After Congressman Bob Filner read the Washington Post‘s series on the scandalous treatment of injured soldiers at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, he called Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and delivered a simple message: Their party had to fund the wounded warriors as well as the war–or instead of it. For years Filner, a liberal Democrat who represents the military stronghold of San Diego, had been warning that the country’s military and veterans hospitals were strained to the breaking point. In the wake of Walter Reed, the public and the party were finally listening. House Democrats added $3.5 billion to an Iraq spending bill to treat brain injuries and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for returning soldiers and upgrade the country’s 1,400 deteriorating veterans hospitals. As the new chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, Filner is now in a position to translate his advocacy into action. “This is a test for our party,” Filner told me during an interview in his Washington office, which looks directly out on the Capitol dome. “Clearly, the Republicans failed. I hope we pass it.”
Although he retains the look of a mild-mannered professor (he taught history at San Diego State for twenty-two years), Filner is passionate about his causes. As a student in 1961, he spent two months in a Mississippi jail for civil rights protesting with the Freedom Riders. When the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) lost a laptop containing confidential data on 26 million veterans, Filner interrupted a VA press conference by yelling at two VA officials, “You guys fucked it up!” He called on VA Secretary Jim Nicholson, a former head of the Republican National Committee who’s been compared to ex-FEMA chief Michael “Brownie” Brown, to resign. Critics have said that Filner is too emotional. But Tim Walz, a freshman Democrat on Filner’s committee who spent twenty-four years in the Minnesota National Guard, disagrees. “As a vet,” Walz says, “I want a bulldog there that’s fighting for us.”
Dr. Bob, as he is known, took an unusual route to his chairmanship. He was in school during the Vietnam War, getting a PhD in the history of science. After teaching, he won a tough race for Congress in 1992 and has fought hard to keep his post, representing a district that’s 55 percent Hispanic (a copy of Spanish for Dummies sits on his bookshelf). At the same time, San Diego is one of the largest military complexes in the world, and Filner’s district abuts two bases. He joined the Veterans Affairs Committee on the advice of former California Senator Alan Cranston, who chaired that committee and whose close ties to veterans allowed him to be as progressive as he wanted on other issues. Filner is very much the same.
Yet veterans aren’t giving Filner a grace period, even as they welcome his arrival. The Bush Administration chose to run the “war on terror” expensively abroad and cheaply at home. In 2004, when then-VA chair Chris Smith tried to add $1.3 billion to fully fund VA healthcare, Republicans booted him off the committee. His replacement, hard-line conservative Steve Buyer, was put there, in the words of a top GOP aide, “to tell the veterans groups: Enough is enough.” This year, the Administration brags that it has produced the largest VA budget in history. That’s true–but veterans groups say the $37.1 billion for fiscal year 2008 is not nearly enough to meet the needs of returning servicemen and -women and aging vets. VA hospitals across the country require urgent repair. At least one in four Iraq and Afghanistan vets is suffering from severe mental injury, including PTSD, to say nothing of physical wounds. The VA has a backlog of 600,000 benefit claims, which means veterans can wait years for disability compensation. As Joshua Kors reports in this issue, the Army is discharging maimed Iraq vets with misdiagnosed “personality disorders” in order to deny them such benefits. “We made a contract with these young people: When they join they’re gonna get benefits,” Filner says. The military “is breaking the contract, and it’s just unconscionable.”
He’s outlined an ambitious agenda to try to correct years of neglect. Filner wants to invest billions of dollars into research and care for severe brain injuries; put issues like mental illness and homelessness into the national consciousness; modernize the GI bill so that it pays for college as it used to; and overhaul VA facilities. He also wants to rethink how the committee performs oversight. In order to prevent another Walter Reed scandal, he’d like to set up a hotline for vets to report mistreatment and send former soldiers to inspect VA hospitals. Instead of simply dragging Administration officials before the committee and berating them, he wants to hold informal roundtable discussions with members of Congress, VA officials, vet advocates and the media.
To accomplish his goals, Filner will have to fight not only Bush and Buyer but members of his own party. Filner’s ’08 budget request for additional VA healthcare funding was smaller than what vet groups wanted and what the Senate appropriated–the result, he claims, of internal party pressure. If balancing the budget becomes more important than caring for the wounded, Filner says, “all the promises we made over the last decade are going to be hard to keep.”
Filner happens to be one of the most liberal members of Congress, a co-founder of the Progressive Caucus and a harsh critic of the Iraq War. Yet he earns kudos from historically conservative organizations like the VFW and the American Legion. “I have a lot of support among traditionally conservative Republicans because of my support for veterans,” Filner says. Adds Steve Robertson, legislative director of the American Legion, of Filner, “As a non-vet, he takes the issues of veterans very seriously.”
There’s a lesson here for fellow Democrats, Filner believes. “People say, ‘How can you be for the troops when you’re against the war?’ Well, here we are, for the troops,” he says, voice rising. “When they come home, whether injured mentally or physically, and this Administration doesn’t want to deal with them, as a society, we’re saying, We need to take these kids in.”