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.”


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.

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.

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.”


Memorial Day Should Be About Forgetting

VisionsofAmerica/Joe Sohm—Getty Images

We need to move beyond the brutality of history, and that's where backyard barbecues come in as a building block of national morale.

Memorial Day is one of America’s most confusing holidays. Depending on the celebrant, it can be a day of grief, glory—or backyard barbecues.

It’s not a bad thing to have such disparate takes on a day of remembrance. And don’t worry: You’re not a bad person if you choose to sit back and enjoy your day off. But sometimes it pays to think about why we get the day off in the first place and ponder the mysterious forces that bind hot dogs, tears, and flags all together.

Decoration Day, as the holiday was once known, arose in the years after the Civil War as a way to grieve for the 750,000 soldiers who had perished over four bloody years. Families who stifled their mourning during wartime sought public ways to pay tribute to the fallen in peacetime. Understandably, graves become a focus for the bereaved, and mourners took flowers to cemeteries to decorate them.

This practice first received semi-official sanction in 1868 when General John Alexander Logan, the head of a large fraternal organization of Union veterans, designated a day each year “for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion.” Southerners didn’t take too kindly to this initial effort, but by 1890 all the Northern states had recognized the holiday.

This emphasis on the Northern dead wasn’t just born of sectional spite. The ultimate sacrifice made by hundreds of thousands of men to preserve the Union elevated the value of the nation to its citizens. Lacking the traditional building blocks of other nations (such as centuries of shared history on the land or ancient blood ties), the U.S. had long had a difficult time forging a unifying national culture. The idealistic nature of American nationhood left people hungry for a more flesh-and-blood connection to their country.

It was the Union dead who first seemed to prove that America was more than a mere idea. “Before the War our patriotism was a firework, a salute, a serenade for holidays and summer evenings,” wrote essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1864. “Now the deaths of thousands and the determination of millions of men and women show that it is real.”

James Russell Lowell, the first editor of The Atlantic Monthly, thought that the enormity of the Union Army’s sacrifice also proved something to condescending Europeans. “Till after our Civil War,” he wrote in 1869, “it never seemed to enter the head of any foreigner, especially of any Englishman, that an American had what could be called a country, except as a place to eat, sleep, and trade in. Then it seemed to strike them suddenly. ‘By Jove, you know, fellahs don’t fight like that for a shop-till!’”

The holiday overcame sectional tensions around World War I, when Southerners—though many still revered the heroes of their Lost Cause—rejoined the fold, and the day’s scope was expanded to honor Americans who died fighting in any U.S war. Commemorating the fallen is one way that governments rebuild the morale of nations that have suffered great loss. Even in victory, losses are real to families, and depictions of a triumphant nation thankful for its heroes can be comforting to a populace trying to move forward. The U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial, also known as the Iwo Jima Memorial—which was unveiled in 1954 in Arlington, Virginia, and shows five Marines and a Navy corpsman hoisting the American flag during one of the bloodiest battles of World War II—is the quintessential depiction of perseverance and a classic commemoration of war.

But in the aftermath of no war do grief and glory intersect seamlessly. The needs of the state, bereaved families, and surviving veterans do not always coincide. In his book Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century, Indiana University historian John Bodnar describes the main sides of the late 1970s and early 1980s controversy over the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. On the one side, he writes, were national leaders, many patriotic veterans, and private citizens “who saw in the monument a device that would foster national unity and patriotism.” On the other were veterans who fought in Vietnam, people who cared about them, and bereaved families who were less interested in the memorial being a display of unity or patriotism than an expression of empathy for the soldiers who suffered and died. Empathy is paramount to the monument that was ultimately erected. The memorial—with the names of the fallen etched into black granite walls that sink into the National Mall—wound up symbolizing, in Bodnar’s words, “the human pain and sorrow of war rather than the valor and glory of warriors and nations.”

The annual Memorial Day holiday doesn’t elicit the same depth of emotional intensity as the planning of a permanent, national war memorial. But the interplay between grief and glory is ongoing. The politics and public reaction to war is ever-changing, and families who have lost soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan are likely to observe the day differently than somebody who has not had a relative in uniform since the Korean War.

Memorial Day also has divided the public in another way: between those who chose to observe the holiday and those who saw it as a chance for leisure time. While there’s no way to accurately estimate the size of each group, historians Richard P. Harmond and Thomas J. Curran suggest it’s likely that the latter always has been larger than the former. And that gap is probably growing wider.

