Happy Memorial Day!

The east side of the Ohio Statehouse features the Ohio veterans plaza.  It consists of two curved stone walls that face each other from opposite ends of the plaza, two fountains, and two grassy rectangles with room for flowers and plenty of Ohio flags that can be put in place for a holiday weekend.

The stone walls are adorned with snippets from letters written by Ohioans who were serving in the different wars in which America has fought.  It’s a simple yet elegant reminder of one unifying reality for all of the soldiers and sailors, regardless of when or where they fought:  they left home in service of their country, and as they put themselves in harm’s way they wanted to let the family back home that they were okay, that they accepted the cost of their service, and that they hoped to make it back home when their service was done.

This weekend they’ve also put up a simple wreath at the northern end of the plaza.  It’s a good place to reflect on the sacrifices of those who have served and to inwardly express our appreciation to them for making our current lives possible.

Profound thanks to all of our veterans, and happy Memorial Day to everyone!

Checking In On The VA

Memorial Day seems like a good day to check in on the Veterans Administration.  How is the federal agency charged with helping out veterans, and showing them that we truly appreciate their service on our behalf, doing?

Here’s an indication:  last week, the Secretary of the Veterans Administration got withering criticism from people at all points on the political spectrum when he compared the inexcusably long wait times at VA facilities to vacationers waiting in line at Disney theme parks.  At a breakfast with reporters in Washington, D.C., VA Secretary Robert McDonald said:  “When you go to Disney, do they measure the number of hours you wait in line? Or what’s important? What’s important is, what’s your satisfaction with the experience?”  Sure . . . let’s compare veterans waiting forever for medical care for life-threatening ailments and conditions to the winding lines at the Magic Kingdom.  Makes you wonder if Robert McDonald shouldn’t change his first name to Ronald.

ap-travel-trip-amusement-parks-survivalIt’s hard to believe somebody so tone deaf could become the Secretary of an important federal agency, but let’s face it — we don’t exactly have the best and brightest staffing up our public service jobs these days.  At least McDonald had the good sense to apologize for an incredibly stupid comparison.

I don’t think we should overreact to one dim-witted comment by some functionary, of course, but I do think McDonald’s statement illustrates a core issue with the VA:  unfortunately, it’s just not that high a priority.  It doesn’t attract the most talented and dedicated people, people who understand that we have an obligation to our veterans and just aren’t living up to our end of the bargain.  So we end up with administrators who, over the years, have let VA health care facilities deteriorate and veteran wait times grow.  We’ve got issues with the VA’s approach to prescribing drugs for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.  And now we’ve got a guy who makes ignorant comparisons of veterans needing medical care to families waiting in line for the Pirates of the Caribbean ride.

Two years after the most recent major VA scandal, has any progress really been made?  In the midst of a presidential campaign, we’ll get the speeches about needing to do a better job for our veterans, and taking care of our veterans, but we’ve been getting those speeches for years, without any noticeable success or progress.

Sometimes I think the Department of Veterans Affairs should be renamed the Department of Lip Service, because that seems to be our focus.  When will we stop talking about honoring our commitment to our veterans, and actually do right by them?

PTSD

We were in a small neighborhood bar in San Antonio on a Saturday afternoon in November, sipping beers and getting ready for the kickoff of the Ohio State-Michigan game.  There were only the three of us in the place with the bartender.  The door to the bar opened and a guy in his 20s walked in.

He looked at us and began talking . . . and talking, and talking.  Was that our car right outside the door?  Where were we from?  Columbus?  Hey, he was from Whitehall!  Watching the Buckeyes?  Well, he was a Buckeye fan, too.  What did we think of Jim Tressel?  Who did we think was the best Ohio State quarterback during the last ten years?  What did we do for a living?  Where did Russell go to school?  How did Russell like being an artist?  Kish left to do some shopping, and still the questions and running commentary kept coming.  What were we going to do while we were in San Antonio?  Did we know that we were there during the San Antonio bad weather period?

the-bonds-of-battle-ptsd-sebastian-junger-vfFor brief instants the guy would watch the game and root for the Buckeyes, but for the most part he was a chatterbox who simply would not stop talking or let us just watch the game in peace.  We answered his direct questions politely because that’s what people are supposed to do, but also because I didn’t want to do anything to provoke him.  My guard was up, because people don’t normally walk into a bar and begin a rapid-fire conversation with complete strangers.  Was the guy on drugs?  Was he getting ready to ask us for money?   What was his angle, really?

Halftime came, and the guy got a call on his cell phone.  When he took the call he walked around, seemingly agitated, and talked loudly to the person at the other end of the conversation.  A minute or two later he ended the call and announced he was leaving, and after we said goodbye he vanished into the rainy San Antonio afternoon without incident.  I admit that I breathed a sigh of relief.

We looked over at the bartender, and I asked if he knew the guy.  He said no, he’d never seen him before.  Then he shook his head sadly and said, “PTSD.”  The bartender explained that the San Antonio area is home to a lot of different military bases, and therefore to a lot of returning veterans who were dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder.  In fact, there was a Veterans Administration facility across the street, and he suspected the guy had come from there.

