the VA is contacting each of the 1,700 veterans.

“We are not waiting to set things straight,” Shinseki wrote, also highlighting an internal audit of the VA health care facilities that he ordered earlier this month. “More than 200 senior staff are conducting that audit now, and we expect to announce the initial results of that audit in the coming days,” he added.

TIME Veterans

The Damning Data in the VA Wait-List Report

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki testifies before a Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing on VA health care, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on May 15, 2014.
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki testifies before a Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing on VA health care, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on May 15, 2014. Jonathan Ernst—Reuters

Problem's depth and duration imperil Shinseki

Facts can be twisted, but it’s tougher to do with numbers. These are the key numbers, and the excerpts from which they’re plucked, in Wednesday’s interim report on wait times at the Phoenix VA. The Department of Veterans Affairs inspector general’s findings make it increasingly clear that Secretary Eric Shinseki’s job is in grave danger:

18 reports

Since 2005, the VA Office of Inspector General has issued 18 reports that identified, at both the national and local levels, deficiencies in scheduling resulting in lengthy waiting times and the negative impact on patient care.

42 facilities

To date, we have ongoing or scheduled work at 42 VA medical facilities and have identified instances of manipulation of VA data that distort the legitimacy of reported waiting times.

1,700 veterans

To date, our work has substantiated serious conditions at the Phoenix HCS [Health Care System]. We identified about 1,400 veterans who did not have a primary care appointment but were appropriately included on the Phoenix HCS EWLs [Electronic Wait Lists]. However, we identified an additional 1,700 veterans who were waiting for a primary care appointment but were not on the EWL.

115 days

VA national data, which was reported by Phoenix HCS, showed these 226 veterans waited on average 24 days for their first primary care appointment and only 43 percent waited more than 14 days. However, our review showed these 226 veterans waited on average 115 days for their first primary care appointment with approximately 84 percent waiting more than 14 days.

1,085 MIA

As of April 28, 2014, the New Enrollee Appointment Request report listed 1,138 veterans who were waiting for an appointment an average of 200 days. However, only 53 of the 1,138 veterans were on the EWL. The remaining 1,085 patients were not on the EWL. Consequently, their wait time prior to being scheduled or added to the EWL would potentially never be captured in any VA wait time data.

66%

It appears that a significant number of schedulers are manipulating the waiting times of established patients by using the wrong desired date of care. Instead of schedulers using a date based on when the provider wants to see the veteran or when the veteran wants an appointment, the scheduler deviates from VHA’s scheduling policy by going into the system to determine when the next available appointment is and using that as a purported desired date. This results in a false 0-day wait time. We evaluated FY 2013 established patient appointments in primary care and determined that for 66 percent of appointments, Phoenix HCS recorded veterans had no wait time.

4 years

Many of these schemes are detailed in the then Deputy Under Secretary for Health for Operations and Management April 2010 Memorandum on Inappropriate Scheduling Practices. The purpose of the memorandum was to call for immediate action to identify and eliminate VHA’s [Veterans Health Administration] use of inappropriate scheduling practices to improve scores on clinical access performance measures. The memorandum discussed many of the same schemes we identified at Phoenix HCS and other medical facilities throughout VHA.

4

The number of times the word “systemic” appears in the 35-page report to describe the problem, including

We are finding that inappropriate scheduling practices are a systemic problem nationwide.

The VA is a huge institution, its 300,000 employees tending to the needs of 230,000 veterans daily. There are bound to be problems of varying scope and size in any such gargantuan place.

What the report makes plain is that the problem, contrary to statements from VA headquarters, is widespread and deep. At a Senate hearing May 15, Shinseki said he was aware of such malfeasance in “a number of isolated cases” that he downgraded to “a couple of cases” moments later. But worse than the problem itself is the fact that it was formally identified in April 2010, along with a call to stop such cheating.

Following the report’s release, Shinseki declared the “systemic issues with patient scheduling and access” it contained “reprehensible” and ordered changes. But it may be too little, too late.

“If Secretary Shinseki does not step down voluntarily,” Senator John McCain, R-Ariz., “then I call on the President of the United States to relieve him of his duties.” The report triggered additional bipartisan calls by lawmakers for the retired four-star Army general to resign. While the IG said it hasn’t concluded whether or not any of the delays contributed to veterans’ deaths, it seems almost moot. Only the living can suffer.

