On November 19, in 1863, one hundred and fifty years ago, an incredible president gave an incredibly meaningful speech at the dedication of the cemetery to honor the memory of the Union Army soldiers who “gave the last full measure of devotion” at Gettysburg. Today, Mr. Lincoln may be turning in his grave due to a very serious scandal involving the current generation of men and women who gave their full measure of devotion in serving their country. Yet another president giving another speech on veterans, at a different national cemetery, delivered hollow words.
During a few days of the Federal government shutdown in October President Obama’s Administration may have slipped up and revealed its true colors when the White House ordered the closing of the nation’s memorials and national monuments, and the stench of politically motivated actions backfired as several veterans were denied access to the very memorials erected to remember their heroism. However, this slip was quickly justified as a minor mistake and blame deflected to Congress.
This was not surprising as President Obama is known to be politically vindictive as seen from the fight over the sequester when he ordered government agencies to make the two percent budget cut as painful and scary as possible. This may have also been a factor during the recent shutdown when the Department of Defense denied death benefits for 26 families of fallen servicemen who were trying to retrieve their loved ones’ remains from Dover Air Force Base. This was after Congress passed the Pay Our Military Act to fund the military through the shutdown because the intent of reducing the Administration’s spending spree was not aimed at denying veteran’s their benefits.
In reality, though, an even more serious issue involving veterans’ benefits is the ongoing scandal within the Obama Administration regarding the handling (or mishandling) of the backlog of payments on veterans’ benefits. The Washington Times reported that according to a review of the latest statistics from the Veterans Affairs Department, “more than 700,000 former servicemen and women remain waiting for medical benefits owed to them because of a backlogged system that takes an average of 300 days to navigate.” This report provides a more realistic vision of VA claims processing efficiency than what the President portrayed during his speech on this year’s Veteran’s Day.
The real irony is that Obama vowed during the 2008 Presidential campaign to reduce virtually all VA claim decisions to an average of 125 days by the end of 2015. When he assumed the presidency, approximately 390,000 outstanding claims existed from the Bush Administration. VA statistics at the end of the fiscal year in 2012 revealed that the outstanding claims were at 883,949 remaining to be processed. This represents more than double an increase in the outstanding claims during President Obama’s first term. By contrast, as Bush began his second term, the VA was behind on processing of about 480,000 claims. Obama’s VA seems to be operating counter to his promise.
Less than three months after he was inaugurated, President Obama made a big show of his commitment to the veterans when he appeared with then Secretary Gates of the Department of Defense and Secretary Shinseki of the Department of Veterans Affairs to announce his grand plan to improve the VA. Among other words, President Obama stated:
“For their service and sacrifice, warm words of thanks from a grateful nation are more than warranted, but they aren’t nearly enough. We also owe our veterans the care they were promised and the benefits that they have earned. We have a sacred trust with those who wear the uniform of the United States of America. It’s a commitment that begins at enlistment and it must never end. But we know that for too long, we’ve fallen short of meeting that commitment. Too many wounded warriors go without the care that they need. Too many veterans don’t receive the support that they’ve earned. Too many who once wore our nation’s uniform now sleep in our nation’s streets.”
Currently, there is no comprehensive system in place that allows for a streamlined transition of health records between DOD and the VA. And that results in extraordinary hardship for an awful lot of veterans, who end up finding their records lost, unable to get their benefits processed in a timely fashion.
Ironically, those words may haunt Obama now because under his watch so many hundreds of thousands of decent patriots are suffering; some are even dying before they have ever seen their benefits checks. Granted, the backlog has been business as usual for quite some time. However, the backlog had been significantly reduced by around 100,000 claims under President Bush before he left office, and that was despite the archaic paper-based system and American troops fighting overseas in the War on Terror since the attacks on 9/11. Yet, even after the troop withdrawal in Iraq and a bigger budget with more VA staff, the outstanding veterans’ claims reached a historically high level in 2012.