The bartender himself was a veteran, he said, and he’d seen the guy’s kind of behavior before.  He said that when he returned from overseas, struggling with what he had seen and done, the VA’s first response was drugs, because “drugs are easy.”  So he took the drugs the doctors gave him, but he later decided that the drugs he was prescribed, and the kinds of mood swings they provoked, were just too much, so he stopped.  The talker’s behavior, the bartender explained, was showing the signs of the drugs he was prescribed for his PTSD.  His behavior wasn’t his fault.

We had no way of knowing for sure, of course, whether the talker in fact had PTSD as a result of his military service, because he hadn’t talked about it — but the bartender’s comments had the obvious ring of truth.  It turns out that the bartender’s view of the VA’s actions isn’t unique; it’s not hard to find news stories that talk about the VA’s approach to prescribing drugs to returning veterans and question its value.

I felt bad for doubting a guy who had served his country, been scarred by the experience, and wasn’t getting the help he really needed to deal with his issues and return to civilian society.  And I wondered just how many returning veterans deal with PTSD and why the government that sent them over to fight hasn’t come up with an effective approach to a common problem.

It’s just not right.

Tanks To All Of Our Veterans

IMG_7450Today was the Columbus Veterans’ Day parade, which means high school bands, flatbed truck floats, and marching veterans.  And, of course a rare tank on the streets of downtown Columbus — which occasioned the bad pun in the headline of this post.

Most sincere thanks to all of our veterans for their service!

Happy Independence Day!

As if in recognition of the bright meaning of independence, the sun has actually appeared in the skies of central Ohio on this Fourth of July.  After weeks of drab skies and rain, it is like a giant fireworks display.  Its warming presence will help all of us celebrate Independence Day with a positive spirit.

IMG_5967At some point during this day of parades, cookouts, sparklers, and ice cream cones, we should all pause for a moment and soberly recall that liberty and freedom have not been gained and secured without enormous cost.  Yesterday on my walk home from the office I stopped by the veterans memorial plaza in front of the Ohio Statehouse to read some of the letters that remind us starkly of the sacrifices so many have made on our behalf.

If you go to a Fourth of July parade today, be sure to give the veterans passing by a heartfelt salute and a standing ovation. After 239 years, we still need those dedicated men and women on the front lines, protecting our country and our freedom from those who wish to do us harm.  We owe them, and their families, more than we can properly express.

 

Thank You

The Revolutionary War.  The War of 1812.  The Civil War.  The Spanish-American War.  World War I.  World War II.  The Korean War.  The Vietnam War.  The Gulf War.  The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

So many wars — and those are just the ones that have official names.  In between there have been countless smaller conflicts and instances of service, where members of the armed forces have fought against the Barbary pirates, or rescued hostages, or delivered crucial supplies to survivors of hurricanes or earthquakes.  And in the middle of it all has been the individual Americans serving in the Navy, the Army, the Marines, the Air Force, or the Coast Guard, who have safeguarded our shores, fought against the oppressors, and delivered help in times of need — and often made the ultimate sacrifice.

To those who have fallen, to those who have served, to the veterans and to the active members of the armed forces:  Thank you.

Remember The Reason

 

 

This morning I bought a poppy — an artificial one, to be sure, but the sentiment was there nevertheless — from a vet wearing a VFW cap standing at the corner of Broad and Third.  The red poppies remind us that Memorial Day isn’t just about a three-day weekend and cookouts, it’s about a lot more.

This weekend, take a moment to remember, then thank a vet.

The Best Way To Say Thank You On Memorial Day

On Memorial Day, we remember those who have given their lives that we might live in freedom and we express our gratitude to those who have served on our behalf.

This Memorial Day, what better way to say thank you to those who have perished, those who have served in the past, and those who are serving now than to ensure that we show our appreciation in tangible ways when their service has ended?  That means hiring veterans and helping them when they have returned to civilian life, thanking members of the military whenever we see them, and — above all — committing our nation to providing a Veterans Administration that serves our returning veterans as capably as they have served this country.

The current VA scandal is shameful.  Fixing the VA and its broken culture so that our veterans receive prompt and top-quality medical care is not a political issue, it is a matter of fulfilling a fundamental moral obligation.  Whether we do it by cleaning house from the VA secretary on down, getting rid of administrators who think it is appropriate to falsify data and cover up the terrible failings at their facilities, and starting over, or by scrapping the VA hospital and medical system entirely and giving veterans coverage that allows them to receive medical care from the same hospitals and doctors as the rest of us, we must do something to solve this problem.  We should thank the whistleblowers who called attention to the VA’s problems, and we should hold President Obama and his Administration accountable and demand that they stop the endless studies and act.

On this Memorial Day, we thank our veterans and men and women in uniform, but the best thank you is for the United States to fix a broken system that has let our veterans down.

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.