Rather than harangue about some presumed decline of patriotism or gratitude in America, I’d suggest that backyard barbecues are also fundamental to Memorial Day’s building of national morale. Yes, it is absolutely critical to remember the fallen and the wars they died in. But, as the 19th-century French scholar Ernest Renan argued, forgetting is “an essential factor in the creation of a nation.” We also need to move beyond old divisions and the brutality of history. That, my fellow Americans, is where the hot dogs come in.

Gregory Rodriguez is the founder and publisher of Zócalo Public Square. This piece originally appeared at Zocalo Public Square.


Heroism Is for War Movies, Not Veterans

Catherine Lane—Getty Images/Vetta

I was explicitly taught by my leaders and noncommissioned officers that a hero is the last thing you want to be.

“They think I’m some kind of damned hero,” the young veteran, a former airman, said in a hushed tone while ducking his head and quickly glancing behind him.

His voice and body language communicated that he was distressed, but it wasn’t due to a war-related memory. It was ironically caused by one of those obligatory moments at a Memorial Day observance when someone with a microphone solemnly asked all the veterans in the room to stand so that they could be publicly thanked as “America’s heroes.”

The airman was a munitions specialist who loaded ordnance onto Air Force jets bound for remote valleys in Afghanistan. While he was stationed in Afghanistan, he never left the base and spent his time in relative safety compared to service members who left the wire to fight insurgents.

He knew he didn’t belong on that pedestal. But how could he possibly dissuade the well-meaning folks who smiled and clapped for him? They weren’t applauding the man before them. Rather, their applause complied with the now-expected reaction to all veterans.

I, too, have been to events like this one, which the airman described to me after a recent student veterans meeting. It also made me feel uncomfortable to represent all my fellow veterans and the complex and often contradictory emotions wrapped into the ‘veteran’ label. I was a peacetime soldier who served before the start of the Iraq War. I’m proud to have served, but I know that I’m not a hero.

On Memorial Day, when our thoughts will be with our fallen brothers and sisters, I ask you to reconsider excessive use of the word “hero.” Please don’t perceive it as ingratitude. The word is just too intangible and inaccurate, and it has a different meaning to veterans than to the general public. Whether the title is deserved or not, most of us feel uncomfortable with it.

Even America’s newest living Medal of Honor winner, Army veteran Kyle White, feels the same: “I was just doing my job,” he said in an NBC story. “I am still uncomfortable with hearing my name and the word ‘hero’ in the same sentence,” he added in a CNN story. That is not false modesty. Other combat veterans I know feel the same as him.

We all had jobs to do and orders to follow, and we did so to the best of our training and abilities. Like a very large proportion of living American veterans, the airman and I fulfilled our duty without hearing a single shot fired in anger. And, like all veterans, we implicitly understand that we performed our roles in service of a larger mission. At least as important, we were also in service to each other.

Heroism is not a goal for any service member, nor should it be. Point blank, heroism is for war movies. Professionals in this business know that when the American soldier must rely on heroism, it means that something has gone very wrong in the planning and execution of a mission. Soldiers train, plan, and fight in a way that takes heroism out of the equation. I was explicitly taught by my leaders and noncommissioned officers that a hero is the last thing you want to be. This was a cultural norm reinforced throughout training at different levels and extracurricular professional development.

“Hero” has the connotation of a very explicit four-letter word in military culture. A “hero” is someone who recklessly endangers himself or his buddies. Want to go home? Then don’t be a “hero.” Want to get out of that foxhole alive? Well, you’d better hope that you’re not sharing it with a “hero.” “Heroes” draw fire. “Heroes” take unwarranted risks. A “hero” goes out of his way to act or appear heroic. Most who’ve worn a uniform want nothing to do with these people.

When called upon by the direst of circumstances, though, we’re grateful that true heroes in our ranks step forth. I think of men like Sergeant First Class Alwyn Cashe. His uniform soaked in fuel after a roadside bomb explosion, he exposed himself to enemy rifle fire to rescue his soldiers who were trapped in a burning Bradley Fighting Vehicle. While pulling the driver out, his own uniform caught fire. After carrying the driver to safety—while still on fire himself—Cashe returned to the burning vehicle five more times. He would later die in a Texas hospital from burns to 72 percent of his body. He persisted in his rescue effort despite unthinkable pain and danger. No one asked him to; he did it for his soldiers. All six of them survived that day, and three of them are still alive thanks to him. He is a true hero.

