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The biggest enemy for veterans

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POSTED May 23, 2014 1:16 a.m.

We tear up at the emotional TV commercials of soldiers returning home from a deployment; our airlines allow active duty military to board planes first; our politicians do anything they can to post photos standing with our service men and women.

Americans of all persuasions love our men and women in uniform. We thank them for their service and commitment, and are quick to say they fight for our way of life and our democratic principles.

So why do they have to fight harder at home to get their basic services than they do against any enemy on the battlefield? 

The shameful and despicable story of 40 veterans dying while on waitlists at a Veterans Administration center in Arizona is only the latest example of a country that routinely lets down its military.

Congress is holding hearings and demanding answers, but, truth be told, members of Congress are often part of the problem rather than the solution.

There should be no federal department operating more efficiently than the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. It should be the crown jewel of a president’s Cabinet, and the top-tier Cabinet members should value it more than any other appointment.

But the sad truth is that when a newly elected president picks his Cabinet, the VA is low on the totem poll. The Big Three — State, Defense, Department of Justice — are considered the creme de la creme; everything else is secondary. If you asked anyone in Washington, D.C., where the VA would rank with Education, Commerce, Energy, Homeland Security, Labor and the other departments, the VA would be at the bottom of the pile.

There were high hopes when President Barack Obama named Gen. Eric Shinseki, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to run the VA. But he hasn’t able to shake the Department of Veteran Affairs out of its laissez-faire attitude, and veterans continue to be frustrated by an inept bureaucracy that is more concerned about keeping their jobs than anything else.

This latest episode and its fatal complications should lead the president and Congress to say, “Enough is enough.” Just like the Obama administration called for all hands on deck to fix, the same sense of urgency should take place to fix the problems facing the VA. President Obama should devote one-on-one interviews focusing on the VA; Shinseki should be sent on every Sunday morning show to tell the American people the VA is fixing this Arizona crisis and similar ones nationwide; and anyone in the VA who is standing in the way of progress should be told to pack their belongings and get out.

Yes, the problems with the VA are that serious. They have been that way during the presidency of Obama, and go back to Bush, Clinton, Bush, Reagan, Carter, Ford, Nixon, Johnson, Eisenhower, and so on.

In fact, our troops had to march on Washington, D.C., after the American Revolution in order to get their promised compensation. Think about that. From day one, we as a nation have used their blood on the battlefield, and didn’t want to pay up when the bill became due.

Our veterans should not be on the streets homeless. They shouldn’t have skyrocketing unemployment. They should have the best of medical care and any other treatment they desire. But in order for that to happen, Americans have to care. We have to be willing to let our members of Congress know that the unacceptable conditions are a result of employees who don’t give a damn.

I have never put on a uniform in service of my country. But millions have and will, and I have great respect and admiration for them all. We send the wrong message by investing trillions of dollars in submarines, battleships, tanks, planes and weapons programs — championing that we have the best military the world has ever seen - without treating our veterans the same. 

Our veterans are not the enemy. Those who treat them with little regard and in such a callous way are the real enemy. This is an issue of accountability. It starts with leaders in D.C., moves to the VA workers, and then ends with all of us. We can’t be more outraged about Donald Sterling than we are at the treatment of our veterans. That means those of us not in D.C. must care about this decades-long crisis.

They deserve better, America. Not next week. Not tomorrow. Today. It’s time to #RespectOurVeterans.

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