How America is failing its veterans

The problem is far worse than long wait times at VA hospitals

Homeless veteran
(Image credit: (AP Photo/Steven Senne))

HUNGRY USMC VETERAN PLEASE HELP, the cardboard sign read. Sitting next to it was a scruffy man, maybe in his early 30s, in tattered jeans and scuffed work boots. His hair looked oily, he needed a shave. I fished a crumpled $1 out of my pocket and put in his cup. Our eyes met for a second and he said, "Thank you." I felt a flash of guilt. What good is a buck going to do?

This encounter, at a Metro station in the shadow of the White House, and steps from the entrance to the Department of Veterans Affairs itself, is hardly rare. Perhaps you've had one yourself. There are an estimated 58,000 homeless veterans, and another 1.4 million who are in danger of being on the streets because of poverty, lack of community support, and overcrowded/substandard housing conditions. Many Americans are quick to dismiss a panhandler on the corner as a bum or a loser. In fact, he might very well be a Marine or a soldier down on his luck.

A nation that claims to revere its heroes cannot, in good conscience, allow them to fend for themselves on the streets of our communities. Yet allow it we do. Many of us are so self-absorbed with our own conceits that we rush by, can't be bothered.

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This is a national disgrace.

And yet, we bleat our collective shock and outrage over allegations that 40 veterans died while waiting for care at a VA hospital in Phoenix. We ask how could this have happened. Isn't it obvious how it happened? Some people like to call America an "exceptional" nation. A nation that is truly exceptional doesn't allow its heroes to beg on the streets. Is it so surprising that a nation whose citizens typically ignore the epidemic of homeless vets also fosters a system in which vets are denied proper medical care?

And it's not just homelessness, by the way. Of all veterans who have served since the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, 29 percent have at least one service-connected disability: an injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, and so forth. And the unemployment rate for this group, at 9 percent, is well above the national average.

Now, this isn't meant to divert attention from what appears to be incompetence within the VA and the White House. Heads should roll. Eric Shinseki is a decorated combat veteran from Vietnam. Awarded two Purple Hearts, three Bronze Stars, and more, he rose through the ranks to become a four-star General and Army Chief of Staff before retiring in 2003. I have no doubt that Shinseki cares deeply about his fellow veterans. But this doesn't mean he's the right man to lead a huge, messy civilian bureaucracy like the VA.

But before tossing this war hero overboard, let's look at the big picture. In 2009, Shinseki inherited a Veterans Administration that even by Washington standards had a reputation for being backwards. Until last year, it didn't even have a way of digitally processing the million plus claims it got each year (even the much maligned IRS rolled out electronic filing in 1990). Shinseki changed this. Today, the VA is converting millions and millions of pieces of paper to a huge digital database. What a mess.

At the same time, Shinseki, with the backing of President Obama, expanded benefits for veterans. In 2010, coverage was expanded for veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange. The administration also loosened the rules to help vets get coverage for PTSD. Advances in battlefield medicine and technology have meant that more veterans are surviving injuries. All of this is wonderful news. But it has also unleashed an avalanche of new work upon the VA.

This meant disaster in the early years of the Obama administration. In 2009, the VA had 423,000 claims pending. Some 150,000 of them were more than four months old. By 2012, the total claims figure had ballooned to 883,000, with an estimated 587,000 of them more than four months old.

Since 2012, and particularly since the VA has finally discovered the digital world, the backlog was cut (Shinseki claims) to 300,000 as of May 10. At that rate, the backlog would vanish by the middle of next year.

Still, perhaps Shinseki should still get the boot; after all the buck does stop with him and with the president. But if anyone is truly deserving of the ax, it is Sharon Helman, the director of the Phoenix VA facility which cooked the books on patient wait times. It turns out she even got an $8,500 bonus in April, which has since been rescinded. Helman really must go.

But none of this would go far enough to help the man on the corner with the sign: HUNGRY USMC VETERAN PLEASE HELP. Heads may roll at the VA, but chances are the man with the sign, and far, far too many others like him, will still be on the corner asking for your help. These people risked their lives for you, for me, for all of us in some far off hellhole.

It's time we did a hell of a lot more for them.

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