To the Nation’s Veterans,
Over the course of the last few weeks, there has been a great deal of media coverage—rightly so—of the still-unfolding story coming out of the Department of Veterans Affairs regarding secret wait lists and other problems related to appointment scheduling at VA facilities. Last week, the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs heard from Secretary Shinseki, representatives of some of the Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs), and others.
While a great deal of the media coverage of the hearing has focused on what Secretary Shinseki said, and didn't say, much less has been seen of the testimony of the VSOs that testified. I wanted to take a brief moment to comment on that testimony.
First and foremost, I must recognize and commend the American Legion, National Commander Dan Dellinger, and the American Legion team for taking a principled stand, before the hearing and during it, and calling for leadership change at the VA. It is clear that the Legion has been listening to its membership about the challenges they face in gaining access to care, and has reached the conclusion that "enough is enough" and the status quo is indefensible. The Legion's membership has much to be proud of with the organization they support.
Regrettably, the Legion was alone among the VSOs that testified in taking such a stand. It became clear at the hearing that most of the other VSOs attending appear to be more interested in defending the status quo within VA, protecting their relationships within the agency, and securing their access to the Secretary and his inner circle. But to what end? What use is their access to senior VA staff, up to and including the Secretary, if they do not use their unprecedented access to a Cabinet Secretary to secure timely access to care for their membership? What hope is there for change within the VA if those closest to the agency don't use that proximity for the good of veterans across our country?
I believe the national and local commanders of every VSO have the interests of their members at heart, and take seriously their commitment to their members and their organization. Unfortunately, I no longer believe that to be the case within the Washington executive staff of the VSOs that testified. Last week’s hearing made it clear to me that the staff has ignored the constant VA problems expressed by their members and is more interested in their own livelihoods and Washington connections than they are to the needs of their own members.
I fear that change within the VA will not be possible unless and until these organizations also reconsider their role as well as the nature of their relationship with VA.
[Signature, Senator Richard Burr]
VFW Comment on Senator Burr’s Open Letter to Veterans
This letter is in response to the open letter you made available for distribution late Friday, May, 23, 2014. First and foremost Senator, I will afford you the same amount of respect you demonstrated for the Veterans of Foreign Wars by the monumental cheap-shot and posturing you’ve engaged in by enlisting in an absolutely disgusting ambush style of politics. Without the courtesy or benefit of conversation or dialogue with me or the VFW Adjutant General regarding your disagreement with VFW’s recent testimony to your committee, you chose instead to take the low road and question VFW’s motives and levy a pejorative personal attack on VFW staff. Senator, this is clearly one of the most dishonorable and grossly inappropriate acts that we’ve witnessed in more than forty years of involvement with the veteran community and breaches the standards of the United States Senate. Your allegations are ugly and
mean-spirited in every sense of the words and are profoundly wrong, both logically and morally. Quite frankly Senator, you should be ashamed.
The VFW staff you chose to rebuke and whose principles you have questioned walk the walk. They’ve been there, done that and some of them have the scars to show for it. Collectively, those same staff members have among them more than 47 combat deployments. This includes deployments to Vietnam, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan. Their awards include four Purple Hearts, sixteen Air Medals, Bronze Stars and a variety of other awards. Some rely on VA for their healthcare and residual treatment associated with their military service. They understandfirst-.hand the problems existing within the system because, unlike the majority of people, they’ve been willing to do what others won’t. Senator, that is exactly why we find your personal attack so disgusting.
The men and women working in our DC office are dedicated professionals. Importantly, they take the work they do personally. They do it because they care. I suggest you compare the more than exorbitant amount of days off you receive, including virtually the whole month of August, two weeks around Easter/Passover, and certainly not a single five-day work week to the often time long, arduous hours they put forth every week of the year. Surely, with all the issues and the current emergent need for solutions, you must have more important things to do than to assail the character, people and motives of America’s VSOs?
Let me assure you Senator, our DC staff does not operate in a vacuum, or independently from its headquarters in Kansas City. The staff operates under the direction of me and the Adjutant General. The testimony that was provided to your committee was vetted and approved by me and the Adjutant General only after careful study and consideration. We don’t act in hopes of grabbing a headline or securing an interview on cable news; our only agenda in this is to ensure the veterans of our nation receive timely and adequate healthcare. If you have issues then I suggest you contact either one of us directly.