So is Sergeant First Class Danny Ferguson, who died while using his body to block a door to protect a room full of soldiers from the shooter at Fort Hood in April. Cashe, Ferguson, and White (even though the status unsettles him) are true heroes. If faced with similar circumstances, who among us would actually muster that kind of courage?

We’re grateful for our heroes. True heroes have qualities we aspire to but hope that we never have to emulate. That’s because the circumstances for heroic action must exist before an individual can come forward to earn the title. Absent those conditions, we’re just doing our jobs like everyone else. Thus, many of us feel uncomfortable when the word “hero” is used loosely because we know better.

So why is there such excessive use of the term? An older veteran suggested to me that this is America’s way of making up for its neglect of Vietnam War veterans. By heaping praise upon a new generation, perhaps America is trying to heal its soul. Perhaps it’s trying to come to terms with its conflicted feelings about the most recent wars. This notion becomes more palpable with messages to “support the troops but not the war.”

The excessive use of the word “hero” also highlights a growing disconnect between those who are personally touched by war and the general population. During previous wars, there was a significantly higher percentage of the population in uniform, and Memorial Day directly touched most American families. Today, less than one half of one percent of our population is in uniform. Memorial Day seems transformed from something intensely personal for those who have lost family members or comrades to a spectacle from which many Americans have become emotionally disassociated.

Some correctly recognize that how we treat our veterans is an important reflection upon our society. But I think there’s a better way to express appreciation for veterans than simply calling them heroes. Help America follow through with its promise to veterans by ensuring that the Veterans Administration is well led, well managed, well funded, and accountable. Increase your support for veterans’ transition to civilian lives and employ them. Help the less fortunate veterans in our ranks. But simplest of all: just say “thank you” to acknowledge our service to America.

We served, and now we’re moving on with the rest of our lives. At the close of the Civil War, General Robert E. Lee’s words to his troops in his last address at the Appomattox Court House still resonate for veterans today, regardless of any one individual’s position on that war or any other: “And if you make as good citizens as you have soldiers, you will do well.” We are doing our best, just like you: we’re sons and daughters, coworkers, and neighbors, and despite stereotypes (both positive and negative), we’re also just as complex. We struggle our best to live to a high standard, but we’re very much human. Some of us are proud of our service, and some of us are trying to overcome aspects of it, but we’re neither heroes nor victims. All of us understand that we were in service to something greater than ourselves.

This weekend, our thoughts will be with those we have lost. That’s the real purpose of Memorial Day. Please save the title of hero for Cashe, Ferguson, and the rest of our dead. They won’t flinch when they hear it.

Mike Stajura is a doctoral candidate at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. He served in the U.S. Army from 1995-2002. This piece originally appeared at Zocalo Public Square.

TIME Military

Defense Secretary Hagel ‘Supports’ Shinseki Amid Health Care Crisis

But the Secretary of Defense says anyone responsible for poorly caring for sick, wounded veterans must be held accountable

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel lent his support to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki amid an ongoing veterans’ health care scandal, but said in an interview Friday that someone needs to be held accountable for the poor treatment of military veterans.

“Anytime there is an issue or a problem or a veteran doesn’t get service, or certainly if a veteran dies because he or she doesn’t get service, or anytime there’s an issue, there’s no higher responsibility our country has than to these people who serve and sacrifice,” Hagel said during an interview with Charlie Rose on CBS This Morning.

But Hagel stopped short of calling on Shinseki to resign over reports that at least 40 military veterans died while waiting for treatment at a VA health center.

“I support Secretary Shinseki,” Hagel said. “ This is an individual who has the responsibility, as he has said, to be accountable. The President said yesterday that there has to be accountability. There does have to be accountability on — right up and down the line. But I think we’ve got to fix the problem. That’s the real focus here.”

Watch the full interview at CBS This Morning.


What the VA Did for My Sick Husband

RodrigoBlanco—Getty Images/Vetta

Amid scrutiny and furor over misconduct at the government agency, a widow gives thanks to the employees who cared for her husband in his last years.

Two weeks ago my husband of 51 years, Joe, died in his room at the William E. Christoffersen Salt Lake Veterans Home at age 87. He had served in the Navy from 1941 to 1946 and was a proud veteran.

