Phillip Carter is on a mission to make the federal government take the long view when it comes to caring for the men and women who serve in the U.S. military.
“It’s important to think about military personnel in terms of their entire life cycle, from the time they join the service to the time they depart this earth,” according to Carter, a senior fellow, counsel and director of the Military, Veterans and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS).
“We run the risk, when we arbitrarily divide them between [the Defense Department and the Veterans Affairs Department], that we’re going to get people that get lost in the transition, or they’ll fall through the cracks,” he added. Carter is not related to new Defense Secretary Ashton Carter.
Instead, the government “should take a longer lens on these things.”
“We know that lifetimes are expanding. Today’s soldier serving in Afghanistan or Iraq is likely going to live into his or her 80s or 90s. We need to think about their entire lives, not just the time they’re in service, not just the first steps they take as veterans,” said Carter, who served as an Army captain in Iraq from 2005 to 2006.
That lack of vision is a “tragedy” to Carter because the government now has enough data from what happened to veterans of previous conflicts to “really see the effects of good or bad interventions.”
The GI Bill that followed World War II “was a great intervention. We ought to do that as much as possible,” he said.
However, following the Vietnam War, the American public witnessed the negative effects of the government not acting quickly enough on substance abuse, homelessness and mental health issues, he said.
To that end, Carter and his colleagues at CNAS have launched the Veterans Data Project, a multiyear effort that utilizes all publicly available information about the veterans and the military community in an effort to better strategize about the population’s future needs.
The project is entering its second year and already Carter has begun to use the initial data in developing strategy.
“There’s sort of an official future of how the VA sees it evolving, but we want to test that and play with some of the assumptions,” he explained.
The final phase of the project will include possible “high impact” interventions, designed by the think tank, for today’s veteran population, which is estimated to include 21 million people.
Carter said CNAS briefs the Pentagon and the VA “all the time” about the project but has kept the effort independent “because we want the ability to be independent and to criticize them from time to time.”
Carter had a varied career before joining CNAS in 2013.
A Los Angeles native, he graduated from UCLA in 1997. He served in the Army ROTC for four years before returning to the school to pursue a law degree.
The Sept. 11 attacks occurred while he was a first-year law student and in the reserves. After finishing school, he practiced law for a while before deploying to Iraq.
When back in the U.S., he returned to law before eventually joining the 2008 presidential campaign for then Sen. Barack ObamaBarack Hussein Obama Chelsea Manning tests positive for COVID-19 The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by National Industries for the Blind - Tight security for Capitol rally; Biden agenda slows Obama backs Trudeau in Canadian election MORE (D-Ill.) as the national veterans outreach director.
That led to a job in the new administration as the Pentagon’s deputy assistant secretary of Defense for detainee policy, with oversight of the controversial U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
“I found the politics of Guantanamo to be thoroughly intractable,” said Carter. “There was no amount of hard work that we could put into the subject that made anything better. … The politics were so contentious that even the best ideas couldn’t advance any further.”
He worked in the private sector for a while before joining CNAS.
Carter said what he liked about the think tank environment was the opportunity to work on more issues he “really cared about and have an impact in ways that I couldn’t if I was just at a consulting firm or a law firm.”
There is certainly no shortage of topics for him to examine.
On the active-duty side, most of Washington is still digging into the final report by the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission.
The blue-ribbon panel recently released a series of wide-ranging recommendations for changing the way the military compensates service members.
“Personnel costs have to be part of the total approach to reforming the Defense Department and making it succeed in the years to come,” Carter said.
Meanwhile, the VA is still working to recover from last year’s scandal over falsified patient data and wait times that led to the resignation of then-VA Secretary Eric ShinsekiEric Ken ShinsekiWhy aren't more Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in Biden's Cabinet? Biden VA pick faces 'steep learning curve' at massive agency Biden nominee: VA staff hampered by 'mismanagement' MORE.
Asked if that scandal was over, Carter replied, “No.”
He said the controversy is not over “in large part because we still don’t know the extent of the mismatch between available resources and veterans.”
“The entire VA healthcare and benefits systems are built on a foundation of bad data. Until we fix the underlying systems that collect data in VA sites around the country, we won’t have the sense of how bad things are,” he added.
Carter also criticized the agency for setting metrics “that are about itself,” in terms or how many patients the department has seen or claims it has processed.
“They don’t measure the veterans themselves, their longevity or their income or how well they’re moving the needle for veterans.”
He praised current Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald for trying to turn the agency away from focusing on itself and toward the veteran population.
Carter said he hopes McDonald can take advantage of the opportunity to reinvent the beleaguered agency.
But, if not, he predicts another chance will come after the 2016 presidential election, though the end result may depend on which party wins.
A Democratic administration is likely to continue the reforms started under Obama, Carter said. If a Republican wins the White House, the GOP might call for chopping up the VA and privatizing huge chunks of its healthcare work.
Carter said it’s also important to remember the past.
That’s why he keeps his office stocked with books on military history and national security developments (along with a set of rubber ducks, each dressed in a uniform from the four armed services, that his 3-year-old daughter likes to play with when she visits).
“It’s like that biblical quote from Ecclesiastes ‘There’s nothing new under the sun,’ ” he said.