This weekend is the unofficial start of summer, and I wish everyone a safe and happy Memorial Day weekend.
As with many of our holidays, Memorial Day commemorates a significant event in our country’s history. In the years following the Civil War, observances were held across the country to honor those killed during the war. According to the Veterans Administration, in 1868, the Grand Army of the Republic, a group of Union veterans, established May 30 as a day for putting flowers on the graves of Union soldiers killed in that war. There was no special significance to the date. GAR leaders just thought that by the end of May, flowers would be in bloom across the entire country.
Laying flowers on the graves of war dead is a practice that has its roots in ancient times, the custom giving the holiday its original name, “Decoration Day.” After World War I, the observance was expanded to include honoring the dead from all of our country’s many wars. The holiday was known by both names until 1967, officially becoming Memorial Day in 1968. Also around that time, the Uniform Monday Holiday Act was passed, moving observances of Memorial Day and four other holidays from their original dates to Mondays.
To borrow a phrase, it is altogether fitting and proper that we remember the 1.3 million or so Americans who died either in combat or while in uniform during those wars, and while it means a great deal to us, the dead do not care what we do to honor their service to our country.
On the other hand, it matters very much what we do to honor the service of our living veterans. Making veterans wait for medical attention does more than dishonor them. It kills them.
Multiple sources report as many as 100 preventable deaths of veterans, attributable to VA hospitals failing to meet timelines for intake and to provide care to vets with treatable illnesses. In April, whistle-blowers at the Phoenix, Arizona, VA hospital claimed there were two separate waiting lists, the official online version and the real one, kept secret for obvious reasons. Estimates are that at the Phoenix VA, up to 40 veterans died while waiting for treatment after screening exams.
As early as 2006, the VA recognized that wait times were several months between positive colon cancer screenings conducted at the Columbia, South Carolina, facility and the onset of treatment. In 2011, that facility’s backlog for vets waiting for gastrointestinal consults after having tested positive had grown to more than 2,500, with more than 700 of these deemed “critical.” The facility requested additional funding to reduce this backlog and had been allocated more than $1 million to do so. Only about a third of that money got spent to increase staffing. It didn’t help reduce the backlog, which grew to 2,800 by the end of 2011. Veterans’ groups are understandably and justifiably angered by this news.
On Wednesday, an angry President Barack Obama declared that anyone guilty of covering up the truth about this scandal would be punished.
Government reports show that this problem is not new, nor is it isolated. The GAO reported excessive wait times in 2000, 2005 and 2007 and they span several VA locations, electoral cycles and presidencies, both Republican and Democratic. Congressmen on both sides of the aisle are demanding that VA head, retired general Eric Shinseki, step down. Removing Shinseki will not solve the VA’s problems any more than General Motors’ new CEO cured that company’s product woes.
Yes, those responsible for falsifying records need to be replaced by competent, honest administrators. No, throwing money at the VA won’t reduce the backlogs, nor will tougher regulations. The VA’s systemic problems once again show what happens when any organization of any size, in either the private or public sector, operates in secrecy.
Our veterans deserve better than what they’re getting, and the public deserves a full accounting for what caused this crisis and how it will be fixed. One thing no one needs or deserves is for this to become a partisan political issue.
Mitch Edelman writes from Finksburg. Email him at email@example.com.