Like others, I am deeply concerned by reports of delayed treatment for our veterans. Indeed, when I was receiving cancer treatments in 2011 and could no longer care for Joe at home, we had to wait nearly a month before a room became available in a VA facility.

But this is not a story of disappointment. It is instead one of deep gratitude for the extraordinary professional and personal care Joe received over the next three years. Of course we must not excuse those who betray their responsibilities to our veterans and our country, but we must also remember and celebrate the legion of VA employees who provide outstanding care to our veterans, day in and day out.

As Joe’s physical strength waned and vascular dementia sapped his memory, VA doctors, nurses and aides were alert to his medical needs. Time and again they took him to the VA hospital for tests, diagnosis and treatment.

More unexpected were the countless ways in which their thoughtfulness helped Joe and our entire family. Every veteran was treated with the greatest respect, even when he or she was being difficult. For example, at first Joe didn’t understand why he couldn’t come home with me and became angry whenever I left him. The staff always took him aside to provide comfort and tell him I would be back soon.

These small personal kindnesses made such a difference.

To the extent possible, Joe and other patients were encouraged to continue a normal life. Many activities and facilities were available at the nursing home, but patients were not confined there. There were outings of all sorts, such as professional sporting events, fishing, horse riding, shopping at a local store and short road trips to see the fall leaves—even after Joe was confined to a wheelchair.

Our family was allowed to visit any time of day or night, and staff would place a call for Joe whenever he wanted to talk to us. When he could no longer come home for the day, special dinners were scheduled at holidays so we could celebrate together. It was the little things that mattered the most, and they were the most unexpected.

What turned out to be Joe’s last treat took place the afternoon before his death. By then he was in hospice care, but did not realize that his status had changed. A nurse noticed that he seemed down and asked what would make him happy. He said he wanted a Coca-Cola and a Snickers bar. She pushed his wheelchair so they could fetch them, then brought him back with her to the nurses’ station, where they visited while he indulged in this special snack.

It is difficult to leave a loved one’s side once you know that the final stages of life are here. But we knew that no matter how suddenly Joe’s final decline might be, there was no danger that he would die alone. The staff made sure that someone would always be with any patient who was approaching death so that this would never happen, and that was reassuring for us. As it turned out, the doctor was able to gather most of his family in time to be with Joe as he slipped away. The last three of us, our daughter and son and myself, whose planes from Illinois, Arkansas and Texas did not get us to the nursing home until many hours after his death. The staff had kept Joe in his room to await us. The chaplain, who had come to work for a normal day, stayed until midnight so that she could comfort us after we said our goodbyes. Only then did the mortician take Joe’s body.

A final tradition, so touching that it brings tears to my eyes as I write, is that whenever a veteran dies, his caregivers line the halls to offer their salute and play “Taps” as his flag-draped body departs.

In our case, there was a postscript. Joe had greatly admired the black Converse sneakers of two of the aides. Many times he sought to purchase them from one or the other, once offering a dollar he’d won at Bingo as payment. Although they always declined, the aides decided to surprise Joe by purchasing a pair for him out of their own funds. But the parcel arrived a few hours too late. When I urged them to return the $60 shoes for a refund, they declined, saying they were meant for Joe. Although most mourners at his funeral didn’t realize it, Joe wore his new black sneakers to the grave.

Sandra Collard has five children, fourteen grandchildren and three great grandchildren. Her husband Joe served honorably in the U.S. Navy during World War II.

TIME Veterans

It’s Time For Some Perspective on the VA

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers a statement after meeting with Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki at the White House in Washington, DC, May 21, 2014. Veterans have had to wait months to see a doctor at some hospitals, and allegations have arisen that administrators at a VA hospital in Phoenix, Arizona, covered up the delays there. JIM WATSON—AFP/Getty Images

The high-profile investigation into wait-times at VA facilities masks the good job most of its 230,000 daily visitors believes the agency is doing

President Obama finally took to the White House podium Wednesday to denounce the VA wait-list delays that allegedly have led to dozens of veterans’ deaths around the country. “When I hear allegations of misconduct — any misconduct, whether it’s allegations of VA staff covering up long wait times or cooking the books — I will not stand for it,” he declared. “Not as Commander-in-Chief, but also not as an American.”