TIME Veterans

Report: 1,700 Veterans Missing From VA Wait List in Phoenix

Veteran Affairs Clinics To Be Audited After Patient Deaths At Phoenix Hospital
Exterior view of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center on May 8, 2014 in Phoenix, Arizona. Christian Petersen—Getty Images

A report found "inappropriate scheduling practices" at Veteran Affairs clinics in Phoenix, Ariz. accused of delaying life saving treatments

Some 1,700 veterans waiting for an appointment at Veteran Affairs clinics across Phoenix, Ariz. were nowhere to be found in the system’s official wait list, federal investigators reported on Wednesday.

Investigators for the Veteran Affairs Office of Inspector General said they had found initial evidence of “inappropriate scheduling practices” in the Phoenix Health Care System, which had led to “significant delays in access to care.”

Although data reported by Phoenix authorities suggested a statistical sample of 226 veterans waited an average of 24 days for their first primary care appointment, the review found that those 226 veterans actually waited on average 115 days to receive a primary care appointment. Only 16 percent got an appointment in 14 days or less, according to the interim report.

Acting inspector general Richard Griffin confirmed in the report that the omission of so many names from Phoenix’s official wait list meant that leaders greatly understated the time patients were likely to wait for their primary care appointment.

Whistleblowers have accused the Phoenix staff of deliberately omitting patients from wait lists and putting them on “secret lists”, delaying urgent treatments that could have saved several veterans’ lives. The report concedes that a “convoluted scheduling process” led to multiple lists of veterans that might explain the allegations of “secret lists,” and said it would review death certificates, medical records and autopsy results to determine whether any veterans had died while waiting for care.

Allegations of delayed care and “secret” wait lists have led to calls for Secretary of Veteran Affairs Eric Shinseki’s resignation and prompted a sweeping investigation of Veteran Affairs facilities across the country. Shinseki called the interim report’s findings “reprehensible” and pledged swift action, but the head of the House Veterans Affairs Committee issued a fresh call for his resignation after the report’s release.

Investigators cautioned that the preliminary findings had not established intent behind the missing names, nor had they proven that the absence of names led to actual delays in treatment. They also noted that Phoenix was not alone in its administrative troubles, adding that a nationwide review of medical facilities “confirmed that inappropriate scheduling practices are systemic throughout VHA.”

The report’s authors also said the Inspector General’s office had received “numerous allegations daily of mismanagement, inappropriate hiring decisions, sexual harassment, and bullying behavior by mid- and senior-level managers at this facility,” that would merit further investigation.

Investigators said they would continue to comb through 550,000 emails and documents obtained from the clinic and interview staffers ranging from clerks to senior managers, before drawing any conclusions about the allegations.

 

 

TIME Military

Iraq Vet Killed In Gunfight With Police Was Turned Away by VA Hospital

Army Specialist Isaac Sims is seen here in a holiday greeting he sent from Ramadi, Iraq in 2009. 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division Public Affairs/US Army

Agency, amid overcrowding scandal, says case of Kansas City soldier suffering from PTSD symptoms is under investigation

Correction appended, May 28, 2014

The bloodstained floor of his father’s garage is a long way from the Iraq streets where Isaac Sims served two tours of duty in the U.S. Army’s famed 82nd Airborne Division, but it was there that the violence finally caught up with him.

Tortured by symptoms of PTSD, turned away by an overbooked hospital run by the Department of Veterans Affairs—his mother says she pleaded with doctors to let him sleep on the hospital floor—Sims was shot by Kansas City police on Sunday after they answered a neighbor’s 911 call. Police say Sims was firing a gun from inside his parents’ home and was killed when he moved to the garage and leveled the weapon at the SWAT team.

Family members don’t believe that the 23-year-old veteran was a threat to police. “With his sniper training, if he was shooting at them he would’ve hit them,” his sister Shawnda Anderson told TIME. But everyone could agree that the root cause of the confrontation was that Staff Sergeant Sims was falling to pieces, and felt like he had nowhere to turn.

“He was in so much turmoil from seeing so many dead bodies in Iraq,” said Anderson. Patricia Sims, mother of the dead soldier, put it this way: “The last six months have been such a nightmare for him. The V.A. kept saying, ‘we’ll get to you later.’ ”

Officials at the V.A. hospital in Kansas City referred questions about the case to Washington, where a department spokesperson said that the “matter is currently under investigation.” Citing federal privacy laws, the agency declined to discuss any specifics of Sims’s case.

