VA Leadership: An Absurd Vision for Ailing Veterans

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Gen. Eric Shinseki testifies during his confirmation hearing to head the Department of Veterans Affairs on January 14, 2009.

I remember very clearly the moment I knew I would be leaving the Army. It came in late 2007, a few months before I shipped out on my second Iraq tour. This was nearly five years into the Iraq War and the Army, which had also been sending fewer, but significant numbers of troops to Afghanistan, was hemorrhaging captains. Young officers like me, having hit their service obligation (4 years for ROTC cadets, 5 years for West Pointers) had decided they’d had enough and wanted to see what the civilian world had in store.

In order to slow the exodus, the Army began offering bonuses for captains willing to sign on for another hitch. I declined the bonus, fairly certain that I wanted to go to graduate school after my second tour. But my commander and the two majors in my battalion tried to convince me to stay. They were great officers, and I loved serving under them, so I listened. When I told them that, being single at the time, I thought it would be hard to keep up our incredible deployment schedule (my unit was averaging a year in Iraq, then a year home before returning to combat) and some day start a family, one of the majors told me, “Don’t worry. Once this stabilizes, you’ll be guaranteed one year deployed, then two years at home, then one year deployed.” When I considered the absurdity of that future–having to tell your child, “Don’t worry, daddy will miss your 5th birthday, but I’ll be here for 6 and 7, but then I’ll have to miss your 8th,” I knew I was done. While I have abiding respect for my friends who did stay in and deal with that kind of tempo, it wasn’t the life I wanted.

I had a similar reaction when I read the speech Secretary Eric Shinseki gave to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Reno. I first saw the headline in the Military Times: “Shinseki: Backlog means VA reaching more vets.” My first reaction was, this can’t be real; he can’t be standing up before the oldest veterans organization in America and telling them that a dismal failure is actually a smashing success. But that’s exactly what he said. Shinseki said that because of better outreach, the 400,000 vets seeking claims three years ago has grown to more than 880,000. Back then, he said, less than a third of veterans were even enrolled with the VA, and the effort to bring more into the system has contributed to the delays we have been seeing.

I’ll buy that (barely). I’ve been a supporter of Shinseki’s and when I have criticized his leadership at the VA, I did so with kid gloves. Shinseki is a decorated veteran himself who was wounded in combat. After a mine blew off half of his foot in Vietnam, he fought to stay in the Army and became the service’s Chief of Staff. In that role, he was the only one who was truly honest with Congress about what it would take to secure Iraq, and his estimation was eerily accurate.

But since taking over the VA, Shinseki has been “AWOL” as a veterans group leader told Joe Klein back in June. “He’s been a quiet disaster at the VA…and I mean quiet,” the man told Joe. But it was Joe who put it best on the subject of Shinseki and veterans: “The Secretary of Veterans Affairs should be a noisy advocate for these terrific kids.”

It wasn’t advocacy that we heard Tuesday–either the loud or the quiet kind–when the secretary said this: “I have committed to ending the claims backlog in 2015, by putting in place a system that processes all claims within 125 days at a 98 percent accuracy level.” Yes, 125 days. That’s over 4 months. That means that three years from now, a veteran filing a claim might still have to wait more than a third of a year. This is an absurd vision.

The disaster at the VA is not one of Shinseki’s making, but he hasn’t fixed it, and his goals fall far short. The VA is an antiquated bureaucracy in desperate need of an overhaul. In May, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that the VA’s Oakland regional claims center had paper files stacked to the ceiling. Shinseki’s promise of 125 days is far better than the average in Oakland this year–320 days–or the national average wait time–241 days. But four months is entirely too long to ask veterans to wait.

A 48 percent improvement is far and away more than we’ve been able to ask from our government in recent times. But when that leaves us with a better, but still terrible situation, we haven’t reached a goal. The vision should be for a modern, effective system that takes care of our veterans much faster. It may take until 2015 to get the claims backlog down to 125 days, but that’s not the end state we need.

When we reach 125 days, which I know will be difficult to achieve, the work won’t be complete. It will only have begun.