A 21st Century Veterans Affairs

The Progress Report

December 8, 2008 – Yesterday, President-elect Barack Obama named ret. Army Gen. Eric Shinseki as his Secretary of Veterans Affairs (VA), promising “the kind of VA that will serve our veterans as well as they have served us.” Shinseki will face one of the country’s most daunting tasks: managing an institution already plagued by backlogs, scandals, and inadequate resources, and is increasingly taxed by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. During the press conference, Shinseki spoke directly to veterans: “If confirmed, I will work each and every day to ensure that we are serving you as well as you have served us. We will pursue a 21st-century VA that serves your needs.” The nomination of the first Asian-American to the post — Shinseki, a Japanese-American, grew up in Hawaii — carried extra poignancy coming on the 67th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attacks. Military officials and some veterans organizations immediately praised Obama’s announcement. Former Secretary of State Gen. Colin Powell called Shinseki “an inspired selection.” “He is a man that has always put patriotism ahead of politics, and is held in high regard by veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan,” read a statement by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

TWO PURPLE HEARTS: Shinseki is most famous for publicly contradicting Bush administration officials’ overly optimistic predictions about the war in Iraq. In 2003, then serving as the Army’s chief of staff, he told Congress that it would take several hundred thousand U.S. troops to secure Iraq. The Bush administration’s failure to heed Shinseki’s warnings led to a decimation of the U.S. military — underequipped forces, an over-reliance on the National Guard and Reserves, a dangerous stop-loss policy, and an increasing number troops coming home with mental and physical problems. As University of Michigan professor Juan Cole told the Washington Post, “If Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and [former undersecretary for defense Douglas J.] Feith had listened to Shinseki, there wouldn’t be as many wounded veterans to take care of.” Shinseki served two combat tours in Vietnam, receiving two Purple Hearts and four Bronze Stars. He has frequently worked with wounded veterans and visited Walter Reed Army Medical Center, referring to it as a “members-only section” since he, too, is an amputee.

A DOWNTRODDEN AGENCY: In 2002 and 2003, Bush administration officials tried to sell the public on an Iraq invasion by arguing that the costs to the United States would be almost nonexistent. “Under every plausible scenario, the negative effect will be quite small relative to the economic benefits,” said then-White House adviser Lawrence Lindsey. Bush administration officials not only completely miscalculated the billions the United States would have to spend on combat and reconstruction but also failed to plan for the cost of caring for wounded troops after the war. The Iraq war has seen an unprecedented number of troops who “have been wounded or injured and survived,” according to economists Joseph E. Stiglitz and Linda J. Bilmes. The ratio for Iraq and Afghanistan has been seven injuries for every fatality — by far the largest in U.S. history — compared to 2.6 and 2.8 for the Vietnam and Korean wars, respectively. The result of this lack of preparation has been a badly neglected VA, with the appalling conditions at Walter Reed as only the tip of the iceberg. In July 2007, Jim Nicholson resigned as VA Secretary in disgrace, leaving a tenure during which he stood by and even supported the Bush administration’s slashing of the agency. President Bush has, in fact, repeatedly objected to large increases in the budget for veterans’ medical care. However, Nicholson’s departure hasn’t cleared up all the problems. Under new secretary James Peake, VA officials have been trying to cover up data on the troubling rise in suicides among veterans.

SHINSEKI’S CHALLENGES: Veterans are suffering the consequences of the Bush administration’s neglect. Last year, a Harvard Medical School study found that one in eight veterans younger than 65 is uninsured. Military retirees who are insured are often paying more for medical care than other retirees. Despite the Bush administration’s promises to reform the veterans’ care system after the Walter Reed scandal, a Government Accountability Office report last year found that delays for disability payments “still average 177 days — nearly six months — with no indication that dramatic improvement is in the offing.” One of Shinseki’s most pressing challenges will be modernizing the VA to deal with the increasing number of mental health troubles faced by soldiers coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan. Nearly 20 percent of returning veterans have post-traumatic stress disorder, but only about half of them seek treatment.  Another area where the VA has fallen short is in its treatment of women veterans. As the AP has reported, “Of the women veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan who have walked into a VA facility, 15 percent have screened positive for military sexual trauma.” Roughly 180,000 women have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, and last year, the VA) “treated more than 255,000 female veterans. The number is expected to double within five years.”

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