It was interesting that Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki was visible by his absence. Sure, the VA chief has an important job to do in his office right across Lafayette Square from the White House. But right now, Shinseki faces no more important task than fixing what ails the VA — and salvaging his own reputation to boot. His absence betrays an increasingly lukewarm attitude from the President and his team to the wounded Vietnam-era soldier who has run the agency for more than five years.

“People have died while waiting for basic services for their service-connected issues,” says ex-sergeant Rob Kumpf, who retired from the Army earlier this year after five years of service, including tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. “This is criminal neglect, and the fact that the government continues to fail our armed forces and our veterans is disheartening at best.”

Plainly, the White House is stalling for time. The problem existed well before Obama took over, and formal reports have detailed them for nearly a decade. The Administration has endorsed investigations into the problems in the hope that they’re not serious enough to imperil Shinseki’s continued service. But you can tell there are a lot of crossed fingers at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The key to Shinseki’s fate is how systemic the “gaming” of scheduled appointments was; the more systemic it turns out to be, the higher the chance Shinseki will be sent packing. The VA inspector general said Tuesday that 26 VA facilities now are under investigation, more than double last week’s number.

“President Obama’s remarks didn’t introduce many actions we didn’t already know about, but it did put Shinseki on the clock,” says Alex Horton, who spent 15 months in Iraq during the 2006-07 surge as an infantryman before going to work for the VA for three years until 2013 as an online communications specialist. “Shinseki must take actions now to reform the VA’s scheduling system so it can resist manipulation.” He also must call in the Justice Department, Horton believes, to investigate possible criminal wrongdoing. “And the most important thing: he must swiftly repair the broken trust between the VA and veterans.”

Yet it’s interesting to get away from cable TV postmortems and Internet screeds to determine more of what — accountability, doctors, money, eager employees, jail time, respect? — is needed to fix the VA. Perspective is an important element in understanding any problem. “Over the past two weeks, the American Legion has received over 500 calls, emails, and online contacts from veterans struggling with the healthcare system nationwide,” Daniel Dellinger, the Legion’s national commander, told the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee on Thursday. Over that same period, the VA saw a total of about 3.2 million patients. That works out to a complaint rate of 0.015%. Including a wider date range drops that share even lower.

Carl Blake of the Paralyzed Veterans of America suggested the Senate panel go undercover. “If the committee wants to get the truth about the quality of VA health care, spend a day walking around in a major VA medical facility,” he said. “We can guarantee that you will likely hear complaints about how long it took to be seen, but rare is the complaint about the actual quality of care … It is no secret that wait times for appointments for specialty care in the private sector tend to be extremely long.” The public, he says, has gotten a distorted view of the quality of VA care at various field hearings where a handful of those with poor experiences have taken center stage.

“If one veteran is not receiving the care he or she needs, it is one too many,” Ryan Gallucci of the Veterans of Foreign Wars told the panel. That’s a worthy goal for any healthcare organization, but one impossible to achieve when that organization is treating 230,000 patients a day.

There have been success stories. “I have to say that until Senator Obama became President and Secretary Shinseki became the secretary, I couldn’t get adequate care,” says Alex Lemons, who was a Marine from 2002-09 and served as a scout sniper among other billets during three combat tours in Iraq. “PTSD claims under President Bush were as successful as expeditions to Everest. I got my claim within one year of Shinseki taking office,” he says. “Sadly, my claim had actually been sitting in the wrong pile, on the wrong floor of the VA in Portland, Oregon. I had to call someone there, track it down, they found it and then took it, literally, up to the next floor and I saw the acceptance letter about two weeks after that.”

Acting VA inspector general Richard Griffin told Senators his probe has found potentially 17 veterans who died while waiting for care in Phoenix, but said there was no evidence that the waiting caused those deaths. The original whistleblower, a recently-retired VA doctor, elaborated Wednesday. “In terms of the allegation that I originally made,” Sam Foote told CNN, “that was up to 40 people may have died while waiting for care at the Phoenix VA. We never made the comment that they all died because of the wait, just that they were dying while waiting for care.”

An unscientific poll released by VoteVets.org Wednesday among its members found that 60% of 3,300 veterans want Shinseki to stay on the job. Only 17% want him to leave; the rest are undecided. “The American Legion has called on Shinseki to resign,” VoteVets co-founder Jon Soltz wrote. “As of yet, I don’t believe they asked their members if they agreed. So, we decided to. Of those on our list who also are members of the American Legion, only 17% backed the Legion’s call for Shinseki to resign. Sixty-four percent said he should not resign, with 19% saying they weren’t yet sure.”

