Veteran challenge

The Baltimore Sun

Maryland veterans who have been forced to travel long distances and wait for care at heavily used Veterans Affairs medical facilities in the state are going to get some relief. The department is planning two new outpatient clinics here - one at Fort Meade and another in northern Montgomery County.

The Montgomery clinic will serve more than 4,000 veterans, while the Fort Meade facility will assist 2,500 who otherwise might have to travel to Baltimore, Perry Point or Washington for primary care, mental health services and other medical specialties. But that added service is a drop in the bucket for the department, which is facing serious stress as it struggles to manage the care of an army of wounded war veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Throughout the course of the wars, inadequate care of returning soldiers and airmen has been the object of sharp criticism. As these disabled men and women leave the service, many rely on the VA for care, and their needs cannot be overlooked. They need an advocate who is unafraid to fight for them. They may have their man in retired Army Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, who has been chosen by President-elect Barack Obama to head the VA. A former Vietnam combat vet who was seriously wounded, he left the Army after he stood up to his bosses on the question of how many troops would be needed to subdue Iraq. Mr. Shinseki was right. He will arrive at a time when the VA has been taxed to provide nursing home beds, injury rehabilitation services and mental health care, and he will have to persuade Congress to provide the money needed to reshape the department into a 21st-century caregiver. Two challenges are particularly vexing. Wounded soldiers who have been released from the military often find they must wait weeks or months to see a VA doctor when they head home. Other veterans wait months to learn whether their applications for service-connected disability status have been approved. A timely assessment of their disability requests should be the rule, not the exception.

Mr. Shinseki has been widely respected by rank-and-file service members. Now, this quiet, low-key veteran will face a different kind of battle as he works to bring order to a sprawling bureaucracy and to improve services to those who have sacrificed so much for their country.

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