Friday, May 30, 2014

The VA Scandal, More Of The Same

I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!
     - Captain Louis Renault, Vichy Official, Casablanca


Addendum and update at the end of the essay // Jim



On this Memorial Day weekend, you may, if you like, picture me making the “I’m shocked, shocked I tell you!” face.

So there’s chicanery and malfeasance in the Veterans Administration, is there?

The VA hospital in Phoenix diddled the books, did they?

Administrators shuffled ailing vets into secret waiting lists, delaying medical treatment for months, maybe years, in order to pump up the hospital’s stats and make it look like they were meeting the goals established by President Obama for prompt service.

Veterans, some forty and maybe more, died while awaiting treatment – whether or not any of the deaths can be directly linked to deferred access is still undetermined.

And now it’s emerging that this practice of secret lists and deliberately delayed care might be far more widespread within the Department of Veterans Affairs than just the Phoenix hospital.

Outrageous, isn’t it?

I mean, you’re outraged, right? Well of course you are.

The country is outraged in patriotic indignation. This is bullshit! We should treat our heroes better than that!

Congress is outraged, oh boy are they ever, and they’re going to get to the bottom of it, you bet!

The President is outraged, and by God heads are going to roll! Sure they will!

Don’t worry, Veterans, things are gonna change! America won’t stand for this injustice!

Heh heh.

That’s great, Folks. Really. Thanks for dropping by, thanks for coming, drive safely, and, please, don’t forget to take your outrage with you – we veterans have plenty of our own and frankly I don’t need any extra.


No, really, thanks for the fierce indignation, America. We appreciate it, we surely do, but you’re more than a few decades late.


This is nothing new.

This kind of bureaucratic flimflam when it comes to taking care of veterans? It’s been going on for years, for decades, from one war to the next and all the timeless space in between. And it’s not confined to the Veterans Administration.

It’s been happening in Phoenix and San Diego and New York City and New Orleans and Biloxi and Anchorage and Washington D.C. and from sea to shining sea. 

This latest thing? The appalling revelation that the Phoenix VA was cooking the books in order to meet impossible deadlines and levels of throughput? That administrators were hiding unacceptable delays in service and care in order to get themselves monetary bonuses and to pad their resumes? The fact that veterans died waiting for the care they faithfully earned and rightfully deserve? Yeah. That’s not outrage you see on our faces, and it sure isn’t surprise, it’s amused resignation.

We’re used to it.

We’re used to being disposable assets.

We’re used to being left to die by bureaucrats and politicians and the American public.

We’re used to being forgotten when the nation doesn’t need us anymore.

Oh, please, don’t bother. I’m not looking for sympathy or any more feigned outrage, I’ve had plenty.

And you certainly don’t have to take my word for it, ask any veteran.  Ask your fathers and grandfathers why when they returned from Korea and Vietnam and The Gulf and took off their uniforms they didn’t even bother with the VA unless they had no other choice. You think this is something new? Go on, ask ‘em, I’ll wait.

And now?

Now after more than a decade of war, after many decades of endless lines and endless bean-counters and endless delays and endless waits and endless lost records and the endlessly misplaced paperwork and the endless institutionalized incompetence and the endless excuses and the endless unending VA shuffle, now you’re upset? 

After five years of an intransigent, deadlocked, do-nothing Congress who’d rather chase hysterical manufactured conspiracies and beat their fleshy chests in faux-patriotic fever, who’ll enthusiastically fork over hundreds of billions for fancy new jets and ships and tanks so long as that hardware is manufactured in their own districts, who drive past homeless needy vets every single day, and gleefully refuse to pass a veterans jobs bill or to fully fund veterans services in their own districts or any other, after five years of this capering self-serving congressional bullshit, now you’re pissed off?

Now you want blood?

Now you want an accounting?


By all means, go ahead, America, knock yourself out. That’s great, it really is. 

Forgive me though if I don’t hold my breath.

Here’s the thing: speaking from personal experience, the truly ironic part here is that the VA of today, the VA under Eric Shinseki and Barack Obama, is orders of magnitude better than it has ever been.

Ever. Under any administration.

