At last, America’s military veterans seem to have a Secretary of Veterans Affairs who gets it.
VA Secretary Robert McDonald, the former chairman, president and CEO of Proctor & Gamble who came to the VA just three and a half months ago, has made clear in his words and early deeds that there must be sweeping systemic changes at the VA. And also what he calls a change in the “culture” that permeates the VA.
The new secretary celebrated Veterans Day this week by issuing a sweeping reorganization plan designed to finally make the system work. He has also fired 35 VA employees for concealing VA hospital backlogs and begun procedures to remove 1,000 more.
But while he and his new team have visited more than 40 VA sites, McDonald still may not grasp the full malevolent extent to which cultural VA mindset has fostered what veterans feel is a VA policy of delay and deny toward claims filed by veterans (or, VA “customers,” as the ex-P&G head now wants his department to call veterans.)
It was back in 2008 that I first chronicled the VA’s litany of failures and suggested a number of solutions, in my book, “Vets Under Siege: How America Deceives and Dishonors Those Who Fight Our Battles,” published by Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press. Now a new VA secretary seems determined to make sweeping reforms and affect a cultural sea change.
And our job today is just to make sure McDonald gets the benefit of what many faithful readers already know. (Here it could get awkward, because as VA officials discovered, their new boss doesn’t want to be called “Mr. Secretary.” He prefers, simply, “Bob.” And his underlings have opted for a middle-ground salutation: “Secretary Bob.” So here goes.)
MEMO TO: Secretary Bob
RE: Stage Two – Solving Problems by Changing the VA’s Culture/Mindset
1. Why veterans sometimes feel “VA” stands for “Veterans’ Adversaries”: In 2005, national guardsman Garrett Anderson, of Champaign, Ill., was driving a truck near Baghdad when an improvised explosive device detonated. He lost his right arm, broke his jaw and his body was riddled with shrapnel. The VA claim adjudicator granted him benefits for his lost arm and broken jaw, but declined to award shrapnel injury benefits with these mind-boggling words: “Shrapnel wounds all over body not service connected.” There are scores (maybe hundreds or even thousands) of similar, hauntingly infuriating examples.
2. Bureaucratic blinders: In January 2011, a World War II vet, who retired to Florida after a long postal service career, died. He was getting VA and U.S. Postal Service pensions. His wife, needing basic living income, promptly sent the VA and USPS requests for her spousal share of the pensions and copies of his death certificate. Days later, USPS responded and she received her first monthly pension share in February. But nothing from the VA, except more paperwork. Half a year later, after I asked a top VA official about it, she finally got her first pension check in August (with retroactive back payments). When I asked the VA’s top benefits official why USPS could respond immediately but the VA didn’t, he calmly explained, the VA pension was more complicated because she might deserve more money if her husband died of his war injuries. So I asked the most obvious question: Why couldn’t the VA immediately pay her the base amount (like the USPS did) and then if the VA calculated she deserved more, she could get a follow check? The VA official’s eyes opened wide in surprise: Yes, that’s how it should be done, he said; and wrote himself a note about it.
But of course, Secretary Bob, if your VA officials really saw themselves as veterans’ advocates, they’d have come up with that simple solution ages ago. You are pushing your notion that veterans should think of your department as “My VA.” And, on CBS News’ 60 Minutes, when asked what values you want to instill at the VA, you said: “It’s integrity, it’s advocacy, it’s respect, it’s excellence.”
Well, it’s time to revive an idea I’ve long proposed: To end the VA cultural mindset that resulted in veterans viewing the VA as Veterans Adversaries – and encourage VA employees to view themselves as Veterans’ Advocates, then an official department name-change will instantly accomplish that.
And you’ll have a new title: Secretary of the Department of Veterans Advocacy.
Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for McClatchy-Tribune, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.