One message from Normandy

If the US truly honors its veterans, reforms at the VA must move swiftly.

Pascal Rossignol/Reuters
President Barack Obama is surrounded by veterans as he speaks at the 70th anniversary of D-Day at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer, France.

At ceremonies today at the American cemetery near Omaha Beach in Normandy, France, President Obama acknowledged the sacrifices of those who on D-Day, June 6, 1944, began the liberation of Europe.

“What more powerful manifestation of America’s commitment to human freedom than the sight of wave after wave after wave of young men boarding those boats to liberate people they had never met,” Mr. Obama said.

Listening nearby were US military veterans, perhaps some who had made their dash across the sands 70 years earlier and survived.

Since then generations of American service members have risked their lives in places such as Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

But America’s commitment to its war fighters doesn’t end when they muster out. While “wave after wave after wave” stormed the Normandy beaches, today waves of veterans are seeking help for their physical and emotional wounds. Many are stacking up at the Department of Veteran Affairs, enduring long waits for help.

The scandal of long waiting periods for care – and the efforts to cover it up – has already cost VA chief Eric Shinseki, a retired general, his job.

But that necessary move was more symbolic than substantial. More heartening is the announcement yesterday of a proposed bipartisan Senate bill that could form the first wave in an all-out attack on the problems at the VA.

To help unjam the backlog of cases, the bill would create 26 new VA medical facilities. It would also streamline the firing of poorly performing VA officials, who are strongly protected by the civil service system. A review process would still give these employees a chance to defend themselves.

As an important stopgap move until the VA system can catch up, the bill also would allow veterans who experience long wait times or live more than 40 miles from a VA facility to seek medical care from other providers.

The VA also announced that the performance assessment of managers would no longer be based on the length of wait times for care, a system that resulted in VA officials covering up real waiting times for patients.

These ideas would seem to dovetail with proposals in the Republican-led House, though talk there seems to be of fashioning a more comprehensive reform. But that approach could lose bipartisan support and with it the promise of quick action.

The next leader of the VA needs to have more expertise in whipping a massive, out-of-control bureaucracy into shape. A sterling military record is not necessarily the best résumé. A civilian with outstanding management skills may need to step in.

Acting VA chief Sloan Gibson seems to have caught the urgency of the moment. “Whether I’m here for a week or a month or two years, every minute I’m here, we’re going to make dust,” he said. He expressed support for legislation that would give him more leverage. “If I had additional [firing] authority, I would use it,” he said.

Though the number of World War II veterans is dwindling, today’s VA is being overwhelmed by veterans of more recent conflicts. Vietnam War vets are in or about to enter their retirement years, when demand for medical services typically rises. Huge numbers of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans now await help as well.

Privatization is a tempting alternative, but the VA has acknowledged expertise in treating patients who present a wide variety of physical and emotional needs. Veterans who can finally access VA care find a holistic, coordinated approach there that would be hard to duplicate in traditional medical facilities.

Beyond providing prompt medical care is the need for Americans individually to reach out with love and appreciation to veterans, to listen to their life stories and embrace them in prayers.

Seeing veterans of the Normandy invasion again standing at Omaha Beach, survivors of a war fought seven decades ago, should remind Americans of the long-term commitment they have made to care for each of their fellow citizens who serves in defense of the country.

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