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A crisis that unites veterans

Damien Meyer/AFP/Getty Images
U.S. veterans salute during a joint French-U.S. D-Day commemoration ceremony at the Normandy American Cemetery.

For the first time in a long time, all major veterans groups are united, releasing almost simultaneous statements that it’s time for Secretary Robert Wilkie to step down.

It’s been a while since we have seen the veterans community speak with one voice. When they do, its powerful. With a pandemic, an economic crisis, and so many other significant issues facing veterans today we need strong and coordinated support from these influential groups.

Prior to this past week, the veteran service organization (VSO) community has too often not been as unified. This may be due to a number of factors including, the imposed isolation resulting from COVID-19, widespread leadership changes at VSOs, and the lack of receptivity of VA in the past several years to engage with these organizations in an inclusive and transparent manner.

Some have argued that VSOs are no longer relevant for the new generation of veterans. Yet we believe this simply is not true. While membership in these organizations has been in recent decline, VSOs have always experienced an ebb and flow of veterans as conflict era members historically wait to become active in groups toward the end of their careers as work demands lessen and their families age. The current membership in veteran service organizations is predominantly the Korean and Vietnam eras, but that is now changing. Following 20 years of war Iraq and Afghanistan, Post 9/11 veterans are again joining VSOs in greater numbers and the number of veterans joining have started to stabilize and will rise over the next 10 years. New generations of veterans need effective organizations to voice concerns and advocate on their behalf.

When veterans are challenged with a situation that violates their principles and character, they speak out. We are seeing that right now with the leadership issues facing the VA. VSOs should use this new rekindled solidarity to create a proactive agenda to work with the Biden administration. This agenda should focus on protecting our veterans during the pandemic through a well organized vaccine program, addressing the mental health consequences of social isolation associated with COVID-19, modernizing VA health system facilities, human resources, and information systems, reforming the disability compensation system, and addressing long overdue problems related to toxic exposures. Military sexual trauma, and respect for woman in the military too, as highlighted by the current events facing the department, are two important issues that must be addressed with action and compassion.

This new found VSO unity creates an opportunity for the incoming administration and Denis McDonough, the new secretary-designee, to set the appropriate tone and tenor by embracing the veteran community’s involvement and welcoming their perspectives. Let’s remember that while the secretary serves at the pleasure of the president, he or she really works on behalf of this country’s veterans. This responsibility can best be fulfilled through meaningful and candid engagements with veterans and their service organizations.

Winston Churchill famously said “never waste a good crisis.” No one is happy to see the VA go through another calamity. We need to respond by listening to our veterans and engaging with a renewed and unified veteran community.

David Shulkin, M.D. was the Ninth secretary of the VA in the Trump administration and VA under secretary of Health in the Obama administration. Lou Celli is former Washington, D.C., executive director of The American Legion.

Tags David Shulkin Denis McDonough Robert Wilkie

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