Also published at my web magazine, The Public Record.
It’s not uncommon for Presidents to embellish their accomplishments upon leaving office, but George W. Bush, who will exit the White House leaving the country in the worst shape since Herbert Hoover, has gone a step further, moving past exaggeration into outright lying.
Last month, trying to change the emerging historical consensus about a failed presidency, the White House published two lengthy reports, “Highlights of Accomplishments and Results of the Administration of George W. Bush,” and “100 Things Americans May Not Know About the Bush Administration Record.”
One of the surprising claims that stood out among the combined 90 pages of so-called accomplishments was the White House’s glowing assessment of Bush’s record on veterans’ issues. Bush claims he “provided unprecedented resources for veterans” over the past eight years and provided “the highest level of support for veterans in American history.”
“The President also increased the benefits available to those who have served our Nation and transformed the veterans health care system to better serve those who have sacrificed for our freedom,” both reports claim, adding that he “instituted reforms for the care of wounded warriors ... and dramatically expanded resources for mental health services.”
The White House made these claims in the face of what former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld might have called a “known known” – that the treatment of veterans returning from deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan has been a national disgrace, highlighted most dramatically by the neglect and substandard care given wounded troops at Walter Reed and other military hospitals.
The budget increases that have occurred mostly were enacted over Bush’s opposition or related to the fact that injuries from the Iraq War far exceeded the administration’s rosy projections in early 2003. The Bush team especially underestimated how many cases of post-traumatic stress disorder to anticipate as well as the number of brain injuries, which have been endemic to the Iraq War where insurgents made effective use of “improvised explosive devices,” or IEDs.
Before Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, documents released by the Department of Veterans Affairs said it expected a maximum of 8,000 cases of post-traumatic stress disorder.
However, according to a study released last year by the RAND Institute, there are more than 320,000 veterans of the Iraq and Afghan wars suffering from major depression, PTSD and/or traumatic brain injury. The report found that the VA has been and continues to be ill-equipped to deal with these cases when soldiers return from combat, especially after multiple tours.
An Army task force last year also found major flaws in the way the VA treated and cared for veterans suffering from traumatic brain injuries.
Bush’s Record on VA Funding
For his part, Bush stacked the VA with political cronies, such as former Republican National Committee chairman Jim Nicholson, who as VA Secretary defended a budget measure that sought major cuts in staffing for healthcare and at the Board of Veterans Appeals; slashed funding for nursing home care; and blocked four legislative measures aimed at streamlining the backlog of veterans benefits claims.
Of the 84,000 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder by VA, only half, about 42,000, had their disability claim approved by VA. Instead of expediting PTSD claims, Bush's political appointees at VA actively fought against mental health claims.
Bush's appointees also obstructed scientific research into the causes of Gulf War illnesses dating back 18 years to Operation Desert Storm and opposed medical research on treatment for 210,000 of those veterans.
As for funding, Bush proposed a 0.5 percent budget increase for the VA for fiscal year 2006, which amounted to a “cruel mockery” of Bush’s promises to do everything to support veterans and soldiers, Rep. Lane Evans, D-Illinois, said at the time.
Evans called Bush’s proposed budget increase for the VA “grossly inadequate,” saying it would force the VA to “ration” healthcare to veterans.
VA officials had testified in 2005 that the agency needed at least a 13 percent increase to meet the needs of hundreds of thousands of war veterans wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan and others who needed long-term mental health care.
In early 2007, the Washington Post put a spotlight on the human consequences resulting from the combination of Bush’s wars and the budget squeeze.