Montel Williams: The VA Scandal is a National Outrage that is Merely a Symptom of a Greater Problem

Having served 22 years in the military before beginning my career in television, words do not exist to adequately express how enraged I am at this egregious failure of leadership and breakdown of process.

A delay in care for our veterans is shameful in and of itself; however, the apparent existence of a widespread scheme to avoid disclosure of the backlog is nothing short of a travesty. Veterans have reportedly died as a proximate result of this political game of hide-a-cup and the resulting national outrage is deservedly swift and fierce.

We owe a lifetime commitment to those who have risked their lives for the freedoms afforded to us on a daily basis and this commitment should be a matter of national pride – a staple of who we are and what we stand for as American citizens.

AP
AP 

Certainly, those responsible for this atrocity should be held to account. The families of those who have suffered and died needlessly deserve nothing less.

Yet, as history has proven time and time again, our political system prefers to focus on finger pointing rather than solving problems. Amidst the endless debating of whether or not Secretary Eric Shinseki should resign, what everyone seems to have missed is that we desperately need to take the patients – OUR veterans – OFF THE BATTLEFIELD, especially the political one.

[sharequote align=”center”]We desperately need to take our veterans off the battlefield, especially the political one.[/sharequote]

 

Convincing ourselves that stripping someone of their title or position is an actual solution to the greater problem at hand is akin to putting a Band-Aid on a freshly lost limb: it solves absolutely nothing. Instead, lawmakers need to roll up their sleeves and do some real work together.

We have been at war for nearly 13 years, and while our troops were on the front lines receiving mortar fire and avoiding cleverly hidden improvised explosive devises, we had plenty of time to plan for the increased cumulative stress on the Veterans Affairs system.

Yes, the VA budget has increased to “record” highs in recent years, but to suggest that it has expanded enough to account for the amplified strain placed on the system by the fighting in the Middle East is illogical at best and downright deceitful at its core.

PUL-E ALAM, AFGHANISTAN - MARCH 29: SGT Kurtis Scheinder from Detroit, Michigan with the U.S. Army's 2nd Battalion 87th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division patrols on the edge of a village outside of Forward Operating Base (FOB) Shank on March 29, 2014 near Pul-e Alam, Afghanistan. The primary mission of soldiers with the 10th Mountain Division stationed at FOB Shank is to advise and assist Afghan National Security Forces in the region. The soldiers continue to patrol outside the FOB in an effort to decrease rocket attacks on the FOB from the nearby villages. Security is at a heightened state throughout Afghanistan as the nation prepares for the April 5th presidential election. Scott Olson/Getty Images
SGT Kurtis Scheinder from Detroit, Michigan with the U.S. Army’s 2nd Battalion 87th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division patrols on the edge of a village outside of Forward Operating Base (FOB) Shank on March 29, 2014 near Pul-e Alam, Afghanistan. The primary mission of soldiers with the 10th Mountain Division stationed at FOB Shank is to advise and assist Afghan National Security Forces in the region. The soldiers continue to patrol outside the FOB in an effort to decrease rocket attacks on the FOB from the nearby villages. Security is at a heightened state throughout Afghanistan as the nation prepares for the April 5th presidential election. Scott Olson/Getty Images 

Considering this, what steps can we take to ensure that the VA receives the funding it deserves and if it does, what assurances do we have that the increased expenditures will be used to clear the existing backlog as opposed to subsidizing more waste?

I’ve not deluded myself to think that I can adequately answer these questions on my own, and at the same time – given the state of our political system – I’m not sure we ought to place any trust in Congress or the VA to answer them either.

Does that mean we’re stuck between a rock and a hard place? If so, let’s be clear that it will be of our own making.

Consider this thought – what if the president were to order the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, whomever it be, in collaboration with the Secretaries of Defense and Health and Human Services,  to report back, within 30 days, with plans to execute a 90-day “surge” using the existing health care resources of the various departments and such civilian support as may be necessary to entirely clear the backlog and establish a baseline such that we can accurately judge the resources needed to provide timely care to every veteran and honor the commitment that seems sadly to have been broken.