Still, the reality of V.A. overcrowding has been commanding headlines and driving Congressional hearings for weeks, driven by revelations that some hospitals have falsified records to mask long wait times. As the daughter of a Korean War veteran, wife of a Vietnam vet, and mother of a veteran of the Iraq War, Patricia Sims knows a lot about the V.A. system, and she said Tuesday that the Kansas City hospital is “great compared to a lot of places” in the system. “But they’re slow; they’re overbooked; they put him off and they put him off and now he’s dead.”

She spoke as friends and family members moved dazedly around the scene of the young man’s death in eastern Kansas City. The family car was on blocks—disabled by police during the stand off, she said. Meanwhile, a funeral home was refusing to collect the body on behalf of the family without payment up front. Shawnda Anderson said that her parents weren’t even sure they wanted to pay a funeral home: to bury their son would only confirm that he is truly gone.

According to family, Sims lived an itinerate childhood, traveling the country from one trailer park to the next as his father pursued work as an electrician. A gentle, peacemaking sort of boy, he never grew tall (his sister puts him at 5-foot-3, but according to a Facebook post, he preferred to say 5-foot-5). But he was wiry and dogged, and at 17 enlisted in the Army for what he intended to be a career.

(In 2009, Sims recorded a holiday greeting from Iraq. Watch below)

Instead, after six years and two combat tours, he mustered out, suffering from unspecified disabilities. Unmoored, he began abusing drugs—huffing aerosols primarily—and behaving erratically, his mother said. According to one source who had been briefed on his medical history, Sims suffered “nightmares, flashbacks—just massive Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder,” with symptoms easily triggered, yet seemingly impossible for him to discuss.

In April, after pleading guilty to two counts of domestic violence, Sims came under the supervision of Municipal Court Presiding Judge Ardie Bland. Widely admired for his work with troubled veterans, Bland placed Sims on probation through a program jointly run by the court and the V.A. Launched in 2009, the Veterans’ Treatment Court tries to restore veterans to “law abiding, productive lives within the country they have defended,” according to municipal court spokesperson Benita Jones. The probation was to include intensive treatment, random drug testing, and frequent reviews.

Sims was distraught over the conviction, which crushed his hopes of starting a new career as a police officer, his mother said. Increasingly alarmed by her son’s deterioration, she offered to send him with a blanket to the V.A.’s in-patient mental health facility, reckoning that a soldier doesn’t need a bed to sleep in. Instead, the intensive treatment envisioned by the special court failed to materialize in time.

“We are saddened by such a tragic loss,” Judge Bland said in a statement. “Our hearts must now go out to the family of Mr. Sims with our prayers and support. We will continue our efforts in the Veterans’ Treatment Court, in his honor and in honor of the others that have served this country.”

A memorial fund has been established in Sims’ name at the United Credit Union.

According to police: A neighbor reported shots fired from the Sims home shortly after noon on Sunday. The SWAT team fanned out, surrounding the house, and the inhabitants of the 2300 block of Lawndale Avenue were evacuated to safety. Hostage negotiators quickly researched the soldier’s story in hopes of coaxing him out. But “things went rapidly downhill,” in the words of one witness, and in a spatter of gunfire Isaac Sims went down, dead on the battlefield that had consumed his life.

And there was one more fallen soldier to mourn on Memorial Day.

-with reporting by Karen Ball/Kansas City

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to the Department of Veterans Affairs
TIME Veterans

Who Cares About Shinseki? Let’s Focus on Understanding Vets

Enduring Freedom
Marine General James Mattis, head of U.S. Central Command, visits troops in Afghanistan on Christmas Day, 2011. Marine photo / LCpl Justin Loya

The continuing political struggle over VA chief’s fate risks distorting the public’s view of those who fought

Washington relishes nothing more than dumping someone’s career into a centrifuge and punching “puree”—it separates the good from the bad, and leaves Americans, with plenty of help from the media, to focus on the bad.

Regardless of what happens to Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, the sturm und drang surrounding his VA tenure is doing little to help the U.S. public understand the nation’s veterans at a time when such insight is desperately needed. The high-profile attention on ailing vets can only exacerbate, in the public’s mind, that most of them are coming home broken one way or another.

“We are telling these guys they are somehow damaged,” Jim Mattis, a four-star Marine general who retired in 2013, warned Tuesday. “Only about 15% have ever been in close combat, so when the biggest danger is getting their foot run over by a dessert cart at a [forward operating base] is somehow translated into us giving people money who said `I had to stand on a ramp when a dead guy was put on the airplane.’ Now don’t get me wrong—I respected every one of them—but hey man, this isn’t as bad as Iwo Jima, and those guys came home and raised healthy families, they ran universities, they developed corporations that made America competitive in the world.”