NO ONE DOES MORE FOR VETERANS
The fact of the matter is this; every year the VFW, Disabled American Veterans, AMVETS and Paralyzed Veterans of America have been trying to call attention to the issue, warning Congress of the consequences, and trying to work with Congress and VA on solutions.
Each year our organizations build an analysis of VA benefits and services known as the Independent Budget, and each year since 2005 the Independent Budget has warned Congress about the dangers of long wait times and care rationing due to improper resources, oversight and accountability. Last year, and again this year, then-VFW Commander-in-Chief John Hamilton and I warned you and both the House and Senate Veterans Affairs committees about the dangers of long wait times. This decade of stem warnings has fallen on deaf ears.
There’s no doubt that the culture within VA needs to change. In a letter to the President, we made it clear that he needed to take immediate steps and ensure necessary authority to Secretary Shinseki that will guarantee the status quo of protecting enmeshed and “untouchable” bureaucrats within the VA system cannot and will not continue. We urged him to provide him authority to impose the strongest disciplinary actions, including removal and prosecution whenever and wherever necessary, on any VA employee who would abdicate their responsibilities and have a hand in the mistreatment or abandonment of those who have earned timely and adequate healthcare.
Clearly, you were not listening during VFW’s testimony. Nowhere did we suggest that we were interested in protecting anyone. I suggest you read the transcript. We find it especially specious that you seek to point fingers without at least an acknowledgement of some responsibility by Congress in all of this. Your assumption that we do not listen to what our members have to say is insulting. We spend most of the year traveling to and visiting VFW Posts world-wide. We have direct contact and speak at length with our members. We listen. And what you should know is this; that there is huge, and growing sentiment within most of the veteran community regarding the inaction of Congress, because they are keenly aware, (if the past is any guide), they will enact no budget, no regular appropriations bills, nor other key legislation. If we’ve been remiss in anything Senator, we’ve been remiss in being too polite with Congress. For years, the VFW has come to Congress with hatin hand and for years, we’ve heard the same old story. You can be assured Senator, that you’ve done a superb job in showing us the error in our ways. You can also be assured that in the future, we will spend a substantial percentage of our time seeking to inform our members and our constituents of the repeated failure to act by our elected officials. We will not stand by and let our members be distracted by rhetoric or finger-pointing and we certainly won’t abide our veterans being used as political footballs. And you can be sure that we will let our membership know the low-regard you hold for their organization.
William A. Thien
John E. Hamilton
Honorable Richard Burr
Ranking Minority Member
Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs
825A Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510
Dear Senator Burr:
On behalf of Paralyzed Veterans of America (Paralyzed Veterans) and its members, I write to express our deepest disappointment with the actions that you took leading into the Memorial Day weekend. Your “open” letter to all veterans clearly displays why the vast majority of the American public puts no faith in their elected officials to do what is right for this country. You truly should be ashamed for being so bold as to challenge veterans’ service organizations (VSO) and the veterans who represent our organizations on a weekend when we clearly know more about what the holiday represents than you do. Your attitude and actions reflects great discredit upon the United States Senate and every member of Congress should be embarrassed by your “open” letter. Only a politician would be so bold as to believe he or she knows better what veterans want and need than actual veterans themselves. You clearly represent the worst of politics in this country.
Perhaps you should be reminded of just how much you support veterans and their families in this country. Given the opportunity to support legislation that would remove all of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) budget from the partisan bickering and political gridlock, of which you are an active participant, that has completely crippled the appropriations process, you opposed that legislation. Given the opportunity to support legislation that would ensure all generations of veterans, not just Post-9/11 era veterans, have access to the Comprehensive Caregiver Assistance program administered by the VA, you chose to oppose that legislation. Given the opportunity to support legislation that would provide reproductive assistance to veterans whose catastrophic disabilities rendered them unable to have children, you chose to oppose that legislation. Given the opportunity to ensure that the VA has fully sufficient resources to establish adequate capacity and properly meet the health care demands of veterans, you have chosen to send them out into the private health care marketplace that cares more about the bottom dollar than the health and well-being of those men and women. Senator, your continued efforts to simply “fix” the VA’s problem by privatizing health care shows that you are more interested in diminishing the VA health care system and promoting your political interests.
