Joe's Road Trip 2012

2012 Road Trip Day 13: Why Can’t Government Get the Easy Stuff Right?

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Pete Pin for TIME

Manetta Tucker, the mother of a 25 year-old Army veteran, during a luncheon with Joe Klein in Dayton, Ohio, on Wednesday, June 13, 2012.

Dayton, Ohio

Well, the big event yesterday was watching the great Ry Cooder jamming with one of his discoveries, a retired meter reader named Dan Gellert–a brilliant country fiddler and banjo player–at the Trolley Stop in Dayton. We have video of the gig, which we’ll put up as soon as we can. But earlier, Ry and I and Katy Steinmetz had lunch with a group of prominent Daytonians put together by Morning Joe viewer Fred Burkhardt. These were people who were serious about government, smart about the problems we have and how we might solve them. The Independent Mayor of Dayton, Gary Leitzell, was there. But the meeting really began to rock when two women, the mothers of returning veterans described the problems their sons have faced back home.

Manetta Tucker, who had spent most of her career as an executive for an appliance manufacturer said, “I want to help find solutions to the problems we have in this country. But I don’t feel entirely comfortable right now; my attention has been pulled in another direction. My son has just come home after four tours of duty, and he is very disillusioned. He can’t find any jobs with a sense of purpose for him.” Her son was a sniper, a fact that probably wouldn’t appeal to many employers. “People like my son could be helping revitalize our small towns. They could be starting businesses. They’re not getting any help.”

Betsy Westhafer, the director of the Dayton Development Coalition, told about her 25-year-old son who was retired medically from the military. “He told me that he experienced more trauma at the VA (Veterans Administration) than he did in combat. He’s been home 18 months and he just got his first disability check. They sent his papers to Cleveland. Cleveland lost them. Then he had to start all over again. This is not rocket science? You wonder why can’t government get the easy stuff right?”

I have heard this constantly from returning veterans in recent months. Both parts of it. They get a lot of “Thank you for your service.” But they also get the unspoken “but don’t apply for a job with me, because I’m afraid you’re going to go berserk and shoot up my office.” Consequently, a great many veterans simply do not list their military service on their job applications. That is very sad.

As for the VA, the stories of ridiculous paperwork, mixups and stone-cold bureaucrats are legion. And, in this case, the fish seems to be rotting from the head. I was surprised a few months ago when Nick Kristoff of the Times wrote a column about two brothers who were soldiers, one of whom committed suicide and the other was experiencing significant post-traumatic stress. The most surprising fact in the piece, though, was the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, former general Eric Shinseki, was contacted by Kristof and refused to comment for the story.

“Look, Shinseki got the number of troops we needed for Iraq right, when Rumsfeld was dead wrong, and that made him a hero,” said one leader of a veterans group. “But he’s been a quiet disaster at the VA…and I mean quiet. When do you ever see him advocating for our generation of veterans? Where was he when that sergeant killed 16 people in Afghanistan? Why is he never on TV, saying these returning troops have problems, but they also have solutions. They know how to work under incredible pressure. You should hire them. He’s AWOL.”

Regular Swampland readers know that I’m a strong advocate for our returning veterans. I believe they have learned leadership skills in Iraq and Afghanistan that will make them our next great generation of political leaders. But they are being stigmatized. And the sense of despair is deepening. This year, we’ve had a suicide a day by members of our military, an astonishing human disaster. Certainly, they have problems–and serious ones–but they are trying hard to sort through them, without much help from anyone outside their comrades in arms. The Secretary of Veterans Affairs should be a noisy advocate for these terrific kids. He should answer the phone when Nick Kristof calls. Better still, he should be calling people like Paul Reickhoff from Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, and Pete Hegseth from Veterans for Freedom, and Eric Greitens from The Mission Continues and asking them, “What can I do to help?”

And if he’s not capable of doing that, the President should fire him.