It’s Memorial Day weekend, so not surprising that President Obama would emphasize military veterans in his Saturday radio address.
“They put their lives on the line to defend the country they loved,” he said. “And in the end, many gave that ‘last full measure of devotion’ so that our nation would endure.”
But it’s the veterans who made it through demanding and sometimes deadly times that Obama must concern himself with these days. Big problems at hospitals and other facilities run by the US Department of Veterans Affairs have become a political problem for Obama and for VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.
In his broadcast Saturday, Obama did not directly address that situation or his embattled VA chief. But he did allude to it.
“In recent weeks, we’ve seen again how much more our nation has to do to make sure all our veterans get the care they deserve,” he said. “And now that we’ve ended the war in Iraq, and as our war in Afghanistan ends as well, we have to work even harder as a nation to make sure all our veterans get the benefits and opportunities they’ve earned.”
That’s always been a tall order under the best of peacetime circumstances. Now, Vietnam veterans are becoming senior citizens with increasing medical and other needs. Thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan vets are joining them, many having experienced those wars’ signature injuries: post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury. Homelessness and rates of suicide are particularly troubling.
It’s unclear how long Secretary Shinseki can remain on the job.
His whole career would seem to have prepared him for it. The retired four-star US Army general and Army chief-of-staff is a West Point graduate and decorated combat veteran who was twice wounded in Vietnam.
In a message to veterans this week, Shinseki ticked off some of the VA’s accomplishments during his tenure:
“Since 2009, we have enrolled two million more Veterans in high-quality VA healthcare, reduced Veterans' homelessness by 24 percent, and provided Post-9/11 GI Bill educational benefits to more than one million student Veterans and eligible family members. We have opened up new presumptives for Veterans to receive long overdue care for exposure to Agent Orange, for combat-related PTS-D, and for Gulf War illnesses. And, we have decreased the disability claims backlog by over 50 percent in the last 14 months. We will meet our goal of eliminating the claims backlog in 2015.”
But news of the VA is filled with reports of treatment delays and preventable deaths at VA hospitals.
The department's inspect general's office says 26 facilities are being investigated nationwide, including a Phoenix hospital facing allegations that 40 people died while waiting for treatment and staff kept a secret list of patients in order to hide delays in care.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in an interview broadcast Friday that the focus of an investigation into alleged delayed treatments and deaths in the Veterans Administration's health care system should be to "fix the problem" rather than to fire Shinseki, as many Republicans and a few Democrats in Congress have called for.
"There does have to be accountability, right up and down the line," said Secretary Hagel, himself a combat veteran twice wounded in Vietnam. He said the government has "no higher responsibility" than to provide top-shelf medical care to servicemen and women who have worn the country's uniform.
"We know things went wrong," Hagel said. "Somebody's got to be accountable here, like in any institution."
So far, Obama is sticking with his VA chief. That could change if investigations now underway reveal more evidence of poor management.
“His patriotism and sacrifice for this nation are above reproach,” American Legion national commander Daniel Dellinger told the Washington Post. “However, his record as head of the Department of Veterans Affairs tells a different story. It’s a story of poor oversight and failed leadership.”
This report includes material from the Associated Press.