Last month, in remarks following a speech in San Francisco, Mattis urged fellow veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq to fight any suggestion that they are victims. “There is no room for military people, including our veterans, to see themselves as victims, even if so many of our countrymen are prone to relish that role,” he said. “While victimhood in America is exalted, I don’t think our veterans should join those ranks.”

For the 1% of the nation that waged the post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the VA mess surely isn’t what they had in mind when volunteered to fight. They also fear the shadow it could throw on their service in the public mind. There are concerns that the VA scandal could do to the post-9/11 vets what movies The Deer Hunter, Taxi Driver and Apocalypse Now did to their fathers in Vietnam—paint them with a too-broad brush that unfairly tarnishes most of them.

“For a certain subset of the population, my service means that I—along with all other veterans—must be, in some ill-defined way, broken,” Phil Klay, a Marine Iraq veteran, wrote in the Wall Street Journal over the Memorial Day weekend. “…All of us, especially those who are struggling, deserve a little less pity and a little more respect.”

Views among the vets who served on the front lines—what there were of them, anyway—focus on the disconnect among the troops, the leaders, and the public in whose name both were acting. “The root this discussion seems to be our inability, from the war in Vietnam to the Global War on Terror, to justify these wars,” says Alex Lemons, who pulled three tours as a Marine in Iraq, including one as a scout-sniper. “They don’t fit my grandparents’ experience in the `good war,’ and this leaves open two competing views and two different views of veterans. Look at the Gulf of Tonkin incident and the drumbeat over weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and you won’t see much difference. Lies were told in order to make the wars possible.”

Perhaps.

Former Army Specialist Cory Isaacs, who spent a year in Afghanistan, said misperceptions aren’t surprising given the nation’s attitude. Many Americans “do not understand the military, we do not like the military, we do not want to be in the military, we do not understand why anyone would want to join the military, perhaps even we feel some residual guilt for treating Vietnam vets as we did, so we pity our vets, or glorify them, or treat them as pawns,” he says. “Rarely do we know them. More rarely do we understand them.”

Fair point.

What’s needed is a simple campaign that sweeps aside such misimpressions, says William Treseder, who spent a decade as a Marine sergeant, including a 2008 tour in Iraq and a 2009-10 stint in Afghanistan. “I suppose it would be too much to ask to have a `Veterans are people, too’ campaign,” he says. “That is something I would like to see.”

Why not?

Military medical professionals stress no one can dismiss the real sacrifices make in war, but that they shouldn’t be used as a shortcut for labels. “Veterans are neither victims nor heroes,” says retired Army colonel Elspeth Ritchie, who served as the service’s top psychiatrist before leaving in 2010 after 24 years in uniform. When she visits the gym at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center outside Washington, she says she generally sees several amputees working out “with incredibly high spirits. But that’s not everybody,” she cautions. “There’s definitely a subset that’s really struggling.”

Mattis says U.S. society began viewing vets as battered goods when it was seeking to lump them in with the Vietnam war they were waging. “There was a divorce between patriotism and liberalism going back to the ‘60s and ‘70s, and I think part of that divorce meant you had to look at veterans as damaged,” he says. “What we did to our veterans after Vietnam was pretty disgusting, and now it seems we’ve gone along the lines of assuaging guilt” by suggesting they’re victims.

If too many vets see themselves that way “they’ll lose the initiative we all feel when were in control and masters of our own life,” Mattis says. “That is not manly and it’s not in keeping with what made America great…To survive, a democracy to survive is going to have to be defended—and the people who come home from doing it can come home stronger, kinder to their families and their fellow man,” Mattis says. “They can come home with post-traumatic growth.”

Combat changes those involved, regardless of which end of the gun you’re on. But it doesn’t lead inevitably to post-traumatic stress, suicide, divorce, joblessness or any of the other pathologies often linked in the public’s mind with veterans. Yet the concern is that if much of the public believes that to be the case, it will calcify into perception that eventually becomes reality.

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Vice Chief of Staff of the Army General Peter Chiarelli dedicated a lot of time detailing the mental strains of war, including at this 2010 Pentagon briefing. Army photo / D. Myles Cullen

“I feel partially responsible for this problem,” says retired Army general Peter Chiarelli, who left the service as its vice chief of staff in 2012. “I worked hard when I was vice to bring attention to post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury because they were the most prolific wounds coming out of these wars.”

