In 1783, hundreds of Continental Army veterans of the American Revolution attempted to take members of Congress hostage. The soldiers had endured unimaginable deprivation and war and hadn’t been paid for years. Under the Articles of Confederation, Congress had no power to tax and thus couldn’t pay the troops.
This desperate action by the military, called the Newburgh Conspiracy, was close to becoming a coup d’état leading to a military dictatorship. Gen. George Washington intervened, the situation was defused and our young republic was saved. But this began a long history of neglecting our veterans after terrible conflicts. We send them off with parades and flags, and welcome them home with indifference and neglect. The current problems with the Veterans’ Administration are nothing new.
As the Civil War was ending, President Abraham Lincoln acknowledged our debt to our veterans in his second inaugural address: “to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan.” This became the official VA motto. The first Veterans Bureau was created in 1921 to help veterans of World War I. It was abolished in 1930, due to deep corruption, and replaced by the Veterans Administration.
In 1932, 17,000 WW I veterans marched on Washington, desperate to receive the war bonuses they had been promised. In response, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, under orders of President Herbert Hoover, removed the veterans by violence, using tanks and armed troops. Two veterans were killed, and everyone’s shelters and belongings were burned.
By the end of World War II, conditions in VA-run hospitals were so bad that President Harry Truman accepted the resignation of the VA administrator. In 1946, the American Legion asked for the resignation of the new VA administrator; veterans still weren’t getting the care they needed. In 1947, a government commission uncovered “enormous waste, duplication and inadequate care in the VA system.” The commission called for an overhaul of the whole system. Not surprisingly, in 1955, a new commission found the VA system still full of waste and inadequate care.
In 1974, Ron Kovic, a disabled Vietnam veteran, led other veterans on a 19-day hunger strike. They were protesting the “poor treatment in America’s Veterans Hospitals.” President Richard Nixon called for an investigation; the VA director resigned.
In 1988, President Ronald Reagan made the Department of Veterans Affairs a cabinet position, but serious problems including long wait times for doctor appointments and long backlogs of appeals for disability benefits continued through the 1990s and early 2000s. A 2003 investigation revealed that 236,000 veterans had been waiting six months or longer for visits. In 2007, VA officials received huge bonuses in spite of hundreds of thousands of backlogged cases.
None of this excuses the current mess, but it shows that problems at the VA are long-standing. Adding to this are the hundreds of thousands of veterans created by the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and the aging of the Vietnam veteran population. When Gen. Eric Shinseki became head of the VA, the standard for wait times for appointments was 30 days. He set a goal of 14 days, but the shortage of doctors made this goal impossible to reach.
Shinseki implemented several improvements but couldn’t fix things quickly enough, so he resigned on May 30. On Meet the Press on June 1, Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., an Iraq veteran, said, “A good leader knows what his subordinates are doing.” Maybe Shinseki should have known everything, but he didn’t. On March 4, 1987, after selling 1,500 missiles to Iran in exchange for three hostages, President Reagan said, “A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not.” Reagan’s supposed ignorance was apparently acceptable.
This February, the Senate considered a veterans’ bill which included 27 new veterans’ health facilities. Republicans defeated the bill. A new bipartisan bill just passed the Senate 93-3. A similar House bill passed unanimously. Republicans have finally done something right.
If Congress cares about these problems, they’ll make sure the VA has the funding it needs and the oversight it deserves. For example, why didn’t Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., do something about the problems at the Phoenix hospital? Congress should stop grandstanding and get to work. If we care about our veterans, we’ll do more than send them to war. We’ll care for them when they come home. They deserve nothing less.
Jeannette Strong is an LVN columnist.