Over the last five years, things have steadily improved. They’re a long way from perfect but they’re a long long way from what they were when this war began thirteen years ago. Most of the peeling paint and the mildew and the banal uninterested bureaucracy is gone, not all but most of it. 

It took more than seven months for me to get enrolled in the system after I retired from the Navy despite having started the process six month before I punched out.  It took a friend of mine nearly two years, and I know plenty of fellow vets who’ve waited as long or longer. And it’s damned frustrating. That said, every single VA employee, every one from the coffee shop barista in the lobby to the various administrators and clerks and bean counters to the numerous doctors that I’ve dealt with since my retirement in 2007 have been polite, professional, respectful, attentive, and as helpful as is humanly possible in such a massive and overworked organization.

The times to get an appointment have often been long, but the system is saturated and there are plenty of my brothers and sisters in arms far worse off than me, I didn’t mind the delay – but then I’m not dying, it only feels like I am most of the time.

Ten years ago, my father, a Korean War Navyman who had contemptuously avoided the VA for five decades was finally convinced to take his discharge papers and see what the VA could do for an old vet with terminal COPD. And they did wonders. They restored his hearing with state of the art hearing-aids, they outfitted him with oxygen and a mobility scooter and a powered chair-lift up the stairs of my parent’s old farmhouse. The VA treated my dad with dignity and respect and kindness and they gave him a decade with a significantly improved quality of life – something he never would have had otherwise. 

The VA of today is vastly better than it has ever been. And that is a provable fact.

Now, certainly that doesn’t excuse malfeasance in the administration of Phoenix’s VA Hospital, but the thousands of hardworking dedicated members of the VA who show up every single day and give one hundred percent of themselves over to caring for veterans – some under the most heartbreaking of circumstance – shouldn’t be tarred with the same brush.

But, of course, they will be, because most Americans are too lazy and too uninformed and too uninterested to gather actual facts or speak to actual veterans or be bothered to actually think.  They’re told to be outraged, and so they are – and they don’t care why, it’s just another reason to hate the president and the government and the people on the other side of the political spectrum and that’s good enough.

The simple truth of the matter is that if America actually cared about its veterans, cared enough to do more than slap a yellow ribbon magnet on the back of their SUVs and feign outrage on command, well, we wouldn’t be having this conversation, would we?

No, I’m actually not bitter, not at all.  Why would I be? I come from a military family, I knew what I was getting into, and after two and a half decades of military service my expectations aren’t particularly high to begin with.  I wish it was better, but it could certainly be worse – and has been.

Let me read the tea leaves here:

Nothing will change.

We’ll rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic, polish a few turds, round up the usual suspects, and nothing will change.

Oh, sure, a couple VA administrators will suddenly find other jobs, that’s a given.

And Eric Shinseki’s days are certainly numbered, pretty soon he’ll be down at the VFW having a desultory beer with Colin Powell and amusedly ruminating on how jungle warfare was easier, and safer, for an old soldier than serving in a cabinet position. At least when you were knee-deep in a Southeast Asian rice paddy you knew who the enemy was and they were only trying to kill you – not to mention the communist Vietcong were a more intelligent, forthright, honorable, and downright likable enemy than the US Congress.

I read Representative Tammy Duckworth’s opinion about Eric Shinseki’s management of the VA. I tend to respect Duckworth a great deal, for her service and for her outspoken take-no-prisoners honesty and intelligence. She’s one of the few people in Congress that I do respect.  If anybody – if anybody – is an expert on every facet of the service provided by the VA, it’s Tammy Duckworth, she’s not only a decorated veteran, still on active duty in the reserves despite the loss of both her legs in active combat, and a daily user of her VA hospital, but she also served under Shinseki as a Deputy Secretary for Veterans Affairs. The woman knows what she’s talking about, in great exacting detail, and you should take the time to read the interview linked to above. Duckworth thinks Shinseki should stay on. I respect her opinion, sincerely, and I agree with her reasoning. I’ll go her one further and say that I think public officials should be required to clean up their messes before being allowed to quit.

But somebody has to be the scapegoat in this affair and history says that’s going to be Eric Shinseki.

