The scandal about excessive waiting times for U.S. veterans to get medical coverage is a fresh reminder about the delayed costs from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, indeed from the excessive use of the American military, as Michael Winship reflects on the message from Memorial Day.
By Michael Winship
I love a parade. And in the small upstate New York town in the Finger Lakes where I grew up there were not enough of them as far as I was concerned. There was the occasional special event: a parade to honor the Scottish racer Malcolm Campbell the summer he spent roaring up and down our lake unsuccessfully trying to break the world water speed record. (These days, the late Campbell is immortalized in a cognac commercial.)
And there was a procession down Main Street one late August of Native Americans honoring the anniversary of the treaty that used to be named after the white guy George Washington sent to make the deal.
You get my drift: a paucity of parades. No wonder I spent my teenage summers drumming in a freelance marching band that hired itself out to volunteer fire departments. Each weekend, we roamed the countryside in pursuit of firemen’s carnivals and parades and frequently won the prize for best band, more often than not because we were the only band.
But the one holiday my town celebrated every year with a big bustout parade was Memorial Day. Early in the morning, participants would gather in and around Atwater Park: the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars with their women’s auxiliaries; the high school band and the fire departments; Brownies, Girl Scouts, Cub and Boy Scouts; convertibles borrowed from local car dealers filled with various dignitaries; and even the occasional float.
As kids, those of us not dragooned into the official line of march decorated our bike wheels with red, white and blue crepe paper, pegged our spokes with playing cards, mounted flags on the handlebars and rode alongside. Or tried to. I distinctly remember getting too close behind one of the women’s auxiliaries and being clocked in the forehead with the business end of a rifle. Accidentally. I think. And unloaded. I hope.
The parade made its way down West Gibson Street, made a right on Pearl and then turned quiet as everyone entered the cemetery, a landscaped expanse of trees and tombstones. A ceremony was held, prayers were offered, a speech was made by the local congressman or other official, an eighth grader from the public junior high or the Catholic school — it alternated from year to year — delivered the Gettysburg Address. Then, each of three trumpeters from the high school band, hidden in the woods, slowly played “Taps,” one after the other, followed by moments of silence and a 21-gun salute.
That’s how we honored our war dead. In those baby boomer days, most of our fathers and mothers had fought in World War II or Korea or had worked to support the war effort. Memories of fighting and sacrifice still were vivid.
The only time I ever went to the movies with my father alone was to see The Longest Day, the 20th Century Fox D-Day extravaganza. My dad, a pharmacist, had been a medical supply officer in the Army. During the intermission, I remember him and the many other vets in the audience reminiscing. Fewer and fewer survive.
What’s more, my town was and still is home to a veterans hospital specializing in mental health, including substance abuse and PTSD. Toward the end of World War II, each of its more than 1,600 beds was full. In recent years, an attempt to shut it down was beaten back by Sen. Chuck Schumer, then-Sen. Hillary Clinton, other officials and an impressive citizens’ campaign.
Now there are only a couple of hundred beds but vastly expanded outpatient services. In fact, it’s now home to the VA’s national suicide/crisis hotline call center.
All of these memories make this Memorial Day weekend even more poignant as news continues to break of abuses and preventable deaths in the veterans medical system, allegations that data was manipulated to cover up long waits for diagnosis and treatment. Just one recent example: delays for 52 patients at a VA hospital in Columbia, South Carolina, suffering from colon cancer.
President Barack Obama says he will not stand for it. And to be fair, problems go back decades.
“Looking for a lone villain in the VA debacle is a fool’s errand,” write Jordain Carney and Stacy Kaper at National Journal. The “sheen of shame over the VA’s failures spreads across time and party affiliation. It stains the legacies of presidents as far back as John F. Kennedy and condemns past Congresses whose poor oversight allowed the problem to fester. The VA itself is also not without fault, as bureaucracy and intransigence let the department deteriorate to the point the problem became nearly impossible to fix.”
That’s putting it mildly. Complicating the problem have been an enormous surge in claims as Iraq and Afghanistan vets enter the system and expanded coverage under Obama for PTSD patients and Vietnam-era victims of Agent Orange. Once veterans get into the system properly, they highly rate the care they receive.
The New York Times quotes Phillip Longman, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation: “Overwhelmingly, the failures of the V.A. in recent years have not been about the quality of health care for those who get covered. Instead, they’ve mostly been about the excessive waiting times, and excessive red tape that vets must go through to establish eligibility.”
So let the hearings, inspections and investigations proceed. Fire those at fault, including Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki if culpable. Modernize and streamline an antiquated system to get rid of massive paper files that create all the confusion and that excessive red tape. Reach the stated goal of eliminating all the delays by the end of 2015.
Our veterans deserve much, much better. And of course, as far as I’m concerned, a lot more parades.
Michael Winship, senior writer at the policy and advocacy group Demos, is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program, Moyers & Company, airing on public television. Check local airtimes or comment at www.BillMoyers.com. Follow on Twitter @MichaelWinship.