Just a week ago we celebrated Memorial Day, a leisurely three-day weekend during which many Americans professed great love and admiration for the men and women of our nation’s military.
With the holiday behind us, now we have to ask this question: If we truly admire and respect those who have worn the uniforms of military service, why have we allowed the politicians and the bureaucrats to make such a mockery of the health care system we as a nation promised to provide our veterans?
Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki submitted his resignation Friday, a sacrificial scapegoat falling on his sword to buffer criticism from an administration in Washington that has seen yet another crucially important issue spiral hopelessly out of control.
But Shinseki wasn’t the problem, at least not alone. Nor can all the blame be heaped upon the current president, though certainly he has to carry his share. The truth of the matter is the VA health system has been eroding for decades, with tightened budgets, increased demand for services and general public apathy destroying the system like a cancer.
When it comes to moral outrage over abuses and neglect in the VA health system, we as a nation have a short attention span. We tend to react to each eruption of controversy with pious patriotism then allow the issue to fade away without resolution until the next inconceivable shortcoming is revealed.
The latest mortar shell lobbed at the VA system was from Phoenix, where we’ve learned veterans routinely were denied access to urgently needed treatment, sometimes for months. But we’ve heard the stories time and again over the years from virtually every major town that serves as home to a veterans’ facility.
Stories of veterans unable to be treated: In 2003, a survey of veterans showed the average wait time for a first appointment was seven months. Stories of shoddy facilities: In the early 1990s, ABC news did a series of undercover investigations showing VA hospitals that looked like medical facilities of third world countries. Stories of ineptness: In 2011, some 13,000 veterans who had been treated at a number of different facilities were warned they may have been exposed to potentially fatal infections by poor hygiene practices.
The problems with the VA aren’t new, but they are indicative of a nation that has failed to live up to the promise it has made to the men and women willing to put their lives on the line for their country and those things for which it stands.
Maybe this time will be different. Maybe this time the public will demand something more than lip service from politicians more than willing to kick the can down the road for the next regime to worry about. Maybe this time “we the people” will do the right thing and force the blockade of bureaucrats to break apart so that true reform can begin. Maybe this time the nation’s collective soul will be so repulsed by what it has allowed to happen to our veterans as to bring about the sort of political upheaval from which true change can emerge.
But don’t count on it. It’s too easy for us to sing the praises of our soldiers while the parade is marching by and then forget their existence for the remainder of the year.