The VA: a Culture of Disconnect
Many veterans feel disconnected with the VA. They regard it as a huge bureaucracy that is very impersonal and unhelpful. The vets get frustrated because they do not know where to turn for help. American Thinker interviewed veterans and others involved with the VA to reveal some personal examples and to see if the complaints are justified.
Perception is reality, and no matter how the VA administrators try to sugarcoat the problems, they still exist. Retired Army Colonel David Sutherland sees the problem as originating from the time the soldier makes the transition from military to civilian life. He explained that the troops deploy as units, not as individuals; yet, as they arrive home "the bonds formed on the battlefield are ripped apart which creates this disconnect. There must be a recognition that each vet is a unique individual."
Retired Army Major Ben Richards agrees, and cites his personal experience, having received a traumatic brain injury while fighting in Iraq. "I have such low regard for the VA. I have never been treated in my life as poorly as I had with the VA. I get more stress when I think about going there. My experience is that people blame others or pass the buck to someone else." He told his story of how a VA doctor reviewing his condition had not even read his records, and showed no personal regard for him. He considers himself one of the lucky ones since he was able to seek outside help from a doctor who is providing pro bono services.
A former Marine, Mike Liguori, who has written the book, The Sandbox, was diagnosed with PTSD. He also did not find the VA helpful because their prescribed treatment was to take medication. "My attitude was I don't want to take pills just because you tell me I will feel better. The person I dealt with was cold-hearted. They made me feel like they had no time for me. All they did was to take notes, never engaging with me, and after ten minutes decided to write me a pill prescription. I was never told about alternate forms of therapy. What finally helped me was working with someone on the outside who taught me meditation."
A former Army Sergeant is also very unhappy with the VA. She told American Thinker how a friend had PTSD and went to the VA for help, but was told he had to wait a few months to get an appointment. "What he ended up doing was smoking himself." A Veterans' Committee source told American Thinker that the average wait is 50 days for an initial consultation.
Everyone also has a complaint about the amount of paper work that must be filled out to get an appointment. Debbie Lee, whose organization America's Mighty Warriors, concurs, and describes all the documentation that must be filled out as a mountain of paperwork six feet tall.
Lee agrees with all the complaints regarding the VA. "In helping vets get issues resolved I have not heard very good things either. Many have to wait months to get an appointment, when they finally have that appointment they have to wait a huge amount of hours, and if they miss an appointment for some reason they must start the process over. There is also the problem of having to travel hours and having to take off a full day just to have an appointment. For example, a vet here in Arizona that I was helping had to travel forty-five minutes to get to the VA and after arriving was told the appointment was cancelled. It is despicable the way they are treated. The VA does not want to admit they are failing."
Pete Hegseth, a former Iraq and Afghanistan veteran who is now CEO for Concerned Veterans For America told American Thinker that there is also a problem with the backlog, that pending claims have risen from 300,000 when Obama became President to 900,000, causing an average wait time of approximately 273 days. According to Hegseth, part of the problem is that "the VA needs to join the 21st Century. Over 90% of the claims are still done on paper instead of digitally. Processing times suffer because of the delay created by the paperwork. The VA must adapt to a model that provides claim resolutions when and how veterans want, rather than when and how the department wants."
Part of the problem pointed out in the video Veteran Nation by James Carafano is that during and after each war there is a uniqueness to how the veterans are treated as well as the specific type of injuries. The Iraq and Afghanistan Wars have one out of three veterans coming home with either TBI or PTSD, so there is a time lag in getting up to speed with the amount of mental health counselors needed.
All interviewed agree that some VA employees have a culture of being entrenched in their jobs without much in the way of accountability. Congressman Tom Rooney (R-FLA), an Army veteran and a member of the House Armed Services Committee, sees a simple solution, "One step the VA can take to ensure its employees better understand the difficulties our veterans face, and are more motivated to serve them, is to hire more veterans. The Department might also work to identify the best practices across the country and implement those successful policies at VA centers that are struggling. For example, I have personally worked across the aisle and with the VA to cut through some red tape and make it easier for TRICARE beneficiaries to see licensed mental health counselors," which would double the number of mental health care providers for veterans.
A source from the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs confirmed that among some of the 300,000 VA employees there is a culture of complacency. His solution is to stop transferring those poorly performing employees and managers to other offices, and instead "to remove them from the VA altogether. That is why last year, as part of the Honoring America's Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act we passed legislation mandating regular training and assessment of VA employees in an attempt to bring more accountability to the system." He also pointed out that in the last six years the VA's mental health staff and budget have increased 40%; yet the significant increases did not result in significant performance outcomes. Also, the number of veterans waiting more than a year for benefits in 2009 was 11,000. Today it is 245,000, a 2,000 percent increase.
Even Jon Stewart is blasting the handling of Veterans' benefits, "That is f---- criminal. The VA has a backlog of 900,000 people. McDonalds handles ten times that many customers in an hour, and may I remind you they are run by a clown."
Colonel Sutherland sees a solution in a community-based approach. He noted that the VAs in Washington DC, Virginia, and Minnesota are very good in providing services. He also wants a "no wrong door" approach where every service and organization within the community knows the specialty of the others.
Debbie Lee agrees that there is definitely a need for a community-based point organization so a soldier does not have to do the research. She also supports the hiring of more vets to help the veterans, but suggests expanding the hiring process to families of vets as well, "The fire that burns in me is a passion that does not go out because I always see my son Marc, the first Navy SEAL killed in Iraq, and what he told me in his last letter, 'pass on the kindness, the love, the precious gift of human life, through random acts of kindness.' Who better to help, understand, and show compassion with passion than the family members."
Debbie wants Americans to get involved by being voices for the troops still serving and to call for a reform of the VA system. The VA administrators, regarding the challenges and the solutions, will better serve veterans if there is a realistic approach to solving the problems at hand, or as Pete Hegseth stated, "Failure to plan is planning to fail."
The author writes for American Thinker. She has done book reviews, author interviews, and has written a number of national security, political, and foreign policy articles.