If need be, Congress should appropriate such funds as may be necessary to do so.

In many ways, finger pointing is the smartest political move. It looks good to the masses and checks off the proverbial due diligence boxes. Better yet, it distracts people from the far bigger task at hand: figuring out how to meet the rising demand for health care services at the VA.

U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki listens to members speak during a Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee hearing that is focusing on wait times veterans face to get medical care May 15, 2014 in Washington, DC. The American Legion called Monday for the resignation of Shinseki amid reports by former and current VA employees that up to 40 patients may have died because of delayed treatment at an agency hospital in Phoenix, Arizona. Credit Mark Wilson/Getty Images
U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki listens to members speak during a Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing that is focusing on wait times veterans face to get medical care May 15, 2014 in Washington, DC. The American Legion called Monday for the resignation of Shinseki amid reports by former and current VA employees that up to 40 patients may have died because of delayed treatment at an agency hospital in Phoenix, Arizona. Credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images 

One Congressional Budget Office analyst predicted that it may require as much as a 75 percent increase in inflation-adjusted dollars. With many in Congress bent on indiscriminately cutting the federal budget at all costs, I seriously question whether our elected leaders have the courage in sufficient numbers to even begin to tackle this issue if they know the end result could be spending more money.

This is alarmingly contradictory, as we’ve repeatedly seen that Congress has no problem routinely wasting billions of dollars on airplanes that the military doesn’t want and funneling taxpayer dollars into any number of other ridiculously inflated and unnecessary programs – eliminating just a few would likely be sufficient to fund what I propose here. Therefore, I simply refuse to accept the notion that we lack sufficient resources to fund something so pivotal to who we all claim to be as Americans.

This problem is not new, nor is it limited to this president, this secretary or this Congress. In fact the president’s speech this week simply illustrates the problem and the need to take veterans off the battlefield.

The president’s remarks last week could have been taken to imply that the government’s steadfast refusal to stand behind some of Blue Water Vietnam veterans who were exposed to Agent Orange was fixed – it is not – imagine how many of the 75,000 or so veterans in that category called in thinking they would finally get help only to be heartbroken yet again?

Even one is too many for me, and it’s just one example of decades of mismanagement when it comes to the care of our veterans.

U.S. Military veteran and amputee Lloyd Epps has reflective devices placed on his body by Jason Maikos, director of the gait and motion analysis lab at the Veterans Administration (VA), hospital on January 29, 2014 in Manhattan, New York City. Epps, who lost his leg to an infection in 2010, wears a hightech custom prosthetic leg from the VA which actually powers his gait forward. At the gait and motion lab patients are fitted with reflectors which are filmed by multiple cameras and later analyzed to help them improve mobility after losing limbs. Credit John Moore/Getty Images
U.S. Military veteran and amputee Lloyd Epps has reflective devices placed on his body by Jason Maikos, director of the gait and motion analysis lab at the Veterans Administration (VA), hospital on January 29, 2014 in Manhattan, New York City. Epps, who lost his leg to an infection in 2010, wears a hightech custom prosthetic leg from the VA which actually powers his gait forward. At the gait and motion lab patients are fitted with reflectors which are filmed by multiple cameras and later analyzed to help them improve mobility after losing limbs. Credit: John Moore/Getty Images

One thing I know for sure is that there are few obligations more fundamentally American than the keeping our collective promise, a sacred one in my opinion, to care for those who have served and are currently serving.

As you read this, whether it be while sipping your coffee or lounging in your comfortable chair, consider that at this very moment some active duty enlisted man or woman is hunkered down in a country you’ve only seen pictures of avoiding incoming fire. At the same time, an aging veteran lives every day suffering from service related injuries of wars past – that is the human cost of the freedom you’re exercising right now.

How dare we not do everything in our power to hold up our end of the bargain? A powerful question and one I hope we all take time to consider with Memorial Day upon us – saying “I support the troops” used to be in vogue, it’s time we mean it.

See Montel’s passionate speech to a group of veterans in South Carolina on Memorial Day.

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