“The problem is the inability to fire terrible VA employees, not the faulty chain of command,” says William Treseder, who spent 10 years as a Marine before leaving as a sergeant in 2011 after tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. Congress is pushing to give Shinseki more authority to cashier ineffective VA workers; Shinseki, whose agency fired 3,000 of its 300,000 workers last year, says he doesn’t need such power. “If Secretary Shinseki can’t overcome these problems in six years at the head,” Treseder adds, “I’m not sure what we expect the President to do in the next week” — which is when Obama expects to receive “preliminary results” from the IG’s nationwide survey of access to VA care.

Like most Washington battles, the fight for the VA’s future boils down to money. Some believe the tripling of the VA budget since 9/11 is sufficient. “They have gotten more money, number one. And number two is there is no shift in priorities,” David McGinnis, a retired Army brigadier general and Obama supporter, said on the PBS NewsHour Wednesday. “The internal attitude is, ‘If you want me to do more, give me more money,’ instead of taking a look at, this is the new world order. We got Vietnam veterans now realizing, ‘Hey, we need the VA.’ We went 30 years without realizing that, or longer. Also, you have this whole new group of veterans coming in. And we haven’t adjusted the priorities inside VA to spend the money appropriately.”

Others believe there is no way to change the VA without boosting its budget. Despite the surplus of congressional outrage directed toward the VA in recent weeks, there’s been a congressional deficit when it comes to giving the VA the money it and its advocates say it needs — even as its budget has grown from $50 billion in 2001 to $150 billion today.

  • Joseph Violante of the Disabled American Veterans told the panel last week that the VA’s own capital investment plan requires between $5.6 billion and $6.9 billion annually over the next 10 years to keep pace with demand, but the Administration has sought no more than $1.5 billion yearly.
  • Congress is also short-changing the VA. Blake, of the Paralyzed Veterans of America, noted that veterans groups for years have told Congress more money is needed to fix the agency. “In recent years, our recommendations have been largely ignored by Congress,” he told the Senate committee. “The House just recently approved an appropriations bill for VA that we believe is nearly $2 billion short for VA health care in 2015.”

Typical Washington, if you believe those two. Apparently there’s enough blame, but not enough money, to go around.

TIME Veterans

VA Chief Eric Shinseki (Still) Must Go

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

The VA is broken. It’s past time to fix this shameful bureaucratic tragedy

Back at the turn of the 21st century, when he left Washington to become president of the New School university in New York City, former Senator Bob Kerrey learned a little something about the ethos of Veterans Affairs. Kerrey, a Medal of Honor recipient who lost part of a leg in Vietnam, needed to get his home address changed. He had called his bank and settled the matter in 10 minutes. He called the VA and spoke to a hostile and not very helpful receptionist. He spoke to the receptionist’s supervisor, who told him, “You’re going to have to come in.” So Kerrey went to the VA office in New York. The receptionist again wasn’t very helpful. Kerrey pointed out that he was only talking about an address change. The receptionist said, “Talk to one of them,” pointing to customer “service” employees sitting at desks labeled A and B. Desk C was vacant. Kerrey went to Desk A, where he was told, “That’s handled by Desk C.” Kerrey asked when the occupant of Desk C was returning. “I don’t know,” said Desk A. Kerrey went over and sat at Desk C for a long while, and then a longer while. He spoke to the supervisor, who had no idea where Desk C was and told Kerrey, “Come back tomorrow.”

“You gotta be kidding,” Kerrey said, or perhaps yelled. It took 12 days to get his address changed.

I’ve heard far more serious VA horror stories ad nauseam in recent years. I know of at least one young Marine who committed suicide while waiting—months—for his medical records to be transferred from Los Angeles to Houston. I’ve also heard stories of heroic treatment performed by devoted VA doctors, nurses and counselors, but those often occurred after their patients endured a Kafka-esque struggle with the VA’s bureaucratic gate-keepers. You might expect that the system, which is staffed largely by older veterans, would have adapted with alacrity to the crisis posed by the wave of wounded Iraq and Afghanistan veterans over the past decade. But the VA’s response has been stagnation, and worse. It is now clear that there was a conscious, and perhaps criminal, effort to camouflage the time veterans had to wait for service in Phoenix and at other VA facilities. It is alleged that 40 veterans died waiting for service in Phoenix; whether or not that proves accurate, we’re facing a moral catastrophe.

