Vets: Help (May Be) on the Way

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REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki greets volunteer Victor Metta (R) during the Winterhaven Homeless Veterans Stand Down at the VA Medical Center in Washington, January 23, 2010.

Two weeks after the Department of Veterans Affairs’ inspector general issued report eviscerating the agency for its handling of mental-health care, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki appeared before the House Committee on Veterans Affairs.

It’s old news that there were high hopes when Shinseki took the helm at the VA. He’s a former Army Army chief of staff who had half of his foot blown off during one of his two tours in Vietnam. But Shinseki stood out in the minds of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans for a more recent act of courage.

During the run up to the Iraq invasion, lawmakers went 10 rounds with Pentagon planners about the number of troops it would take to occupy the country. Democratic Senator Carl Levin asked Shinseki point blank what would be require to occupy Iraq following a successful invasion. The general’s response:

It was the kind of candid, honest moment you’d expect from a a great leader. Then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his principle lieutenants blasted the mark as way off base, but it wound up being pretty damn accurate. It took several hundred thousand troops to fight the Iraq War, only the same ones went back over and over again.

The execution of that war resulted in tens of thousands of troops leaving the service, creating a problem the VA was clearly unequipped to handle. Many thought that Shinseki would tackle issues of jobs, education, homelessness and mental health the way he performed in uniform. But over the past few months, as a series of devastating reports painted a picture of a growing problem, Shinseki has been largely silent. He hasn’t granted an interview in months. So yesterday’s Congressional testimony was key to earning back some of the veterans’ trust. And his answer was a resounding, help is (pretty much) on the way.

Much of the concern that led to the Congressional hearing centered on the IG’s finding that less than half of Veterans who requested an initial mental health evaluation received one within 14 days, per VA policy. Worse, “VHA [Veterans Health Administration] does not have a reliable and accurate method of determining whether they are providing patients timely access to mental health care services,” the IG report said.

When House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller asked Shinseki about that figure, the secretary did not agree completely with the finding, but said that improving access to mental health care is his highest priority. The department is hiring 1,900 additional mental health workers, but “Our efforts will not cease with the announcement of the 1,900 additional personnel,” Shinseki said. “Future adjustments may be likely.”

“May be likely” is hardly the kind of concrete statement veterans expect. While it’s a fantasy to think they can snap their fingers and instantly pull two thousand new qualified and talented mental health professionals out of thin air, we haven’t seen any detailed plans to stave off a situation that will only get worse.

General Shinseki was a great leader in uniform, from his days as a lieutenant to when he had four stars on his shoulders. Now veterans expect specifics from him, or at least the kind of candor that he wasn’t afraid to show nine years ago.