I have a problem with the pundits and the growing national perception that the entire Department of Veterans' Affairs is a dysfunctional, incompetent bureaucracy that cares only about itself, its own perpetuation and its own self-interest.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Many times over the past five years I have had the privilege of taking my father-in-law, a World War II combat veteran, through the front doors of the local VA hospital. A typical day includes visits to the check-in desk, the blood lab, and his primary-care nurse practitioner and her team, then perhaps trips to urology, the X-ray and CT-scan labs, cardiology, psychology, or the pharmacy, and finally the cafeteria. At every stop it's a smile, a handshake, a hug, and oftentimes a kiss on the cheek. And it's not just my father-in-law. It's the same for veteran after veteran who streams through the daily process "at the VA." And every single veteran is given the hearts of these dedicated professionals, freely and openly.
I have come to realize and recognize how phenomenal the people who make up the staff of the Alvin C. York VA Medical Center in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, are. I've met people who have spent 15, 20, and 25 years doing the same job day in and day out. They see the same veterans over a long period, and, yes, they are with them when they finally succumb to time and the physical world. And for them, the loss is almost as great as if the veteran were a close relative. Through all of this, they have never once compromised their responsibilities or their commitment to the veterans they serve.
The doctors, nurses, technicians, staff, and anyone who puts on a VA-issued uniform -- that includes housekeeping, food service, maintenance, and, yes, the administrators at the Alvin C. York VA Medical Center -- are the most compassionate, caring, and dedicated professionals in any medical environment I have ever experienced. Their sense of duty to the veterans is apparent in everything they say and do. A touching, comforting hand to an ailing, dying veteran -- and a comforting touch to a family member -- comes easily and from the heart.
There is a deep and urgent need for Americans to understand that the current problems within certain VA facilities are not rampant and system-wide. And I would bet my life that the nurses and staff at the centers being investigated carry out their duties with the same compassion and caring that my father-in-law is receiving at this very moment.
The recent allegations of wrongdoing at several VA medical facilities around the country have festered rampant, high-volume, ugly rhetoric filled with accusations of corruption, cover-up and criminal behavior. Some very vocal critics would have us believe that the entire VA is a bloated bureaucracy so inept and incompetent that a "firing" squad (using the "shotgun" approach) is the only means of redemption. This perspective, understandable at the most instinctive level, is centered on looking at the issue from the outside in, with little or no real VA experience. My guess is that 99 percent of those making the loudest noise have never spent an hour inside one of these hospitals. Their views are both politically motivated and inherently related to their lack of military service to this country; they have had no reason to experience a VA healthcare center.
I once read about a survey that stated that only a miserable 28 percent of Americans know the real reason that we celebrate Memorial Day! And I would offer, with a high degree of confidence, that a far lesser percentage understands the division of responsibilities within the VA. Why should they? And why should it matter?
The VA comprises 330,000 employees serving 9 million veterans enrolled in the government healthcare system through 153 hospitals, or Major Medical Centers. An additional 773 outpatient clinics provide healthcare access for those veterans who live outside the geography of one of these Major Medical Centers.
Nearly every veteran, at some time or another, will require a visit to one of the 153 hospitals. In any given year this means more than 58,800 veterans' visits to each of the major medical centers. And most veterans require multiple visits for diagnosis and follow-up in more than one medical department.
The division of responsibilities needs the same level of attention that the so-called scandal has received from the media. It is the administration of the VA, the paperwork, the timely processing of claims and appointments, and the mere qualifying for VA healthcare that should be under the gun, not the distinct and very separate delivery of that healthcare to our veterans.
Yes, the current problems need to be fixed. Accountability must be precise. Think scalpels, not sabers. Our VA healthcare professionals -- and our veterans -- deserve it.
Terry L. Gould is a U.S. Navy veteran and the award-winning author of How Can You Mend This Purple Heart.