Paralyzed Veterans, and our counterparts in the VSO community, are particularly offended by your comments about the testimony provided by our professionals (all of whom are actually veterans and members of their respective organizations) during the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs hearing held on May 15, 2014. Perhaps you should have shared with all veterans in your “open” letter that you cared so much about their health care that you were not actually present during the testimony that the VSO representatives provided and you did not ask a single question to gauge our recommendations about how to fix the problems the VA health care system is facing. To the credit of your colleagues on the Committee, every other member actually took the time to engage with the VSO panel and ask pointed and substantive questions.
Your actions in remembrance of Memorial Day clearly show why the vast majority of the American public believes that the U.S. Congress is out of touch. Rest assured, you do not speak for or represent the interests of Paralyzed Veterans’ members—veterans with spinal cord injury or dysfunction—or any other VSO. We would be happy to meet with you at anytime and discuss real solutions to address the problems facing the VA.
We stand ready to ensure that veterans get the best quality health care and benefits that they have earned. Do you?
Bill Lawson Homer S. Townsend, Jr.
National President Executive Director
cc: Honorable Harry Reid, Senate Majority Leader
Honorable Mitch McConnell, Senate Minority Leader
Honorable Bernie Sanders, Chairman, Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs
DAV is outraged that North Carolina’s Senator Richard Burr chose the eve of Memorial Day weekend – a sacred time to remember and honor those who paid the ultimate sacrifice for our nation — to attack the patriotism of leaders of most of the nation’s leading veterans service organizations.
Last week at a hearing of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, DAV and other veteran service organizations offered comprehensive testimony on the underlying causes of the waiting list problems afflicting VA health care facilities that are currently under investigation. In addition to demanding full accountability for anyone found to have violated VA rules, regulations or laws, we provided detailed analysis and forward-looking recommendations to address the root cause of waiting lists: lack of access and capacity to treat all veterans seeking care.
Although Senator Burr attended much of that hearing, apparently all he wanted to hear were calls for the VA Secretary to resign. Senator Burr may be enamored with the idea that all of VA’s problems and challenges can be overcome by replacing one Secretary, but the plain facts and simple logic indicate otherwise. If Senator Burr believes that calling for the resignation of Secretary Shinseki is the only measure of whether a leader cares about veterans, perhaps he should check with Speaker Boehner, Chairman Miller and numerous Republican Senate colleagues who have not yet done so.
Regrettably, Senator Burr shows no interest in pursuing serious policy solutions, preferring instead to launch cheap political attacks on the integrity of leaders of veterans organizations that do not agree with him, all of whom served honorably to defend this nation and then devoted all or most of their lives to serving their fellow veterans.
In spite of Senator Burr’s attacks, we will continue to call for an open and comprehensive investigation in Phoenix and at any other VA facility where wrongdoings are alleged. While Senator Burr challenges our integrity, we will continue to demand full accountability for all who violated the public trust, regardless of who or where they are, including criminal prosecution if warranted. While Senator Burr ignores VA’s real challenges, we will continue to call for an independent review not just of VA’s wait list and scheduling problems, but the access and capacity deficits that created them.
History clearly shows that unless VA receives sufficient resources to hire enough doctors and nurses, and has enough physical space to treat veterans, waiting list problems will continue. Over the past decade, DAV – along with many of our veteran service organization partners – have pointed out that the VA has received more than $17 billion less than was needed, a figure that is primarily derived from VA’s own internal analysis. Although these facts have been clear to successive Administrations and Congresses – including Senator Burr – none took the actions necessary to provide VA the resources it requires.
Rather than be distracted by Senator Burr’s hollow insults, we will continue to reach out to thoughtful Republicans and Democrats in the Senate and House, as well as the President and leaders in VA, to join with us in taking an honest look at all the facts, to discuss with us all possible remedies and reforms and to work with us to implement solutions that truly honor the heroism of the men and women we remember this Memorial Day weekend.
I really should be thanking you right now. By publishing your letter, you have removed the scales from my eyes. I see clearly now. Your reprehensible choice of timing on the release of your letter, combined with your choice of targets truly show how small of a man you are. Your self-serving and politically motivated message to our nation's veteran community has not fallen on deaf ears. You've roused a giant from his slumber. Despite your service as the Ranking Minority Member of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, you have unequivocally and demonstrably illustrated to veterans everywhere just how out of touch you are with our community.
