By Brent Budowsky - 05/21/14 07:58 PM EDT
If even one American veteran has died because of inadequate treatment by the Department of Veterans Affairs, President Obama and VA Secretary Eric Shinseki owe veterans an apology. Virtually all members and the leaders of both parties in both houses of Congress owe veterans an apology. The media owes veterans an apology. Shame on them. I owe veterans an apology for not having written a column this brutally blunt the moment I learned that every day, 22 more vets commit suicide. Shame on me.
Shinseki needs reinforcements. Veterans need urgency. Obama should name a whip-cracking, butt-kicking, hard-charging, retired military officer to spend six months pursuing the SOLE mission of deciding what needs to be done to improve healthcare for vets and going to Congress to get bipartisan support for whatever is needed.
The take-charge leader I suggest Obama add to the current cast of characters should be deeply knowledgeable about military life, fiercely committed to the well-being of troops and willing to fight like hell for them — not another damned Obama insider, but someone who is willing to break china to help veterans. Candidates could include retired Army Gens. Wesley Clark or Barry McCaffrey, retired Marine Corps Gen. Anthony Zinni or former Sens. Bob Kerrey or James Webb.
It is inexcusable that the president said he learned about the VA crisis on television, sent his staff to tell Americans he is angry about the alleged deaths, let his press secretary dish ridiculous spin that the departure of a VA official who was already leaving represented accountability, and retreated into media seclusion on the matter until Wednesday.
Republicans in Congress were no better. Every member of the House and Senate works on cases for veterans. Numerous committees have oversight duties they neglected. They, like the president, learned about this scandal from television. They, like the VA and White House staff, did nothing to prevent it. In a Congress that will be remembered for how many vacations it took, how little work it accomplished and how much taxpayer money Republicans misused investigating Democrats rather than veterans care, shame on GOP partisans who parade to the cameras today. You bet I criticize Obama here, but House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) has many vets in his district. Before he criticizes Obama, he might tell us when he first learned about this VA crisis, and what he did.
There are many good people who perform great work for vets at the VA. Many vets receive quality care from the VA. Obama and Shinseki have made improvements at the department and lowered wait times for care and benefits. They dropped the ball on management, as Congress dropped the ball on oversight, while a small number of bureaucrats — who should be imprisoned if wrongdoing is proven — gamed the system and cheated our veterans.
The VA system is overloaded and underfunded after two long wars. A Marine Corps pathologist once found that some 70 percent of those killed or wounded in these wars suffered preventable casualties. The politicians who sent these young men and women to war were passing tax cuts and attending fundraisers while refusing to provide them with body armor and Humvees that would have saved their lives and limbs. Negligent politicians — from both parties — often drove by the once scandal-ridden Walter Reed hospital to attend political events.
It is indecent that preventable casualties during combat have been followed by preventable casualties during treatment. Let’s all take responsibility and end this bipartisan shame with bipartisan solutions. The best politics is to do what is right for the vets, not the politicians.
Budowsky was an aide to former Sen. Lloyd Bentsen and Bill Alexander, then chief deputy majority whip of the House. He holds an LL.M. degree in international financial law from the London School of Economics. He can be read on The Hill’s Pundits Blog and reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.