In 2013, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs received a great deal of media coverage over the long wait times veterans faced just to see doctors. That became a hot political issue, as veterans perished because they couldn’t be scheduled in time to get the medical assistance they needed.

Many other concerns were brought to light back then with the resignation of the secretary of the VA, retired Army General Eric Shinseki. Many believed Shinseki was not to blame, but nevertheless, he became the fall guy. His successor, Robert McDonald, had a huge impact initially in remedying many of the problems. However, the momentum McDonald generated may have been sabotaged by the very same bureaucracy that sank his predecessor.

And it may be all about incentives.

Tripler Army Medical Center in Honolulu.

Tripler Army Medical Center in Honolulu.

Via Wikimedia Commons

When it came to light that thousands of applications for disability benefits had not been processed, bonuses were given out to individuals who helped address the backlog by handling large case loads. The bonuses, however, didn’t specify that the cases had to be administered correctly. And so it all became a numbers game. Many veterans’ claims were denied just to get them off the list of unprocessed claims — only to feed a growing list of appeals of those denials, which subsequently went unprocessed.

Congressional and public pressure may have been the cause to setting unreasonable goals in case loads. It wasn’t how well the disability claim was managed, just that it was processed. Many veterans just gave up. Some died waiting for their claims to be processed.

Presidents and Congress send these people into harm’s way. Many come back broken, physically and mentally. If what they experience had happened on a civilian job, worker’s compensation cases would be filed and most likely granted. But veterans face the same organization that placed them in combat, whose focus seems to be more on a budget than assumption of the responsibility for taking care of those it sent into battle.

One might question the efficacy of an organization that in past, with a staff of just over 100,000, effectively administered benefits to 15 million veterans of World War II, but that now has grown to almost 400,000 to manage 5 million veterans and still can’t get the job done. Perhaps it has become so bloated that it is more concerned with management practices, operating procedures and career advancement than it is with its mission statement.

Presidents and Congress send these people into harm’s way. But the same organization that placed them in combat seems to focus more on a budget than assumption of the responsibility for taking care of those it sent into battle.

The VA response to some of the questions concerning the difficulty in gaining compensation would be that there have been abuses by veterans who have played the system. But isn’t that a VA management issue? Why are veterans who clearly deserve their benefits denied them because the VA made mistakes in granting some to those who did not deserve them?

It doesn’t require a lot of investigation or contemplation to come to the conclusion that management is not doing its job. Simply stated, if they were, we wouldn’t be experiencing problems of this magnitude. That’s not to say we could be living in a perfect world, but the preponderance of evidence is clearly in favor of veterans being abused by a system that is not working for them.

What troubles me is the VA management response to so many of its critics is the citing of statistics. Veterans are not statistics. They are people. Very special people. Vietnam veterans have probably been treated more severely than any other class of veterans since the Civil War.

As a Vietnam veteran, my concern is for those who have served these past years in Afghanistan and Iraq. Many have served multiple tours. We have also learned more about the conditions that become a part of that experience and how they manifest themselves. These veterans are going to need help. But if they face a similar situation to what Vietnam veterans have endured, the current suicide rate of 18 to 22 veterans per day is going to soar to new heights in the future.

When Will Attitudes Change At VA?

It is this author’s opinion that while Secretary McDonald made great headway initially, he, too, has become a victim of a well-entrenched bureaucracy. A bureaucracy that has seen secretaries come and go. A bureaucracy that is attuned to playing the numbers game. A bureaucracy that is better at obfuscation than production. And perhaps that is the goal. The problem solves itself if there are no more problems to solve. The VA has managed to withstand criticism only to continue with business as usual. The incentive here is survival.

Locally, our politicians have raised concern about veteran’s issues. To date, Sen. Mazie Hirono, who sits on the Committee on Armed Services and the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, has made efforts to resolve many of the issues raised during her special hearing held at the Oahu Veterans Center in August, 2014. (A hearing that the representative for the 2nd Congressional District of Hawaii was invited to but did not attend, as she was filming a cable television story.)

A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to chat with a decision review officer. He was in a supervisory position. I asked him how many DROs were veterans. His answer: 30 percent of the staff. I asked him what the training program was to educate the other 70 percent about such things as the various jobs in the armed forces, what the military is like and what challenges we face. He turned on his heels and walked away. My own DRO was not a veteran. How then could he understand the conditions I had worked in and how they related to my claims?

Having people who are purely administrators whose primary concern is clearing their in-basket of cases — with the incentive of a bonus — is not my idea of a substantive and impartial review. Congress’ incentive is to keep costs down. That should have been a factor before authorizing our involvement in a conflict.

What bothers me is the possibility of the unwritten policy of deny, deny, deny that filters down to DROs when it comes to veterans’ compensation. What many are now experiencing is a reduction in their compensation based on new, biased data. Am I at risk now for criticizing the VA?

So we, as veterans, are left with the question: What are we to do? Are we at the point where we have to march on Washington to gain attention, like our forefathers of World War I did so many years ago? Look what it got them. Where is the substance? When will attitudes change within the VA that veterans are their charge, not their burden?

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About the Author

  • Victor Craft
    Victor Craft is a retired aerospace worker having functioned as an FAA certificated Airframe and Powerplants Technician, Logistician and Quality Assurance director working on several major weapons systems. Vic also served tours of duty with the armed forces in Vietnam, Kenya and the United Kingdom.