Speaking of Congress, the House and Senate will puff up like big warty toads, they’ll bloviate and pontificate and croak out self-righteous indignation. Ribbit, ribbit. They’ll wax fat and fecund and shed salty crocodile tears for our poor poor American heroes. They’ll pound their mighty chests and wave the flag and rage on about patriotism – and then they’ll go back to their offices, bad mouth Lieutenant Colonel Tammy Duckworth under their collective breath, and vote yet again to cut funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs, veterans’ healthcare and mental health programs, veterans’ jobs programs, and homeless veteran initiatives right along with active duty military pay and benefits.  The war is over and they don’t need us anymore.

And once they manage to kick Eric Shinseki out of office, they’ll spend months dragging their feet and blocking the President’s nominee for a new secretary in order to score a few political points with their base. Then they’ll grin at each other and cash the lobbyists’ checks and act like they’ve actually done something to improve things.

Ask yourself something, if Congress really cared about veterans, I mean if they were really as concerned as they purport to be, then why was this brought to the public’s attention via a half-assed tabloid news outfit like CNN instead of the House Armed Services Committee? How come they didn’t know? How come it wasn’t veteran senator John McCain, since this happened in his district? When was the last time Arizona Senator Jeff Flake checked his email? Arizona has nine Representatives in their House delegation, four republicans and five democrats, so where were they? Veterans in Arizona have been complaining to them for years about these problems. I guess they were too busy with Benghazi and birth certificates and the definition of marriage and shutting down the government to notice.

The GOP is already licking its lips and squealing happily in orgasmic glee. At last, at long, long last they’ve got themselves an actual, no fooling, authentic scandal that they can hang around Obama’s neck and ride into November and maybe beyond if they can just find a way to couple it to Hillary Clinton, and they will. Hooray! They don’t care so much for the plight of veterans as much as they can’t wait to milk this sucker for all the political cream they can get. 

Senate Democrats are in defensive posture, no doubt they’ll be blaming Bush any minute now, hoping desperately that nobody notices that they’re just as culpable for the lack of funding and oversight. Just like their conservative counterparts, their real concern is how this will affect their chances at the polls come November.

And, of course, President Obama will take his lumps, as he must. He’s the Commander in Chief, the VA is part of the Executive Branch, and this happened on his watch. He is ultimately responsible even though this is nothing new, and even though the VA has vastly improved under his administration, and even though nothing will really change. Everything the President, and especially the First Lady, have done to improve the lot of veterans will be drowned in a flood of political theater as his enemies turn up their collective lip in sneering contempt and shout, “See? See? That stinking liberal Obama doesn’t care about our heroes! Told ya!”

And nothing will change.

That’s the sad, simple truth of the matter right there: nothing will change.

Nothing will change because the America people don’t give enough of a damn to actually do something about it. The war is over, they don’t need us anymore. They’ve been walking past veterans for years, decades, hell, centuries. They wave the flag on Memorial Day and Veterans Day and slap a $5 made in China magnet on the back of their cars and call it good. And they’re more interested in blame than they are in correcting the problem.

The problem isn’t Barack Obama.

The problem isn’t George W. Bush.

The problem isn’t Eric Shinseki, or whoever takes the fall for this.

The problem is systemic and a symptom of a much larger malaise.

The problem is an ineffective deadlocked Congress who’ve abdicated their actual constitutional responsibilities and oversight for conspiracy theories and witch hunts, hysteria mongering and political theater.  If these people had put but one tenth of their efforts into responding to their veteran constituents as they did chasing after blowjobs and Benghazi, if they would have allocated but a hundredth of the funds to veterans affairs as they wasted on cancelled weapons programs and pork barrel projects, if they had put half the effort into creating jobs for veterans as they did into protecting those who continue to liquidate American businesses and ship American jobs overseas, well then veterans wouldn’t be dying while waiting for treatment.

This weekend is Memorial Day, a day we Americans set aside to remember those who died in uniform while serving their country. There will be speeches and parades and wreaths will be laid upon the cold white granite.  Politicians, one by one, will take this opportunity to solemnly rail against the outrageous treatment of our veterans, with a sly wink and a nod towards November – and 2016 – using us just one more time.

Meanwhile tens of thousands of living veterans stand in line.


And it turns out that I’m not really surprised at all.