The question is, How do we change this situation? The simple answer is leadership, which is why some have called (as I did last year) for VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign. By all accounts, Shinseki is a fine man who has spent nearly six years lost in the system. An effective leader would have gone to Phoenix as soon as the scandal broke, expressed his outrage, held a town meeting for local VA outpatients and their families—dealt with their fury face-to-face—and let it be known that he was taking charge and heads were going to roll. Instead, Shinseki intoned the words “mad as hell” at a congressional hearing. And White House chief of staff Denis McDonough said the President was “madder than hell” about the situation. Does anyone actually find this convincing?

The President cares deeply about the troops; he visits the wounded in the hospitals all the time; it’s just not his style to make a public deal of it. But he has been sadly ineffective on the veterans–health issue. The benefits system is still rigged against recent veterans, who go to the end of the line with their claims. Five years ago, Obama promised a unified electronic records system so that a soldier’s medical history would follow him or her seamlessly from active duty to the VA, but it still hasn’t been implemented because of trench warfare between the Pentagon and the VA. More than a billion dollars has been spent on the project. A senior Administration official told me a year ago that a solution was weeks away; now the Administration is promising a new system by 2016. The President could have solved this problem yesterday, by cracking heads—and selecting either the existing VA or Pentagon electronic records system. (Believe it or not, the VA system is pretty effective but not up-to-date.)

The problem of bureaucratic stagnation at the VA (and throughout the rest of the government) could be addressed as well. Think about the lazy clerks Bob Kerrey faced. Why were they so callous? Because under the existing, antiquated civil-service system, they face practically zero threat of being fired. The President could ask for a temporary waiver of civil-service rules to clean up the mess at the VA, but that seems politically impossible. Government accountability is a popular mantra—but you can’t have accountability unless everyone, including Desk C, is held to account.

TIME Veterans

Obama: ‘I Will Not Tolerate’ Veterans Affairs Misconduct

President Barack Obama speaks at the White House following his meeting with Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki in Washington on May 21, 2014.
President Barack Obama speaks at the White House following his meeting with Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki in Washington on May 21, 2014. Susan Walsh—AP

"If there is misconduct it will be punished," said Obama, who defended embattled Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki but stopped short of fully backing him

President Barack Obama got angry Wednesday after weeks of allegations of misconduct at Veterans Affairs facilities, but defended his embattled Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki — for now, at least.

Speaking to reporters from the White House in his first public remarks on the subject in nearly a month, Obama said he has ordered Shinseki to conduct a review alongside a independent inspector general review, adding if the allegations prove to be true, “It is dishonorable, it is disgraceful, and I will not tolerate it. Period.” Last month CNN reported that the VA health facility in Phoenix had been cooking the books to cover up long wait times, potentially leading to the deaths of 40 veterans, allegations that have now been made about other facilities around the country.

“Once we know the facts, I assure you that if there is misconduct it will be punished,” Obama said, acknowledging he doesn’t yet know how widespread the problem is. “I don’t yet know are there a lot of other facilities that have been cooking the books or is this just an episodic problem,” he said.

Obama said Shinseki will present him with the preliminary results of his review, which has expanded to all VA facilities, next week. Obama also tasked Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors to lead a review of the entire Veterans Health Administration, which has long been plagued by backlogs and delays. Nabors will travel to Phoenix later Wednesday after meeting with veterans’ groups in Washington.

Obama sought to highlight the progress his administration has made in bringing down the disability claims backlog and the veterans unemployment rate, crediting Shinseki with much of the progress, but witholding his full backing until the completion of the investigations.

“Ric Shinseki I think serves this country because he cares deeply about veterans and he cares deeply about the mission,” Obama said. “And I know that Ric’s attitude is if he does not think he can do a good job on this, and if he thinks he’s let our veterans down, then I’m sure that he is not going to be interested in continuing to serve.”

The allegations have become the latest political headache for the president, with Republican lawmakers alleging the White House should have known about efforts to misreport wait times sooner.

Obama called on Congress to put partisanship aside as the investigation continues. “It is important that our veterans don’t become another political football, especially when so many of them are receiving care right now,” he said.

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