Editorial Column: An Action Memo for VA

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer

December 9, 2008 – Action Memo to: President-elect Barack Obama & Veterans Affairs Secretary-designate Gen. Eric Shinseki.

RE: Why We Need to Re-Name the VA — to the Department of Veterans Advocacy.

America’s military veterans have every reason to be elated at the president-elect’s selection of Eric Shinseki to be Secretary of Veterans Affairs and every reason to be hopeful upon hearing their determination to fix, at last, what is wrong with way our nation treats those who have fought our battles.

As Army Chief of Staff, Shinseki demonstrated the determination to speak truth to power, telling Congress we needed many more troops to secure Iraq. Yet, he learned (and we learned) that courageous words alone cannot achieve results when those in power are determined to resist. I believe your efforts to reform the VA will clash with a mid-level power that will resist your best efforts — unless you send an unmistakable message.

In my extensive reporting on the subjective, I sought to discover not just what has gone wrong at the VA but also why it happened.

There are two overriding reasons the VA has failed to provide many veterans with timely benefits and care they earned: Money and mindset. Perhaps you can find sufficient money. But despite your impressive authority, you will bump up against an adversarial mid-level mindset of some who function as if they work for a Department of Veterans’ Adversaries.

There are, of course, many fine people working in the VA. But unfortunately, others in mid-level jobs — including some case adjudicators — seem to operate under this adversarial mindset. It has existed for years; but it has been allowed to grow more pervasive and more obstructive. Adjudicators too often seem determined to deny — and if facts cannot be bent in that direction, then delay. Claims still take half a year on the average; many rejections and appeals go on for decades.

Why? Perhaps because when a veteran dies, his or her case dies too — and no benefits are paid. When World War II vet Alfred Brown died after 21 years of rejections and appeals, Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims Chief Judge Kenneth Kramer wrote that Brown had “never been given a fair shake by the VA” and would have won his claim. Our government kept the money he deserved.

Sadly, examples abound. I’ve detailed them in previous columns: A former Gulf War and then Iraq War Army military policeman, Eric Adams of Tampa, was first told by the VA he hadn’t been in combat; but he’d led convoys past roadside bombs. Then he was told he didn’t have post traumatic stress disorder; his file said VA doctors twice diagnosed his PTSD. Finally, the VA ruled he couldn’t get service-related benefits because he could not cite the specific stressor incident.

Then there is Illinois national guardsman Garrett Anderson, of Champaign, Ill. He got service-related benefits for the loss of his right arm and broken jaw in the Iraq War, but was told by the VA, with no further explanation: “Shrapnel wounds all over body not service connected.” Did his VA adjudicator think Anderson got caught in a shrapnel rainstorm at a church picnic?

President-elect Obama and Secretary-designate Shinseki, I’m afraid you will not be able fully implement the reforms you have promised unless you first change the mindset within this segment of a bureaucracy gone astray. The good news is that there is one way to send a message that will not be missed within the VA bureaucracy.

We need to change the VA’s name — call it the Department of Veterans’ Advocacy. Let all who work there understand that their job is to be our veterans’ advocates. Their job is to help each veteran assemble the facts of his or her case to determine the benefits they have earned — benefits that it is our duty, honor and privilege to pay to those who fought to keep us free.

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