What Every American Should Know -- and Do -- About VA Scandal
Good it is that some Veterans Affairs cover-ups are now widely known, but the rest of the iceberg remains dangerously hidden. A primary reason for what remains hidden and for the extremely late exposure of the cover-ups now in the news is that American veterans are largely invisible to most other citizens.
We live in a nation that is not only war-illiterate but even military-illiterate,* because Americans don't like to think about war, veterans comprise less than 7% of the population, and war veterans are "the other 1%." It is rare for anyone who doesn't live with a veteran to choose to meet, get to know, or listen to a veteran. This leads to often soul-crushing isolation for veterans and their loved ones, and it creates in this country a dangerous divide, one whose disastrous consequences are still developing -- largely invisibly -- even as I write.
Most Americans go about their daily lives heedless of the needs and goals of veterans and their families, with the exception of the occasional Congressional Medal of Honor recipient's appearance on a talk show, a few commercials, knee-jerk "Thank you for your service" statements, and tear-jerker media stories about a deployed parent returning home and surprising their child at a major sporting event that is televised on the big screen, denying the child and parent privacy and the freedom to focus on what they each really need at that moment.
Small wonder that the current scandal about some VA officials' schemes to conceal the excruciatingly long periods of time many veterans were kept waiting comes as a surprise. Any nonveteran who had bothered listening to a veteran or two would at least have known about the wait times if not the purposeful concealment of their lengths.
I hope that every nonveteran who reads this will consider marking Memorial Day by listening -- just sitting and listening -- to a veteran from any era. Col. (Ret.) David Sutherland, founder and head of the important Dixon Center of Easter Seals** that helps communities come together to support veterans and their families, speaks often about the harm done when what happens on deployments become secrets back home. Veterans' loved ones already carry unfairly the lion's share of responsibility for providing support and understanding to veterans, and their wider communities need to offer to listen to both veterans and those close to them. That is what The Welcome Johnny and Jane Home Project is about, and it is as simple as it sounds -- just listening but doing so with respect and one's whole heart -- and is powerful and positively transformative for both veteran and listener, far beyond what most people would expect.*** The very simple information for prospective listeners and for veterans is at listen2veterans.org
Isolation and invisibility, as Col. Sutherland and I have written, are prime contributors to the high rate of veterans' suicides, which are estimated -- no doubt underestimated -- to be 22 a day, and the rates are highest among the older veterans.**** So when you decide to do a listening session, a great thing to do is to do it at one of to Veterans' Homes, other nursing homes, or hospice facilities, where you are likely to find those from World War II, the Korean War, and the Viet Nam War.
Getting back to the current VA expose, let's look at what else is dangerous. Horrific problems in the delivery of high-quality healthcare to veterans -- like the horrific barriers to getting high-quality healthcare to most Americans -- deserves more than what Andy Warhol predicted would be every American's 15 minutes of fame. The media lose interest when there is "no more news," but the suffering of inadequately cared-for or uncared-for veterans will long continue. Let us hope that some responsible journalists will refuse to allow these concerns to disappear back under the rug.
There is the additional problem that in this country, too many of those who hold the power find easy ways to lift responsibility from their shoulders and place it on those of others. All morning, I have been looking for what I recalled -- perhaps imprecisely -- as a phrase from a T.S. Eliot poem I read in college. The phrase I have tried to find is "a committee to appoint a committee," which popped to mind yesterday when President Barack Obama announced that he has ordered "an investigation" into VA wrongdoings.^ The Eliot quotation I managed to find is this:
Cry cry what shall I cry?
The first thing to do is to form the committees:
The consultative councils, the standing committees, select committees and sub-committees.
One secretary will do for several committees. click here
If not only President Obama but also his many predecessors truly had no idea until now about the VA's rampant mistreatment of veterans, there is no excuse for that ignorance. In July, 2007, Veterans for Common Sense filed a landmark lawsuit, Veterans for Common Sense v. Shinseki, aimed to end unconscionable delays and active mistreatment of veterans, especially for their emotional needs. In 2011, I wrote about what happened to that case, and I copy part of my essay here because it is sadly still relevant three years later:
the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the Department of Veterans Affairs to overhaul its mental health system, calling it "shameful" and plagued by "egregious delays." At last, veterans thought, they might receive prompt and effective support as they tried to heal from the emotional carnage wrought by war and by the almost unimaginable culture clash between being at war and trying to come home.
The court order gave the VA a chance to make a major turnaround; take a good, hard look at what it has been doing that has failed to help and even made many veterans worse; identify those in its system whom veterans described as caring and helpful; try to make the approaches of the latter into its standard; and consider what other, perhaps less traditional approaches they might implement. The Court of Appeals sent the case back to district court so that a plan for providing better care could be devised. This opportunity was especially important in light of the steadily-rising rates of suicide committed by veterans not just of current wars but of earlier ones as well.