But he fears he may have been too successful in delivering that message. “There’s a view that everybody who comes back from deployment is somehow not able to function properly in society, and that’s just flat wrong,” he says, unable to mask his exasperation. “That has been a double-edged sword—we raised awareness of this whole thing, but at the same time, you’ve got middle-level human-resource managers who automatically throw out the file of some veterans because they just don’t want to have something bad happen in their workplace.”

U.S. society and business prefers to focus on the 80% or so of returning veterans who are doing fine. “But the problems of the other 20% are getting lost,” Chiarelli warns. “We need to get them the care they need so they don’t end up like Vietnam veterans, who were standing on corners with pieces of cardboard and hand-scratched signs saying ‘I’m a vet—help me.’”

It’s not a new problem. “This has been around since the days of the Greeks,” Chiarelli says. “Let’s do something about it this time.”

 

TIME Religion

The Questions We Don’t Ask on Memorial Day

Why can’t we ask if these wars were right or wrong, worth the terrible sacrifices, or what we have learned from them?

Monday was Memorial Day, full of family trips and events, lots of picnics and barbecues with friends and neighbors, and a national day off from school and work. For us it was the Northwest Little League All Star game here at Friendship Field in Washington D.C., a family tradition for many years. My wife Joy, the Commissioner, organized the game day, including a wonderful picnic on a glorious baseball day for players, parents, relatives, and many fans–with 300 hotdogs!

It was also a day to remember all the people who have died in America’s wars. For the families of those war victims and so many of their fellow veterans it was a day of remembering and mourning. In the quiet moments of listening to the national anthem while looking at the American flag, our little baseball crowd with hats off might have been thinking about the meaning of the national holiday. But right afterward it was “Play Ball.”

On Memorial Days I always end up listening to the many stories from the families who lost their most beloved ones and from the veterans whose eyes still tear up when they recall their dearest buddies lost on battlefields far away. The emotion and pain always moves me. And watching all the messages of veterans’ organizations, you also see the incredible pain of those who came back from war with injuries and memories that still afflict their bodies, minds, and hearts. But I also wonder why nobody raises the questions about why all these sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, dads and moms–all these best of friends–had to die in those wars.

So why can’t we ask if these wars were right or wrong, worth the terrible sacrifices, or what we have learned from the wars? What was gained or lost? Who decided to go to war? And why do their families often bear the least consequences for the war decisions?

These are very hard questions, and people get angry when they are raised as some already are in reading this. Some will say it disrespects those who have suffered and died. But to raise the hard questions of why wars were decided and who decided them is actually a way to respect those who paid such a heavy price and perhaps would prevent more such horrible human costs.

I almost never hear veterans speak about the merits of their war, or its cause or purpose, or the strategies and ideologies behind the decisions to go to war. They talk about their friends, their brothers and sisters, their “family” who they lost on the battlefield. And the families of lost servicemen and women talk about how their loss was so devastating and life-changing. Hardly any of the Memorial Day testimonies are to the war; they are to the war victims.

The war in my youth was the Vietnam War and I still hardly ever go to the Vietnam Memorial. The few times I’ve gone there, I felt enormous pain. My generation’s names are etched on that long black wall, and when I read and touch them I feel overwhelmed with grief.

The Vietnam War was based on lies and was exposed as a political and moral mistake, but went on even after we knew it was wrong and destined for disaster. Vietnam’s American casualties were disproportionately lower-income and racial minorities. This war sank into tactics that killed many innocents while damaging the souls of our own soldiers. Vietnam violated our nation’s best values and religious convictions, but even then many were angry when leaders like Dr. King asked hard questions about war.

Iraq was another war based on lies, and morally compounded by being a war over oil. Was this a war of necessity or choice? Again, the casualties were significantly lower-income people and racial minorities who volunteered for the military hoping for future opportunities they didn’t have. Only some brave souls questioned why so few were asked to bear the terrible costs while the rest of the nation went on with life as usual. Afghanistan, begun to bring those who attacked us to justice, became the longest war in our history, again without honest answers to what we really have accomplished.

War has become such a business in America, whose beneficiaries are not the people we remember on Memorial Day. The veterans we honored yesterday are not even receiving adequate care when they come home and are being used as political pawns, as the latest Veterans Administration scandal reveals.

As we remember those who died serving our country, Memorial Day should also be a day when we ask the hard questions about our wars, what we have learned, and whether such painful losses are truly worth the terrible cost.

Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.

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