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The VA on Memorial Day

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Memorial Day is upon us. It is the day when Americans remember all of the men and women who died while serving in the U.S. armed forces. From the streets of Amiens to the beaches of Normandy, from the fields of Gettysburg to the jungles of Khe Sanh, more than a million Americans have died defending this nation throughout its history.

But what about those veterans who return home today from the front lines, where they risked their lives for their country, including tens of thousands who suffered serious injuries? They should be revered, and treated as heroes. But now there are horrifying reports of negligence by at least one VA hospital that may have led to 40 deaths. The problem centers on excessive delays in seeing veterans and charges that the hospital doctored its books to assure performance bonuses.

President Barack Obama addressed the problem earlier this week by expressing outrage at the delays and allegations of misconduct by VA officials. "I will not stand for it," the president said, "Not as commander in chief, but also not as an American. None of us should." Speaking of the investigation that is underway, he said, "If there was misconduct, people will be punished." In 2008, candidate Obama said he would do more to help veterans, but President Obama waited two weeks to comment on the latest revelations.

In an interview published Friday by USA Today, former Senate majority leader Bob Dole, a World War II hero, criticized the president for being slow to address the VA revelations. "You shouldn't keep a veteran waiting three months to see a doctor," he said. He expressed mixed feelings on whether VA Secretary Eric Shinseki should step down. Dole praised former Army general Shinseki as a hero, but said, "If the facts reveal that he neglected his duties, then he should go."

The fact that there are problems with the VA system is a decades-old story. For example, President John Kennedy approved the use of Agent Orange, a highly toxic chemical, to clear the jungles of Vietnam. President Lyndon Johnson continued the use during his term in office. While President Richard Nixon ended the practice, it took too long for any president to acknowledge the chemical's harmful affects, especially on veterans. A 1990 congressional report found:

"The Reagan administration had adopted a legal strategy of refusing liability in military and civilian cases of contamination involving toxic chemicals...The Federal Government has suppressed or minimized findings of ill health effects among Vietnam veterans that could be linked to Agent Orange exposure."

The Veterans Administration was established in 1930 when congress authorized the president to consolidate all existing programs affecting war veterans. The VA currently includes 152 hospitals, 800 community based outpatient clinics and 126 nursing home care units. The Department of Veterans Affairs was established as a cabinet-level position in 1989 by President George Bush. At the time President Bush said, "There is only one place for the veterans of America, in the Cabinet Room, at the table with the President of the United States of America."

By most accounts, veterans receive good care once they are in the VA system. But after a decade of wars, including Iraq and Afghanistan, and with thousands of Vietnam veterans, demand on the VA has grown enormously. The VA is now the government's second largest department, with nearly 300,000 employees. Its budget for 2014 is about $150 billion, an increase of more than 50 percent since 2009. The VA provides care for 6.5 million veterans, 675,000 of those who began their military service after September 11, 2001.

Regretfully, the latest VA revelations have turned into a political issue. They have generated soundbites and congressional hearings where members can express outrage and try to score political points. However, in his interview, 90-year-old Bob Dole observed, "We do more in this country than any other in the world. And I think what we're experiencing now -- it may be a culture at the VA that's developed in the last 10 to 20 years." He continued, "If you eliminate the hospital problem, I think we take pretty good care of our veterans... and I spend a lot of time working on veterans and veterans' issues."

On this Memorial Day the VA problems need urgent action, both to decrease the delays, and to punish anyone who is guilty of misconduct. Everyone at the VA must live by its mission statement, which calls for "providing world-class benefits and services to the millions of men and women who have served this country with honor in the military." We owe it to our veterans, let's get this right!