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Wednesday, Aug 20, 2014
Joe Henderson Columns

Henderson: We owe veterans a debt and the nation should pay it

Published:

You can tell what a nation’s values really are by the way it keeps its promises. And for all of the parades, pomp and messages of love veterans will receive this Memorial Day weekend, the fact is their country lied to them.

The United States of America sent thousands of its sons and daughters off to fight, and we promised to take care of them when they returned. That promise stretches from World War II through Korea and Vietnam, through Desert Storm and Afghanistan, and through the Iraq invasion.

It includes those who were in harm’s way in Bosnia, Panama, Grenada, Somalia and all of those other places our leaders decided to send them.

Then when soldiers came back maimed, burned, broken, stressed and struggling to adapt, they weren’t treated like heroes. Bureaucrats at the Department of Veterans Affairs used them as numbers for personal advancement.

Surely, you know of the problems at the VA by now.

While it’s legitimate to ask why it took so long for the treatment of veterans to become a national priority, it finally appears to be. We don’t need any more posturing and empty rhetoric. We know it’s bad.

We need a national resolve to keep our promise to those who risked and sacrificed everything.

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Republican U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross, who has filed legislation to address this problem, said this is “a moral issue that has America’s conscience as its lobbyist.”

Democrat U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor has also been outspoken on this subject for a while now. In a biting letter this week to Eric Shinseki, secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, she said, “There is a growing perception that delays in care for our veterans are tolerated, and when timely care is not provided failures are covered up.”

Both of Hillsborough County’s representatives to the U.S. House of Representatives are correct. So are those who call for the overhaul of the VA, starting with Shinseki’s resignation.

While heads should roll and the guilty should be publicly humiliated, it would have been better if the agency’s problems had been addressed decades before. Now we’re dealing with a system overwhelmed by the carnage left from the battles we demand our soldiers fight.

“As we’re learning, post-traumatic stress disorder can manifest 30 years or more in soldiers who fought in Vietnam,” Ross said. “This is a situation where we all realize there is a debt of gratitude we owe.”

Barack Obama was correct as a candidate when he spoke in 2007 of “deplorable conditions at some VA hospitals.” He then declared, “America’s veterans deserve a president who will fight for them not just when it’s easy or convenient, but every hour of every day for the next four years.”

So why are we 16 months into his second term and the VA is still a mess?

Just calling it a scandal seems inadequate.

A scandal happens when a compromising picture goes out on Twitter. The so-called treatment too many veterans have received from their government is a national moral failure.

So what do we do about it?

Let’s find out.

Maybe Congress could agree to expand medical vouchers so veterans could go to private health care providers if it takes too long to get an appointment at a VA hospital. They could enact severe criminal penalties for administrators who falsify records, which happened at the VA hospital in Phoenix, to create the illusion patients are receiving timely care.

We made a promise to people who gave everything. If our nation has any moral compass left, we have to keep it.

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