A Scandal In The Truest Sense Of The Word

In a world where “scandals” often seem to be invented and overhyped, the recent news about the medical care provided to veterans by the Veterans Administration actually qualifies for the name.  It’s an embarrassment, and an outrage.

The issue has to do with the quality and timeliness of health care.  In a number of VA facilities across the country, there have been reports that veterans face long delays to receive care — and VA employees are acting to hide the truth or falsify statistics so the wait times don’t look so long.  The most notorious news came from Phoenix, where CNN reported on allegations that veterans died waiting to receive care, that a VA facility maintained a secret waiting list, and that VA personnel were trying to cover up the fact that more than 1,000 sick veterans were required to wait for months to receive treatment.  Those allegations are now being investigated by the VA and by Congress.

The world being what it is, many people focus on the politics of this scandal and its potential impact on the upcoming elections.  Those inevitable stories, however, are part of the problem.  They reflect our apparent, growing inability to respond to these stories as human beings as opposed to hyper-political partisans caught in the endless spin cycle.

So here’s a reminder of the reality.  People become veterans by serving their country in the military, risking their lives and health to keep us safe, perform essential services, and fight our wars.  We owe them our gratitude, but we owe them more than lip service — we also have to keep our word to provide them with excellent medical care.  If veterans are waiting for months while they move slowly up a waiting list to see a doctor, we obviously aren’t meeting that sacred obligation, and we should be embarrassed as a nation.

As is so often the case, the bureaucratic reaction is just as deeply disturbing as the underlying reality.  Rather than doing something that might actually help the men and women they are supposed to serve, employees at the VA facilities thought about making themselves look good — which is how they came up with the coverup schemes and secret lists in the first place.  Their CYA attitude is infuriating, but by now we shouldn’t be surprised, because it seems to be the default reaction of bureaucrats everywhere.

One VA official has resigned, but veterans groups say that doesn’t mean much because he was supposed to retire this year, anyway.  The Secretary of the VA, Eric Shinseki, says he’s “mad as hell” about the scandal and is on a mission to get to the bottom of the problem.  But Shinseki has been the head of the VA for years, since the beginning of the Obama Administration.  What’s he been doing about the wait time issues during that time?  Why should we have confidence that he’s up to the task of changing the bureaucratic culture of an agency that may well have lost sight of its true mission?

I’m hoping that this scandal doesn’t just fade from the front pages, as so many scandals do.  I’m hoping that — for once — the Administration stops spinning, our elected representatives stop bloviating, and we collectively get to the facts and take action to fix the problems at the VA.  We owe our veterans that much, and so much more.

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The Last Doughboy

Frank Buckles died on Sunday, at age 110.  Buckles was America’s last surviving World War I veteran.  He enlisted at age 16, after lying to a recruiting officer about his age, and served as a clerk and ambulance driver in England and France.  The Washington Post reports that, with Buckles’ death, only two of the 65 million people who served in World War I are still living.

There is something terribly final about the death of the last human being to personally experience a war.  With Buckles’ passing, we lose the last American who was there during the awful carnage of trench warfare, the horrors of poison gas attacks, and the deadly charges across no man’s land into the teeth of barbed wire, machine gun bullets, and fortified bunkers.  No more Americans will be personally tormented by nightmares of the deaths of their comrades during The Great War.

With the severing of the last human links to the fighting, World War I moves from the realm of personal experience to the exclusive province of historians.  They will argue about tactics, and great historical forces, and issues like how the war could have been avoided and whether the German side could have prevailed had it acted differently.  Eventually a war in which millions of people participated and millions died, a war which saw the development of new weapons like the airplane and the tank — a war that participants thought was surely The War To End All Wars — will become as abstract, dusty, and inexplicable as the Hundred Years’ War, the War of Jenkins’ Ear, or the War of Austrian Succession.  Frank Buckles’ passing takes us one step closer to that reality.

The Power Of Ceremony

Recently Kish and I went to a funeral service for a veteran.  The service featured the presentation of the colors.  It reminded me, yet again, of the extraordinary power of ceremony in our lives.

In this instance, the presentation of the colors ceremony was performed by three Marines.  It was accomplished deliberately, in complete silence, and with great dignity and respect.  The three Marines walked down the center aisle of the church at stately pace and retrieved a folded flag from the altar.  They slowly unfolded it so that the flag was fully unfurled when Taps was played.  The Marines then carefully refolded the flag, presented it to each other, and slowly saluted the colors before presenting the folded flag to the widow and walking slowly out of the church.  This simple ceremony was the culmination of the service and was a deeply felt moment for everyone present in the church.

In this case, the man who had passed was a true hero — a Marine who had fought and suffered grievous, life-threatening injuries in the Battle of Okinawa, recovered, and returned to normal life to make enormous contributions to his family, his community, and his profession.  How can you adequately recognize the personal sacrifices that he, and his fellow veterans, have made on behalf of us all?  Ceremony provides us with a means of accomplishing what mere words cannot.  The presentation of the colors, performed with appropriate silence, gravity and care, is a powerful way to demonstrate our esteem and gratitude for those who have served.

Bless Our Veterans, Their Families, And Their Sacrifices

 

The American cemetery in Normandy

Veterans’ Day is the most important federal holiday we have, because of what it means and the enormous sacrifices it commemorates.  All Americans should be deeply and forever grateful to our veterans for their service and their willingness to fight so that our great nation can remain a beacon of freedom and tolerance in the world.