In the Arena

Shinseki Stonewall

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General Eric Shinseki, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, appeared on CNN yesterday. The interview was a nothingburger, but I suppose we should be grateful that the Secretary has offered proof of his existence.

Candy Crowley did her best, pressing Shinseki on the 900,000 unprocessed disabilities claims…and he offered the standard VA stonewall: no veteran should have to wait, the backlog will be resolved in 2015. But Crowley did not ask the crucial question: Why aren’t the claims processed according to severity? Why should an Army Ranger who suffered a 100% debilitating traumatic brain injury in Konar Province three years ago still be waiting for his disability check? Why should that Ranger have to wait behind a Vietnam veteran, who is filing a 3rd time claim to get his disability for post-traumatic stress raised from 50% to 60%?

I don’t begrudge Vietnam veterans the right to have their claims re-evaluated. They’ve gotten a historically bum deal. But I’m sure that if you asked these mistreated heroes if they thought those who’d suffered more severe injuries in more recent wars should go to the front of the line, they would say yes, absolutely, a no-brainer.

The question is, why hasn’t the VA–and the Obama Administration–made this obvious call. The answer is: for the same reason that it’s hard to get anything done in Washington. Special interest power. In this case, the special interests are the older veterans groups, the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars, whose membership is overwhelmingly Vietnam and Korean veterans, with a sadly, and rapidly, declining cohort of the Greatest Generation vets.

Is it any accident that the Legion and VFW attacked my column–in the VFW’s case, in a loathsome hyperbolic manner–calling for Shinseki to step down two weeks ago, while the groups representing Iraq and Afghanistan veterans agreed with me? For the record, I think the VFW and American Legion are fine organizations; they’ve provided tremendous comfort and community to veterans of previous wars. But they are doing all veterans a disservice now.

As for Eric Shinseki, I still believe he’s an exemplary man but he showed me no spark on TV yesterday, no creativity, no reason why he should continue in this job. There is one bit of hope, though: Shinseki’s chief of staff, John Gingrich, has stepped down. This offers an opportunity for Shinseki to bring members of the Iraq-Afghanistan generation into his inner circle–that wouldn’t solve the institutional lassitude that plagues the VA, but it would be an indication that Shinseki not only exists, as he proved on Sunday, but is also responsive.