Realizing the importance of the case, my men are rounding up twice the usual number of suspects!
  - Captain Louis Renault


Addendum 5/30/14: Reprinted from my Facebook page (www.facebook.com/stonekettle)


And there it is.

Both sides of Congress, Republicans and Democrats, screamed and hollered and stomped their feet in feigned self-righteous indignation and got Shinseki to resign.

And so Shinseki did.

Yah! Wohoo! Hooray!

Exactly as I predicted here – not that it took any actual prescient powers or anything. Politicians are nothing if not predictable.

And now congress can claim they actually did something.

You know, without actually doing a goddamned thing.

There was no actual investigation - we've investigated Benghazi how many times now? Congress is all outraged over the deaths of four Americans in a war zone (one of which was a liberal ambassador and personal friend of Obama. And now you know how to get the GOP to care about Americans, all you have to do is kill them first. It’s pretty much exactly the same as their stance on abortion. Though on second thought, it doesn’t work for gun violence. You pays your money and you takes your chances, I guess). Meanwhile countless American Vets have died waiting for care in their own hospitals and not even a committee level review from Congress. Nothing.

There’s been no congressional review of procedure. No revision of process. No change in regulation. No realignment of VA staff, hell, the director of the Phoenix VA Hospital where this all started is still out on paid leave. Congress hasn’t expanded veterans services. No increase in funding. No attempt to address the real problem, the systemic problems of an overburdened and inefficient system designed to care for senior administrators and not the veterans it’s actually supposed to help. None of the problems identified in the Inspector Generals report have been taken up by a Congress more concerned with election year grandstanding than those who fought and bled in conflicts Congress sent them into, ill equipped and ill prepared by that self-same Congress.

Instead, they got rid of Shinseki. That'll fix it!

And they cut the head off the organization just when it needed leadership the most. And now they'll spend the next two months delaying confirmation of his replacement and preening for the cameras and making election year hay from the dimwitted masses.

Not only did Congress not listen to veterans regarding veteran’s issues, members of congress who've never worn a uniform told veterans to fuck right off – but in retrospect you shouldn’t be surprised, given that this is the same outfit who holds committee hearings on women’s health … and bans women from the proceedings.

But, yay, they did something and it didn't cost America a single penny. Congratulations. Well done, bonuses and reelections all around.

And now America can get back to the usual business of waving the flag and pretending to give a shit.

See ya on Veterans Day, fellas!

Addendum 2:

Well, well, well, I must have pushed somebody's button.

This article is seeing a sudden and massive number of page hits from Department of Veterans Affairs, US House of Representatives, and US Senate servers. Be interesting to see if my next VA appointment gets cancelled, won't it?

I note that not one of you congressmen or senators, or your staff as the case may be, have the guts to weigh in. Thanks for the form letters though, as institutional indifference goes, that’s a nice touch.

Ah, hell, you know, in retrospect, maybe I am a little bitter after all.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Thank You For Your Service!


Veterans hear that a lot nowadays.

We’ll hear it everywhere today – even though Memorial Day isn’t really about us, those veterans still among the living.

Thank you for your service.

As a veteran, and as somebody who has a moderately large social media following and internet footprint, I get asked how I feel about that phrase on a fairly regular basis.

Thank you for your service.

As a veteran who typically wears one of my various ratty old Navy sweatshirts around, I get thanked for my service daily. Alaskan businesses are big on giving out military discounts, both to active duty military personnel and very often to retirees as well (which is damned unusual and which I sincerely appreciate), and so I often flash my retired military ID at the register or maybe the waitress spots it when I pull out my wallet to pay for a meal, and in addition to the discount I get thanked for my service.

Thank you for your service.

Some vets enjoy being thanked for their service.

Many are ambivalent.

Some are irritated or embarrassed or angry at being reminded of things they'd rather forget. And some just plain don't give a damn.

Many are sick of hearing it.

And that’s okay. Each of us deals with our service in our own way.

Thank you for your service.

It often feels hollow, a stock phrase that get tossed about nowadays, all run together like a sound clip on fast-forward: tankewfoyerserviceandhaveaniceday!

Thank you for your service. 

Me? I don't mind.

I take it in the spirit offered, just like the discount.

