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Where is 'swift action' for wounded vets?

Posted: June 2, 2013 - 12:03am  |  Updated: June 6, 2013 - 11:22am

 


I served five tours in Afghanistan, a total of over four years in country, where I came close to being wounded-or worse-on multiple occasions.


 


On Forward Operating Base Lightning, the base where I served in Paktia province, we were repeatedly rocketed by the Taliban.


 


At Camp Phoenix in Kabul, I was close enough when an improvised explosive device detonated along Jalalabad Road that I felt the blast.


 


At an Afghan National Police station in northern Gardez, a rocket-propelled grenade hit the outer wall as I walked through the main gate.


 


I was lucky; in all my tours, I was never injured by hostile fire and never wounded, nor have I experienced any symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.


           


But many soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who served in Afghanistan and Iraq have not been so fortunate. More than 50,800 service personnel have been wounded in action in the post-9/11 conflicts. But upon returning home they're discovering they must fight once again to receive the benefits they've earned from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.


 


It's a situation that demands accountability and correction-not later, but immediately. Unfortunately, the Obama administration has been slow to act to reform the VA, and that is costing our veterans dearly. 


 


Right now, there are more than 903,000 military veterans awaiting disability and compensation benefits from the VA. The average wait time is 332 days, according to the Center for Investigative Reporting - almost a year. And in parts of the country, the wait is even longer, with many veterans waiting longer than 600 days for their claims to be processed.


 


In some extreme cases, the wait stretches out so long that veterans die before their claims are settled. Their survivors must then carry on, contending with the sluggish and unresponsive VA bureaucracy while struggling with their own grief at the loss of a loved one.


 


The VA's failings haven't escaped notice-members of Congress have written to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, urging him to address the backlog, while Jon Stewart of "The Daily Show" has turned his satirical spotlight on the dysfunctional department.


 


You might think that with so much high-profile attention, Shinseki would be responsive to this problem. After all, he is a retired U.S. Army general with a long record of distinguished service, and when he accepted the leadership position in 2009, he vowed to transform the VA into a high-performing agency.


 


"The overriding priority will be to make the Department of Veterans Affairs a 21st century organization singularly focused on the nation's veterans as its clients," Shinseki pledged at his confirmation hearing, where he was greeted with enthusiastic bipartisan support.


 


But more than four years later, with the backlog festering, Shinseki is not taking aggressive action to solve this problem, offering only vague promises that the backlog will be eliminated by 2015.


 


In the military that both Shinseki and I both served in, there is a strong expectation of accountability. Those who fail to perform to that standard know they will be replaced.


           


We have a precedent for this type of accountability. In 2007, when reports detailed substandard care and conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., Defense Secretary Robert Gates took sure action: he fired the hospital's director, U.S. Army Major General George M. Weightman. In so doing, Gates articulated a clear standard for performance.


 


 "The care and welfare of our wounded men and women in uniform demand the highest standard of excellence and commitment that we can muster as a government," Gates said. "When this standard is not met, I will insist on swift and direct corrective action and, where appropriate, accountability up the chain of command."


           


Where is the swift and corrective action today for our veterans? Where is the accountability? Veterans and their families should demand action from the Obama administration-and that begins with a change of leadership at the dysfunctional VA, followed by real transformation. It's time for the VA to honor its commitment, in a timely and professional manner, to those who have served.


 


Tim Tyler is the Concerned Veterans for America field representative for Georgia and resides in Evans, Georgia.


 

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