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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In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands, we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

In Flanders Fields was written by a Canadian battle surgeon, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, M.D., during the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915.  It was one of the most terrible, bloody, senseless battles in a terrible, bloody, senseless war, as poison gas drifted across the trench lines and tens of thousands of soldiers were killed or wounded during days of fighting.  The poem McCrae wrote captures the physical and emotional exhaustion he felt — yet still McCrae wanted others to fight to ensure that the dead did not die in vain.  McCrae ultimately died, of pneumonia, during the early days of 1918 as World War I dragged on with no apparent end in sight.

McCrae’s poem, and its duality, is worth remembering on this Memorial Day.  We cannot drop the torch, but we need to make sure that the torch is carried forward into battle only when our national security truly requires it.  We cannot afford to senselessly bury young men and women beneath Flanders Fields.

Women In Combat

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta reportedly will announce today that the long-time ban against allowing female soldiers to participate in combat operations will be ended.  The move is being made upon the recommendation of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The decision would overturn a 1994 edict that barred women from participation in ground-combat units.  It also recognizes the reality of what has happened in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the turmoil of terrorist-oriented wars has caused female soldiers operating in “combat support” roles to become involved in combat itself.  In those chaotic situations, women have performed coolly, competently, and with valor — like the well-trained, capable soldiers they are.

The primary objections to women soldiers in combat have been that they could create a sexually charged atmosphere that might detract from performance of the mission and might not be physically capable, from a strength standpoint, of performing all tasks that could be necessary on a particular operation.  The first excuse seems antiquated, and in any case can be addressed by proper training of soldiers of both sexes and attentive leadership.  The answer to the second concern is easy — establish the physical capabilities that actually are needed and see whether individual women, as well as individual men, can meet them.  If so, they should be permitted to participate.  What is the point of arbitrarily excluding professional soldiers who want to serve and can do their duty?

I’m all for knocking down exclusionary barriers — particularly those that arose from outdated cultural and social mores.  I’m glad we are discarding the lingering, Victorian era notions about the delicate conditions of women and giving them the opportunity to fully serve their country and pursue a military career, if that is their choice.

Winning, And Saluting Our Soldiers

Yesterday the Ohio State Buckeyes manhandled the Fighting Illini, 52-22, in a game that really wasn’t that close.  Ohio State ran the ball at will, completed long pass plays, and throttled the Illinois offense as they moved to 10-0.

It also was a good example of why attending a game is a different experience than watching it on TV.  Before the game, at halftime, and during all those timeouts when TV viewers are forced to watch commercials about cars and beer, Ohio Stadium was saluting our military.

When timeouts came, recorded greetings from Buckeyes serving abroad were played on the big scoreboard, and students in the ROTC were introduced down on the field.  Before the game military members unfurled a huge flag as The Best Damn Band In The Land played the National Anthem, and then two fighter jets screamed by overhead.  And at halftime, TBDBITL played a series of songs from military movies while the band members marched into patriotic shapes and Old Glory was displayed again, at the center of a star.

TBDBITL is always wonderful, and yesterday’s show and general salute to the members of our military, presented just a few days before Veterans’ Day, was well timed for another reason — at the end of a long and sometimes bitter presidential campaign, it was nice to see something that everyone in attendance, regardless of party affiliation, could cheer wholeheartedly.