I have been in the care of the VA since I returned home from Iraq in 2004. When I first received treatment, I was one of the first to return. I could see a therapist as often as needed for an hour at a time, my needs seen to immediately. My disability claim was submitted and decided upon in a few short months. Fast forward to 2014: I wait four to five months to see a therapist for twenty minutes at a time, at the mercy of an underfunded and overwhelmed staff at the local outpatient clinic. Veterans wait so long for decisions on their claims for disability compensation.
Why is this happening?
I hold you and the political establishment at large accountable. Over the past decade, our political process has been hamstrung by political partisanship. While Republicans and Democrats have held due political process hostage with a reprehensible disregard for doing what's right in the name of toeing the party line, they have also clamored to claim that their respective party is the only party that cares about veterans and our plight. What has become abundantly clear is that our veterans are viewed by many in Washington as nothing more than political tools to bolster political agendas, couched as actions being taken on our behalf. This cannot continue. From now on, I will be paying particular attention to the track records of incumbents and how well they have ACTED to care for the veteran community in reality. I know this concept may be lost on many in Washington, but actions do speak louder than words.
Senator, since you have such a skewed sense of reality and seem unable to grasp simple concepts, I am compelled to elucidate a few matters that have led to endless partisan bickering in recent weeks:
- Firing Secretary Shinseki: You are calling for the removal of Secretary Shinseki without understanding the man and without understanding the deleterious impact his removal would have on the pace of change taking place in the VA. Secretary Shinseki is not just any appointee. He is a service-connected disabled veteran who stands tall and takes your abuse because all he cares about is the plight of our veterans. He shies away from the press, and for good reason. I can't think of a single major media outlet that I trust to tell the story without being colored by political motivation. He chooses to spend his time and his efforts trying to fix a broken VA bureaucracy, rather than pandering to the pundits in the press. I, for one, don't have a problem with that. Considering how much our politicians have hamstrung his ability to affect positive change within the system, I'm not surprised that we find ourselves in our current predicament. Out of anyone you could put in his position, I can think of no other man more fit for the job. If you were to get your way and relieved him of his responsibilities, you would put all changes in the system on hold - setting back all progress that he has made to square one. Secretary Shinseki has a deep understanding of just how broken the system is. Do you have any idea how long it would take for any new leadership to acquire his grasp on the state of the VA? What would happen to veterans in the interim while leadership is changed to satisfy your petty, partisan desires?
- The VA is Underfunded, Understaffed, and Overwhelmed: While I find the quality of care leaving much to be desired, I don't blame the medical practitioners for this. I blame the politicians for not anticipating and accounting for the enduring cost of caring for our country's veterans after a decade of war. Yes, the VA could be run more efficiently. I'm not disputing that. What I have a problem with is that funding for the VA has been held political hostage (whether intentional or not) by a bunch of entitled politicians whose partisanship is so extreme that they'd vote against anything proposed by the opposition party, even if they know it's a good idea. While our veterans are hung out to dry, our elected officials are throwing temper tantrums because they can't get their way. Grow Up!
- VA Employees are Protected from Being Held Accountable: In the real world, someone who didn't do their job, didn't perform their duties to standard, or cooked the books would be summarily fired or sent to jail. In the VA, this can't happen. How do we expect anyone in the VA to act accountable when they can't be fired? Considering the protected status that VA employees hold, it is a miracle that Secretary Shinseki has been able to affect ANY positive change. If you want to see what Secretary Shinseki can really do, take off his shackles. Give him the power he needs to hold his subordinates accountable.
I hope this has made things a little clearer for you Senator. Considering your position, you should already know all of this. I shouldn't have to explain all of this, yet I am not surprised that I have to. Veterans are not tools to be used to further a political agenda. Supporting the veterans of this great country should be apolitical. If there's one thing elected officials claim to support, it's our community. We will no longer tolerate political posturing. You do what's right by veterans or you lose our support and our votes. Veterans, as a whole, pay attention to what is going on inside the Beltway. We also have a deeply ingrained sense of honor. Maybe next time you consider spewing vitriol at honorable men and women and the organizations they represent you will think twice. Don't worry, Senator. I'm not holding my breath.
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