Yesterday, congressional candidate Tammy Duckworth spoke at the Democratic National Convention. Duckworth, a former Army officer who served in Iraq as a Black Hawk pilot under President Bush and subsequently as Assistant Secretary of Veterans Affairs under President Obama, praised Obama for working to help veterans:
Then President Obama asked me to help keep our sacred trust with veterans of all eras at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. We worked to end the outrage of vets having to sleep on the same streets they once defended. We improved services for female veterans. I reached out to young vets by creating the Office for Online Communications.
Unfortunately, other testimony about the state of things at the Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA) is not as positive. According to an August 10 column by Al Poteet, a former Vietnam-era Army gunship pilot and former Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Department of Veterans Affairs, there is a backlog of 900,000 claims at the DVA. This number has grown significantly in the last several years. According to Poteet, "the growing backlog exists due to four external factors."
- Ten years of war with increased survival rates;
- Post-conflict downsizing of the military;
- Additional medical presumptive conditions; and
- Successful outreach encouraging more veterans to submit claims.
While all Americans should be grateful that increased survival rates have been a part of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that more veterans have been reached to submit claims for injuries received in service, the fact is that this backlog is not a new problem. From Poteet's column:
In fact, these four "external factors" actually parallel a similar situation that occurred at VA during and after the Vietnam War. However, in VBA, the past is often prolog so veterans continue to be subjected to more half-hearted plans that are essentially dilatory tactics by the Under Secretary's senior staff.
So the Simon Lagree's of VBA operations continue to trot out one lame horse after another to explain why the backlog now grows beyond their control.
By taking an old page from prior VBA game plans, the latest "transformation" appears to be designed to kick the can down the road for a few years beyond the 2012 elections while simultaneously claiming spectacular productivity improvements are right around the corner.
Nonetheless, the plain fact is VBA has had numerous, less than successful attempts to reinvent the bureaucracy usually ending with limited strategic success.
As usual, these "half-loaf" transformations sound plausible, complete with the kind of hype and hyperbole we have come to expect from the Under Secretary's staff.
This concern was given national attention by MSNBC host Rachel Maddow, who interviewed Rep. Bob Filner (D-CA), the Ranking Member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee about statements the Congressman made in a Committee hearing. According to Filner, "People die before they can get that final adjudication, or they may commit suicide." The interview, which is embedded into Poteet's column, is unflinchingly critical of the DVA's failure to take care of those who have served our nation so valiantly. As Filner -- a self-described opponent of the wars -- pointed out, veterans deserve all the care and respect a grateful nation can offer them, regardless of one's thoughts on the conflicts themselves.
The story about backlogs was first brought to my attention last week by Ed Timperlake, a former Marine fighter pilot and the first Assistant Secretary for Congressional and Public Affairs for the VA. He is also the editor of the site at which Poteet's column was published. According to Timperlake, he contacted the DVA about some of his own issues and was told there was a 500-day wait. When he asked whether the wait would be less if his issue was terminal -- theoretically, since Timperlake does not have a terminal illness -- the DVA told him the wait would be five months.
As always, veterans deserve all the care they have earned. Duckworth, who "lost both legs and part of the use of her right arm" in combat in 2004, knows that better than most. Unfortunately, her testimony praising Obama's efforts on behalf of young and female veterans pales in light of the kinds of delays Timperlake, Maddow, Filner, and Poteet are bringing to light.
Note: I contacted Duckworth's campaign for comment about the DVA's delays, but they were unable to get a comment to me before my deadline. If and when they respond, I will add an update.