ANDREA PLATE WRITES — “A man who is good enough to shed his blood for his country is good enough to be given a square deal afterwards.” – Theodore Roosevelt
November 11 is Veterans Day.
Do Americans deserve to celebrate?
These have not been the best of times for our veterans. Consider some events of the past year:
A new trend was set: “parking lot suicides.” 260 veterans tried to take their lives on VA grounds. 240 were stopped. (20 were not). Or, as a November 4 New York Times opinion article was headlined, “Suicide has been Deadlier Than Combat for the Military.”
In the last two years, military sexual assault figures have soared, for both male and female victims.
The day before Halloween, the Department of Veterans Affairs announced a major overhaul of its police force. This followed publication of a wrenching watchdog report detailing waste and oversight affecting both patients and staff.
Also in October, the Inspector General’s two-year investigation into the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection— established in 2017 by the Trump Administration— concluded that the burgeoning agency “conducted shoddy investigations, disrespected whistleblowers and floundered in its duty to protect them.” Said Representative Mark Takano, the California Democrat who is chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee: “The inspector general report leaves little doubt that V.A.’s whistle-blower office has failed to do its most important job: protect whistle-blowers.”
In August, VA pathologist Robert Levy, fired from an Arkansas Veterans Hospital, was charged with four counts of making false statements, 12 counts of wire fraud, 12 counts of mail fraud, and last —but most certainly, not least— three counts of involuntary manslaughter. Why? How? He allegedly misdiagnosed pathology reports, then altered medical records to conceal diagnostic mistakes. Why? How? He was working under the influence of 2-Methyl-2-butanol— a deadly chemical intoxicant undetectable in routine drug and alcohol tests.
In September, a grieving daughter reported that her father, a Vietnam War veteran, was bitten by ants more than 100 times before dying in his hospital bed at a VA community- based clinic.
Is there no dignity, even in death?
Apparently not. Arlington National Cemetery recently announced that by 2041 it will run “out of space.” The Army has proposed future burial restrictions: Veterans who earned retirement pay will be denied “in-ground burial” (but remain eligible for “above-ground inurnment”). Exceptions may be made for veterans killed in action, recipients of Purple Hearts or Silver Stars and U.S. presidents, as well as vice presidents who have served.
We must not bury the truth. Because the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, is this: while tragic mistakes can and do occur at hospitals both private and civilian, government facilities must be held to a higher standard. Sign onto any VA computer and you will see the immortal words of Abraham Lincoln: “to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan”— Abraham Lincoln. Is that too much to ask?
The truth is not entirely grim. The Department of Veterans Affairs employs faithful workers who wage war, every day, against horrific odds: Inadequate funding and staffing, dangers in the workplace, shifting political winds and policies. Precious educational resources are poured into the brains of clinicians determined to learn the latest treatment protocols for PTSD, TBI (traumatic brain injury) and other signature wounds of the forever wars.
Many veterans in fact love their VA (down with privatization!) —if, and when, they can access care (wait times at some VAs remain scandalously long). Those 1250 VA clinics and hospitals nationwide are a comfort zone for wounded warriors with like minds and hearts. Vet-to-vet therapy groups and residential programs can be more healing than piles of prescription drugs promising a highway to heaven … but, more often, to hell.
The truth is, reality bites, as do ants.
This Veterans Day—or month, as President Trump proclaimed all thirty days of November—let’s cut the platitudes and cut to that truth. The VA is underfunded and understaffed. The resulting human costs are inestimable—suicides, overdoses, drug addiction, homelessness, joblessness. With such conditions, all Americans are at risk. Surely, we can do more, better, and more quickly, for those who have borne the battle.
Andrea Plate is the author of ‘Madness: In the Trenches of America’s Troubled Department of Veterans Affairs’ (Marshall Cavendish editions, 2019).