Though Republicans might not understand, it takes a lot more than bumper stickers to support the troops who fight their wars. It should be a no-brainer, but it seems like those who have determined to politicize the situation at the VA have forgotten the primary reason so many veterans are in such dire need of care to begin with, and why the scandalously cash-strapped department has been so hard pressed to provide it. As I said on Face the Nation this week, without considering the historical context of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—namely, that they were both unnecessary and prosecuted with a stunning degree of ineptitude—and without considering Congress’s history of underfunding veterans healthcare, it’s irresponsible to dive-bomb the White House with finger-pointing and grandstanding speeches about who needs to resign, and when.
There’s plenty of blame to go around concerning the massive failures of the healthcare system in the Veterans Administration. Both the media and politicians are focusing on administrative failures at the top and are calling for the resignation of Eric Shinseki, the retired four-star general who heads the federal agency, as if such a high-profile decapitation will fix the problem.
But members of both parties agree: It will not. Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) told Politico, “It shouldn’t be about a political scalp. It should be: How are we going to improve care for veterans?” And Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) belittled his colleagues’ knee-jerk demand for a cabinet-level resignation: “I’ve never seen [the tactic] work yet…. I’ve only been around twenty years.” Even Bob Dole has dismissed the notion that Shinseki should be forced out. Former Senator Max Cleland (D-GA), a Vietnam veteran and triple amputee, wrote in a Politico op-ed, “As a disabled veteran myself, there is no one I would rather have heading up the VA now, in this turbulent time, than Eric Shinseki. In my experience, he is the best there is.” Cleland should know; in addition to being, like Dole, a genuine war hero, he also served under President Carter as administrator of veterans affairs (the predecessor position to Shinseki’s) from 1977 to 1981.
Obviously, the creation of secret waiting lists at VA facilities is horrible. There is no excuse for such dereliction of duty, especially when it again puts the lives of our brave veterans in danger after they’ve already been made to face enough. Simply put, those who are responsible for making these lists should be fired. And if their actions are determined to have been illegal, then they should be prosecuted for criminal activity.
But just as obviously, we need to recognize that those actions were not ordered by Shinseki, himself a veteran twice awarded the purple heart (and, as you might recall, the Army Chief of Staff who—presciently—dared contest the Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz notion that postwar Iraq could be reconstructed with a mere 100,000 troops). Moreover, under Shinseki’s watch, the VA has cut the backlog of veterans-benefits claims by more than half. Veteran homelessness has dropped by twenty-four percent since Shinseki made it a priority in 2010.