Closing The Memorials

Some time ago I mentioned the fabled Washington, D.C. tale about laying off the elevator operator of the Washington Monument.  If funding was cut for the Department of Interior, the tale went, the elevator operator would top the layoff list — the reasoning being that inconvenienced tourists would apply pressure to restore the funding so they could ride in comfort to the top of the towering obelisk at the center of the National Mall.

With the recent partial government shutdown, the bureaucrats apparently went one step farther.  They closed the open memorials along the Washington, D.C. National Mall, including the vast World War II Memorial.  It’s not entirely clear why these open-air memorials would need to be closed; the stated reason was that the National Park Service was worried about the security of the memorials and the safety of visitors without the normal staff there.  So, some apparently essential employees had to erect physical barricades to keep people out who would otherwise be able to walk freely through the memorials, without the assistance of federal employees.

Then, groups of veterans appeared — World War II veterans, and Korean War veterans, and their families.  Elderly men in wheelchairs and using canes, they had traveled far to pay tribute and remember their service to their country, only to be denied entry by the barricades and signs.  After they were initially rebuffed, someone moved the barricades and the veterans poured through, to recall their service and lay the wreaths in honor of their fallen comrades, without any security or safety issues.

It was an embarrassing incident for our federal government, and it showed that the elevator operator theory only works when the federal funding reason for the inconvenience seems plausible.  When open air memorials are unnecessarily barricaded, and aged, stooped veterans wearing their medals and insignia are denied entry to war memorials that were built to honor their service, the elevator operator theory suddenly doesn’t seem like such a good idea, does it?

Thank You To Our Veterans

It’s November 11 — Veterans’ Day.

Thank you to all veterans for your commitment, for your dedication, and for your service.  You have manned the trenches, scrambled onto the bloody beaches, piloted the planes through anti-aircraft fire, driven the tanks, tended the grievously wounded, and done the other terrible but necessary things that have kept our country safe and free.  All Americans — and all peoples who have been freed from tyranny through your efforts — deeply appreciate the sacrifices our veterans have endured, and grieve at the losses that the families of all who have served in the military have suffered.

Freedom doesn’t come cheaply.  It is our soldiers and our veterans who have paid the steepest price for our liberty.  For that, we are forever grateful.

The First Lady’s Difficult Job

The First Lady’s job — and I think we all need to view it as a job like any other — is a difficult one that has changed over the years.  Ever since First Ladies moved beyond serving as the gracious White House hostess (and behind-the-scenes influencer of presidential decision-making) to become public figures in their own right, they have been expected to champion a  cause that commands broad public support and serve a kind of above-the-political-fray role in the national zeitgeist.  Some First Ladies — Hillary Clinton comes to mind — seem to have chafed a bit at the limitations imposed by this traditional role.

By all accounts, Michelle Obama has been a fine First Lady who has filled the expected role admirably.  She serves as a role model for many, and she has been an effective advocate for returning veterans and their families and for combating the scourge of childhood obesity.  No one disputes the country’s need to help our veterans, and whether you agree or disagree with how to deal with childhood obesity — and, specifically, how much of a role the government should play in specifying what children should eat, how much exercise they should get, and what should happen if they become morbidly obese — no one denies that encouraging children to eat right, get exercise, and avoid weight problems is a good thing.

Lately the First Lady’s role seems to be changing again, as First Ladies, and potential First Ladies, have begun to make major speeches at political conventions.  There is some tension between that activity and the First Lady’s traditional role as a kind of non-partisan national figure.  Some have dealt with that tension by confining their remarks to extolling the good qualities and hard work of their presidential spouse, how they have been good and caring fathers and husbands despite the weight of their duties in the Oval Office.  That kind of testimonial has been accepted as appropriate:  what loving spouse wouldn’t support her husband and be happy to describe his virtues?

Last night Michelle Obama gave her prime-time address to the Democratic National Convention, and I wonder if in doing so she hasn’t presaged another shift in the role of First Lady.  Mrs. Obama spoke eloquently of President Obama’s character, beliefs, and values, his important role as loving father to their two daughters, and how her story and his story touch upon the well-visited themes of the American Dream — but she also mounted a more full-throated defense of the President’s policy positions than you would expect in a “traditional” First Lady’s speech.  Mrs. Obama did it graciously but also unmistakeably, leading some to wonder whether, like Hillary Clinton before her, she may have her own political career in the future.

This shouldn’t be surprising.  In the modern world, where the endless campaigns demand so much commitment from candidates and their families and political spouses of both genders often are highly accomplished professionals in their own right, it is unreasonable to expect that presidential spouses will simply serve as an ever-smiling, neutral national symbol who never speaks a controversial word.  Perhaps it is time to accept that First Ladies — and First Gentlemen — can properly be advocates for the policies their spouses support and be recognized as such.  In the successful marriages I am familiar with, spouses tend to strongly and vocally support what each other are doing in their jobs and the goals they are striving for in those jobs.  Why should political spouses be any different?