If it seems sincere, I nod and thank them sincerely in return for their thoughts - and why not?

You know, many folks truly do appreciate the sacrifices and dedication. Many truly do respect those who stand the watch out there in the dark and dangerous corners of the world, day in and day out year after year. They truly do admire their fellow citizens and it makes them proud to know they live in a nation that whatever its flaws and whatever its problems and whatever its divides still produces in boundless quantity men and women of such resolute character that they are willing to voluntarily place their own precious selves between home and war's desolation. 

Some folks thank us because they don't know what else to do, or because they wish they could do more. Because they’re embarrassed that they themselves didn’t serve. Or because they’re embarrassed that our lives are wasted out there in wars and conflicts they vehemently disagree with.

Some of those people? The one who offer up thanks? They're vets too and you can see it in their eyes, the respect.  They say thank you for your service because they know. They know. Because they’ve been out there.  And because they just enjoy talking to another vet and that thanks is a way to open conversation with a stranger, with a brother or sister you just haven’t met yet, in the checkout line.

And so, when they offer up sincere thanks, I sincerely appreciate it in return and why the hell not? 

Just like the discount, I don’t expect it, and I surely don’t demand it as my due, but, you know, I’ll take it in humble gratitude if offered.

A young man recently thanked me for my service. He was 18, maybe 19, working his way through the Alaskan summer, earning money for college as a crewman on a glacier viewing ship I happened to be a passenger on.  He thanked me and he meant it, eyes wide with respect and admiration. He said he was thinking about joining the reserves. I spoke to him for a while as the ship returned to dock, offering up a bit of crusty old Warrant Officer advice - because that's part of it too, paying it back, giving respect back in exchange for respect given, encouraging the next generation.  Agree with how the military and we veterans have been used over the last few decades, or not, you have to stand in admiration and respect for a generation of young people who are still willing to don the uniform and go forth under the Stars and Stripes. They have every reason not to, and yet they still go and that should tell you everything you need to know about them. America will be in good hands when these kids take over, you have only to look around to see it.

Thank you for your service.

Oh sure, sometimes it's tendered reflexively out of America's collective guilt. Guilt at how we treated the previous generation of warriors, the ones that came home from Korea and Vietnam. 

That’s okay, the guilt.

Sincere or not, being reflexively thanked for your service is a damned sight better than being spit on or called a baby killer.

You can tell, when it’s out of guilt. I nod and smile and move on, perfectly willing to accept a belated thanks for my comrades in arms, in the names of the ones that came before me, the ones that are no longer with us and to whom we honor on this Memorial Day.

I accept those guilty thanks, not for me but for them, because that’s what we were trained to do in the military, look out for each other, leave no one behind.

Thank you for your service.

And yes, sometimes it’s just a stock phrase, thankewferurservice.

And so what?

I take it in the spirit offered with a polite stock “thanksapprecitit” in return.  Just like the discount, sincere or not, offered only to get me into the store, whatever, I’ll take it and why the hell not? These people don’t owe me anything. I didn’t serve so America would owe me or give me a military discount.  As a veteran, especially one who served of your own free will, you start thinking that the country should kowtow to you over your service, you’re headed down a dangerous road of resentment. Look around, there is a certain fraction of disgruntled vets who do feel that way and unhappy miserable bastards they are, one and all. If the military taught you anything, it should have taught you that your personal happiness doesn’t depend on anybody else.  You have the respect of your comrades in arms, the ones who know, what else do you need?

Thank you for your service.

Today is about thanking those who fell in the service of their country.

Many of those thanks are heartfelt and sincere. Some of that gratitude is out of guilt, perhaps, or out of duty, or self-serving political agendas. Some is nothing more than simple gratitude for a day off to spend with family and friends for whatever cause.

And that’s okay.

Thanks are not required, in America we revere the warrior no more than any other citizen and that is exactly as it should be.

But if you find the time today, take a moment and raise a glass to those who have fallen in your name. Do it so that they are not forgotten, if only briefly.

And then go on, live your lives, be free, because that’s the best way to honor them.


To all of you who have served, the living and the dead, as always, thank you.

- Chief Warrant Officer Jim Wright USN(ret)